Just a few months later, April of 1961, a US-sponsored invasion of Cuba failed. A force of Cuban exiles landed in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Television news knew within days that the force was sponsored and supported by the CIA and the US government. The Eisenhower administration cooked up the plan and Kennedy approved of it. Fidel Castro had evolved. We first saw him as an interesting clown who took his chickens with him when he visited New York in 1959. The TV news made him a character, with his straggly beard. He gradually settled into a folklore-laden role as a hero to a good segment of youth and politics, but a goat to the mainstream.
Kennedy believed the domino theory that ruled US foreign policy of the decade. His cabinet of “the best and the brightest” saw nations falling like dominoes to the influence and pressure of Communist Russia and China.
Cold war positioning was clear. The world divided into communist vs. Western. Russia controlled the Eastern Bloc, a collection of satellite states including East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Albania. China was closed up to all, a lock-up communist mystery. Russia and China both influenced Mongolia, North Korea, and North Vietnam.
Historians still argue about how much US policy pushed Cuba to Russia. The official view was simple: Castro was a communist, period. He was always going to be a Russian puppet. The alternate view, which I bought into quickly, even as a high schooler in the early 1960s, was that Castro could have been much closer to neutral if the US hadn’t pushed him away so aggressively. He was marooned as a leader of a poor developing country who needed support from one of the big powers. The US turned its back on him, so he turned to Russia.
I had the opportunity later, in the 70s, to refine that view with more information. I worked with a man who had been Assistant Director (subdirector) of Economic Studies under Castro, but then fled to the US. And in 1977 I spent six weeks in Cuba doing a book. But this is about the sixties. More about Castro in the seventies.
The day after the Bay of Pigs failure, Kennedy turned his attention to Vietnam. He wanted to fight those dominoes wherever he could. That wasn’t reported at the time, but for sure, Vietnam got steadily more important, in our TV news and print coverage, from then on.
In February of 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in a space capsule. We all watched the mission on television, in a classroom. It was dramatic live TV as he the capsule splashed down into the ocean, and the boats from one of the big ships collected him.
October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. You may have read Robert Kennedy’s journal about it, published as 13 Days; And there was a movie made too, with the same title. I read the RFK book as required reading for a business school course in leadership.
For us, at the time, it was a day to day nightmare. The news stayed on all day and in our house too. I remember the images of ships in formation at sea, and the maps and diagrams on TV, drawings of missiles and arrows pointing from Cuba to the US, arrows showing the locations of ships heading towards Cuba with missiles on board.
Every day we saw Kennedy again, staring down Khrushchev. We saw diagrams of Russian missiles headed toward Cuba and American ships blockading them. We saw mushroom clouds our heads again, more than ever. The fallout shelters and the fear we all lived with. It was on the tip of every eighth grader’s tongue. Every day we’d compare notes about what we saw on TV and what our parents said. Eventually, it ended. The Russians backed down, or so we were told. But it was a big deal to all of us, and the fear lingered on.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, nuclear testing continued in Nevada. We never heard much about it, but it was there, for years, just 300 miles or so from where we were growing up. In 1962 the US Navy dumped tons of nuclear waste into the ocean about 50 miles from San Francisco. It was stored in steel drums.