Cuban Missile Crisis ‘News’ Gave Us a Preview of the Internet Age

An original October 1962 news photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taken as tensions grew during the Cuban Missile Crisis sold for $527 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

An unusual statement, especially at an emergency session of the somber United States Security Council, and uncharacteristically bellicose for the speaker, U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. It simply was the most dangerous time in the history of the world … the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stevenson

Ambassador Stevenson was interrogating Soviet U.N. representative Valerian Zorin while accusing them of having installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coastline. Tensions were sky high. The Joint Chiefs had recommended to President John F. Kennedy an airstrike, followed by an immediate invasion of Cuba using U.S. military troops.

Then with the world’s two superpowers eyeball to eyeball, as Dean Rusk commented, the other guy blinked. Cuba-bound Soviet ships stopped, turned back, and the crisis swiftly eased.

Over much of the world, and especially in Washington and New York, there was relief and rejoicing. With crucial backing from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), nuclear war was averted. Success in avoiding a war of potential global devastation has gradually clouded the fact that the United States came perilously close to choosing the military option.

The arguments of those who fought for time and political negotiations have been blurred and gradually obscured by widespread euphoria. Even for Ambassador Stevenson, the sweet taste of success soon turned sour. First, there was the death of his dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly followed by a vicious personal attack on him that he never fully recovered from.

When Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly entered the hospital, it was thought she was suffering from aplastic anemia. But on Oct. 25, 1962, her condition was diagnosed as rare and incurable bone-marrow tuberculosis. She was prepared and determined to die rather than end up a useless invalid. Her children reluctantly decided Stevenson should be allowed one last visit to his old friend, although daughter Anna warned she might not recognize him.

On Nov. 9, two days after her death, the U.N. General Assembly put aside other business and allowed delegate after delegate to express their personal grief and their country’s sorrow. It was the first time any private citizen had been so honored. Adlai told friends that his speech at the General Assembly and the one he gave at her memorial service were the most difficult and saddest times of his life.

Then a harbinger of a brewing storm started on Nov. 13 when Senator Barry Goldwater issued a sharp attack on Stevenson by implying he had been willing to take national security risks to avoid a showdown with the Soviets. The Saturday Evening Post followed with an article on Cuba that portrayed Stevenson as advocating a “Caribbean Munich.” The headlines at the New York Daily News screamed “ADLAI ON SKIDS OVER PACIFIST STAND ON CUBA.”

For months, Washington was abuzz with rumors that it was all a calculated effort by JFK and Bobby to force Stevenson to resign as U.N. ambassador. It was all innuendo, half-facts and untrue leaks, but it was still reverberating a quarter of a century later when the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Aug. 30, 1987, published a rehash of all the gossip.

In truth, all we were witnessing was a preview of things to come: the internet age of “Breaking News” (thinly veiled opinions parading as facts), 24/7 cable TV loaded with panels of “talking heads,” and a torrent of Twitter gibberish offering a full banquet of tasty goodies for any appetite.

Stevenson, born in Los Angeles in 1900 – the year his grandfather ran for vice president on a losing ticket with William Jennings Bryan – lost his own bid for the presidency twice (1952 and 1956). He died of a heart attack in 1965 in London while walking in Grosvenor Square – finally getting some peace.

The rest of us will have to wait.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Reagan Made History with Appointment of O’Connor to Supreme Court

An Annie Leibovitz photograph of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left) and Sandra Day O’Connor, dated 1997 and signed by the photographer, realized $1,750 at a February 2017 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Ronald Wilson Reagan won two presidential elections, both by overwhelming margins. In 1980, he took 44 states with an electoral vote total of 489. Four years later, he crushed Walter Mondale, winning 49 states and 525 electoral votes (the all-time record).

The Reagan agenda included an attempt to alter the contemporary jurisprudential approach to the federal judiciary; he quickly made it known he would return to traditional criteria in selecting jurists. As a candidate, he made it crystal clear he was opposed to any type of racial or other quotas.

During the 1980 presidential campaign, candidate Reagan had promised “one of the first Supreme Court vacancies in my administration will be filled by the most qualified woman I can find, one who meets the high standards I will demand for all my appointments.” The opportunity to fulfill this pledge came within the first six months of his presidency.

On June 18, 1981, in what appeared to be a major surprise, Associate Justice Potter Stewart publicly announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the close of the 1980-81 term in July. However, members of the administration had actually known three months earlier and had informed the president (while he was still recovering from the assassination attempt). This gave the administration three months to search quietly for a nominee without outside pressure and feverish media speculation.

On June 25, Attorney General William French Smith gave the president a list of 25 names – approximately half of them women – clearly a new record in this regard. Among the women were Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Sandra Day O’Connor; Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court Mary Coleman; and Judge Amalya L. Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a youthful black Carter appointee. On July 1, O’Connor and two other candidates met with the president and she quickly reminded him they had met 10 years before when he was governor of California and she was a member of the Arizona State Senate.

In addition to the successful interview, there was the Stanford connection: U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist graduated from Stanford Law School in the same class as O’Connor. When Senator Barry Goldwater urged her selection, that was enough to clinch it.

The only strong dissent came from the New Right, including the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority, who encouraged all “good Christians” to express concern. Goldwater’s characteristically frank retort was “Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass!”

On Sept. 15, 1981, the Senate Judicatory Committee approved Judge O’Connor 17-0 and six days later, the full Senate voted 99-0 to confirm (Senator Max Baucus of Montana – a strong supporter – was out of town for the vote).

So history had been made!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].