Kiss Your Ass Goodbye by
100
(137 Stories)

Prompted By Cold War Coping

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

photo by Ollie Atkins, The Saturday Evening Post

All of us of a certain age remember the “duck and cover” drill, as if ducking under our desks would shield us from nuclear fall-out. We labeled it the “kiss your ass goodbye” move. After World War II, as more countries, particularly our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union, obtained nuclear capability, some built their own bomb shelters. Fall-out shelter signs went up on many civic buildings including our schools and free-floating paranoia was the coin of the realm.

We watched with a mixture of rage and disbelief as the fearsome Soviet leader Khrushchev took off his shoe at the UN and pounded it on his desk, threatening the US. This was a formidable opponent. He had a summit with JFK in Geneva, early in the new president’s administration, and though charmed by Jackie, the report was that he ate JFK’s lunch. The young president was no match for this wily older statesman.

Though the cold war went on for many years, I seemed most aware and focused on it during the Kennedy administration, perhaps because I was so enchanted by that particular President and First Lady, or because after them, our country focused on other issues, like Vietnam, Watergate, domestic issues.

But during the early ’60s we learned that Cuba, with the strong backing of the Soviet Union, was a hostile actor just off our shore. So the “Bay of Pigs” came into the lexicon, a CIA operation that was a fiasco for the administration.

The space race commenced. The Soviets first launched a dog into orbit, then Yuri Gargarin, but JFK was determined the US (aided by ex-Naxi) know-how would win the space race and we watched Alan Shepard be the first American in space, followed by John Glenn who orbited the earth three times in 1962, and returned to space decades later, on the Space Shuttle. Months before he died, JFK challenged Americans to get to the moon in that decade, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. That feat was accomplished in July, 1969; 50 years ago this summer. Newly married Onassis commissioned gold and ruby “moon” earrings for his bride to commemorate this great feat, dreamed of by her late husband.


‘moon’ earrings from Onassis to JBK

Weeks before his death, JFK signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Jackie considered this the singular greatest accomplishment of her husband’s administration, as he worked toward peace, having lived through the end of World War II and seen the devastation of nuclear holocaust. Jackie pleaded with her mother-in-law to purchase the ornate, antique desk on which the treaty was signed and kept it in her 5th Ave apartment for the remainder of her life. It was among the items auctioned after her death.

But it was 13 days in October of 1962 (October 16-28) that may well be remembered as among the most significant of the cold war era. Movies have been made, books written, tales told of those 13 days, hidden from the public when we were as close as we have ever been to the brink of nuclear war. Aerial photography taken by U-2 spy planes picked up missile sites being built in Cuba, just 90 miles off the shore of Florida. It was clear that the Soviets were preparing launch sites for nuclear weapons that could strike anywhere in the continental US.

Kennedy called in his closest advisers. They huddled for days. The generals wanted to bomb the sites, but cooler heads wanted to try diplomacy with the Kremlin. Back channel methods were used to communicate. Khrushchev wanted our sites removed from Turkey (and Italy). Negotiations went on. Eventually there was evidence of the Cuban sites being dismantled. Much later, we also took apart the Turkish sites, but didn’t admit that. That has only come to light through historical records.

My older child went to the Commonwealth School in Boston’s Back Bay. It is a marvelous school that has an assembly every Thursday afternoon. For many years, even after David graduated in 2003, I remained closely involved as a member of the Visiting Committee. I noticed on their calendar one Thursday, shortly after David graduated, that Ted Sorensen, Special Counsel and Advisor to President Kennedy, would be the Assembly Speaker. I had to go hear him speak.

I arrived just as he entered the building with Bill Wharton, headmaster of Commonwealth School, who I knew well. Mr. Sorensen was now an old man. Though fully recovered from an earlier stroke, it had left him blind. As he sat in his chair in the lobby, I approached and introduced myself. I told him my maiden name was “Sarason”, but during the Kennedy years, it was often mispronounced as “Sorensen”, which was fine with me. We both laughed about that. He asked me a few personal questions, then it was time for the assembly to begin.

He was led into the multi-purpose room by Bill, seated comfortably and given an appropriate introduction. His full head of hair was now gray, but he was instantly recognizable as Ted Sorensen. He spun his tale of being in the room during those tense, long-ago 13 October days. He gave us all inside information of what transpired, who wanted to bomb, who kept a cool head (and thank goodness cooler heads prevailed). Kennedy felt he had been burned by listening to the generals during the Bay of Pigs. He wasn’t having it this time. Though Khrushchev missed deadlines, he gave him more time, trying to delay a potentially horrible outcome. He wanted a “win-win” with everyone able to save face, and that is what he got as he pulled the world back from the brink of nuclear war. It was fascinating to hear it told from the perspective of someone who was an eyewitness and full participant. It was he and Robert Kennedy who ultimately drafted the letter that was sent to Khrushchev with the terms that were accepted and saved the day.

After the talk, and Mr. Sorensen was led out, I listened to the chatter of the kids, most of whom I still knew. I think they were too young to understand the value of what they had just heard, so I said to them: “I hope you appreciate, you just got an eye-witness account to one of the most important moments of the 20th century. Let that sink in for a bit. You are very lucky.”

In fact, we were all very lucky that we had a leader who thought before he impulsively acted, stayed calm, sought advice, but ultimately trusted himself and the wisdom around him during those 13 days in October, 1962; and everything turned out as it did for the whole world.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Tags: 13 days in October, duck and cover, space race, Ted Sorensen
Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. jshutkin says:

    What a great recounting of that period we all lived through — though occasionally with some doubts. It sure rang a bell with me, and I am certain with all of us. Bringing it full circle with Sorenson’s presentation many years later was particularly effective. And the vignette about Jackie and the desk is a great touch; your knowledge of All Things Jackie is truly amazing.

    Left unsaid — but I am certain thought — was any comparison between these brilliant diplomats and the crazy little baby now occupying the White House. God help us all. That said, it probably bears remembering that “The Best and the Brightest” also brought us Viet Nam. But we have visited that in other prompts. This is a terrific Cold War story.

    And, as always, your illustrations are amazing — right down to the “moon earrings.”

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. As you can tell (and clearly know, from earlier stories), I am a great admirer of the Kennedys, and, with my last sentence, did try (subtly) to draw a comparison to what we have going on today (“I got a love letter from Kim Jong Un…we’ll get a great deal done”). Yeah, right.

      It is true that JFK gave us Vietnam (actually, Eisenhower, but it heated up with JFK). but the claim was made that, had he lived, he would have seen the error of his ways and not escalated. We can never know the truth with that one.

      As to my “all things Jackie”, I have the catalog from her amazing estate sale. I was even bold enough to bid on a few of the “less” expensive objects myself. I have notes of what I bid (absentee) and what those objects actually sold for. HA! I wasn’t even in the same stratosphere!

  2. jshutkin says:

    I remember the sale and seeing the auction. I had a good friend at Sotheby’s and know they were over the moon that they got to conduct it instead of Christie’s. And a whole lot richer for it too.

  3. Marian says:

    Betsy, great story. What really creeps me out is if our current leaders are faced with a crisis. What would they do?

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, this is an amazing recounting of how I remembered the cold war, and especially the Cuban missile crisis. I remember those 13 days very well. Like many of us, JFK was my hero. I was devastated by his death. I love how you ended with a lecture by the elderly Ted Sorenson, and your little lecture to the young students there was so on target. Like many others, I can’t help but be depressed by the contrast with our current occupant of the oval office.

  5. Thank you for this accounting and reminding us that there were once leaders who were grownups.

  6. Suzy says:

    Betsy, I think this is one of your best stories ever! Not only do you give an excellent history of everything that happened back then (and I do remember Krushchev pounding with his shoe at the UN!), but add to that your treasure trove of information and pictures about the Kennedys (the earrings! the desk!) and your personal meeting with Ted Sorenson. I also love knowing, from your comment to John, that you bid on some of the items at Jackie’s estate sale. Thank you so much for all of it!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Glad you liked it, Suzy. I enjoy telling stories when I have a personal connection, as I did meeting Ted Sorensen all those years later. And yes, I did bid on several items from Jackie’s estate. I bid over the estimate, but, boy, was I WAY off! I bid on some of her costume jewelry and some of the White House Guide Books (remember those – she invented them). Things that were valued at, perhaps $60, I bid several hundred dollars and went for thousands! I wasn’t even the ballpark. But because I had bid, I got the list from Sotheby’s of the final bids for everything. That was fun reading (for those of us who like to dig into that). The catalog (which is where the moon earrings and Test Ban Treaty desk photos came from) is a treasure trove of photos from that era, as almost everything that was auctioned had a photo with her wearing it, or the object in the White House or her apartment. Wonderful stuff.

  7. John Zussman says:

    Deftly written! Your account of the Cuban Missile Crisis had me in suspense even though I lived through it!

    I envy you meeting Ted Sorenson, and am gratified to hear that students today are hearing about Cold War history from those who were part of it. When we were in school, events of 50 years past (like World War I) seemed like ancient, irrelevant history. Now that we know better, it’s up to us to tell young people what it felt like to live through that history, because future generations can learn from what we did right—and wrong.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I agree that we must keep history (and its pertinent lessons) alive for the next generation, but hate to remind you that David graduated from high school in 2003, so the episode I describe with Ted Sorensen took place 15 or 16 years ago, not ancient history, but not just a few years ago now either. He passed away in 2010.

  8. Nicely written, Betsy! I particularly enjoyed your ‘then’ and ‘now’ coverage. I particularly enjoyed your description of the relationship between Kennedy and his generals. Johnson suffered from the same affliction — but it was his advisors who often pushed their Presidential charges toward aggression and saber rattling. Easy for them to push us toward the brink, irresponsible though it was.

    I loved those earrings! ONassis indeed.

    I’d have to disagree about the origins of Cuban-Soviet aggression though. Fidel wanted eagerly to partner with the United States after the revolution. Their revolution had started out as had Vietnam’s, as a fight for independence as a sovereign democratic republic. The Cuban revolution was not ideological. It began as a pitch for democracy. Practically, why would he want to partner with an authoritarian gov’t 10,000 miles away when his beloved America was 90 miles away, the home of jazz and beisbol! Quite different from what we were told ;-)!

    As with so many overthrows of the time, e.g., Iran in 1947, we responded when the Cubans nationalized the oil and sugar refineries. Then Eisenhower put up the blockade. Don’t fuck with Americans and their private industry, regardless of whose resources lay at stakew!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks for improving my knowledge of Fidel. I had no idea that he wanted to partner with America. I, like others, always thought that the Soviet Communists were his natural partners, even though they were half a globe away. Guess I was just too young when this all played out to understand anything other than what I was taught.

      • And my, weren’t we taught!!! Key to understanding the ideological engines to these conflicts, it’s good to return to Ho Chi Minh and Fidel’s original vision of their independence struggles. Vietnam had been invaded for milennia before the French colonials arrived. The Chinese, the Japanese, the French again, all preceded what the Vietnamese call simply ‘the American War. Ho’s declaration of independence was based on our declaration of independence. Although he was a communist, he wanted nothing to do with the greater power of China. He envisioned a unified nation, no longer divided along religious lines — Buddhism in the north, Catholicism in the French-dominated South — and parliamentary republic. We repeatedly prohibited elections in Vietnam that would have allowed for the unification of Vietnam. Ho would have been a shoe-in.

        Fidel and the Cuban revolution came out of the centuries-long tradition in South and Central American of developing republics based on the American and French models (see Simon Bolivar and José Marti). It’s often revealing to look at history from a differing POV. The opposite of capitalism is not necessarily communism, despite the dogma of our indoctrination.

  9. Oh… and Kennedy was as vigorous as he was covert in efforts to ramp up American intervention in Vietnam. Remember the first round of ‘advisors?’
    Thanks again for personal/political investigation of those days!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I do remember all those “advisors”. After both of the Kennedys died (25 years for Jackie!), I read that at some point, Jackie wailed at McNamara that we had to get out Vietnam, so still fairly early in that horrible episode of history. I am willing to believe that who ever wrote that was a historical revisionist, trying to make her out as a saint, and making the case that JFK would not have continued to escalate. We will never know.

Leave a Reply