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The Former End of the World

Because I have been doing research for a novel that takes place at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I have come to call the Former End of the World: that time when we lived with the expectation that an exchange of nuclear weapons could at any moment wipe out our civilization and most of our lives.  We were certain that those bombs would fall and at the same time certain that they couldn’t.
     That end of the world seems far less likely now.  But the world has come to feel strangely like it did then.  We hear that among the dangers now threatening us is the possibility that our enemies will load a crude atomic bomb on a ship, sail it into an American harbor, and detonate it.  Well, I remember, when I was a kid in the 50s, a set of bubble gum cards circulated that you could collect, about the Cold War and the Communist threat.  You could collect the Rosenbergs and General MacArthur and Stalin.  And one of them was how Communists could load a bomb on a ship and detonate it in an American harbor.
The sense of universal danger -- in which not just the nation but each of us individually is at risk, but about which we can do nothing -- is so familiar, though I never thought to feel it again.  It’s tending toward the same rigid posture of vigilance, the same nonspecific belligerence, the same solemn patriotism in the movies and TV, with Mel Gibson standing in for John Wayne.  And the same scary longing for completion and closure -- which is the last thing you’ll get and the last thing you should hope for in historical moments of danger like this.   The End is just what we want to avoid.  
     This year is the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the closest we came to a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union -- some accounts say as close as fifteen minutes from an irreversible disaster.  This year we’re going to be thinking about our then President, John F. Kennedy, his courage and his resolve, his willingness to go the distance and not back down whatever the cost.  Kennedy’s cool daring is undeniable, but in my view the real hero of that moment was Nikita Khrushchev -- the one who was willing to back down.  Who was willing to accept humiliation and defeat rather than end the world.  He lost that hand, he lost his job, he cost his nation some prestige, and he remains in our memory as a kind of clown.  But I honor him.  We wouldn’t be here without him -- here facing dangers we couldn’t have imagined then, and trying to stay calm.  Alert, but calm.