Editor’s Note: As the 50th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis approaches, we offer this editorial by a Duluthian with a unique perspective: from inside NATO’s Jupiter missile sites in Turkey, with the launch keys around his neck and the launch codes strapped to his chest. This editorial is being published simultaneously in the Duluth News Tribune.
In October of 1962, just prior to the stand-off between President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev that would be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, I landed at the U.S. Air Base in eastern Turkey a newly commissioned First Lieutenant. As the nuclear weapons maintenance officer, I was put in charge of the storage, maintenance and transportation of the warheads at NATO’s five Jupiter missile launch sites. We had no television, no radio, no telephone and only the “Stars and Stripes” for news. We had no idea what was going on in Washington, Havana, and Moscow.
Four days after my arrival, I was assigned duty as Officer of the Day. For twenty-four hours, I was to sit in a locked room in Headquarters and keep the book of codes to the warheads with me at all times. If called upon, I was to join the base commander, and together we would enter our separate codes—which would arm the warheads—and wait for the President’s order to fire the missiles. The Defense Readiness Condition, or DEFCON, had just been raised to DEFCON 3, officially “an increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness,” representing the medium between normal readiness and imminent nuclear war. We were not informed of the reasons behind the elevation.
That night, October 23, 1963, I slept with the codebook strapped to my chest, as ordered, unaware of the drama being played out by Kennedy and Khrushchev. I was awakened by an airman announcing that we had gone to DEFCON 2: “War readiness,” the next step to nuclear war, one step from an imminent strike. It had never happened before, and has officially happened only once since, on 9/11.
I met the colonel in his office, where we knelt before his safe as he attempted to retrieve his codes. The lights were out, adding to the stress we were already under. The back-up generator did not start—he used a flashlight to find the codes. He asked for my codes, and I nervously fumbled to get them to him. At that moment, when we were finally ready to enter the data that would arm the warheads—ready for the President’s orders—the airman returned. “Stand down, sir,” he told the colonel. “We’ve gone back to DEFCON 3.”
The next week I was ordered to remove the NATO warheads from Turkey, a condition of the agreement that ended the crisis. My thirteen-month tour of duty ended in November, just after President Kennedy’s death. My time in Turkey began with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the President’s assassination. I was twenty-four years old.
When I was at the launch command, NATO and the Soviet Union had control of nearly every nuclear warhead in the world, and procedures were in place so that no single person could ever launch a strike. Still, in October of 1962, men in various stages of command made mistakes, some of which might have precipitated an unimaginable escalation.
Fifty years later, the world is immensely more complicated, politically and technologically. Military and civilian men and women with enormous responsibilities must deal with much more sophisticated nuclear devices, some small as a switch with an impact as large as a missile.
My modern counterparts, many of them younger today than I was in 1962, have a more complicated responsibility than I had—and with the internet, they are much more aware of the politically volatile events of the day than I ever was while in Turkey.
There may be more cause to worry about nuclear arms today than fifty years ago—not all-out nuclear war with another superpower, but the isolated use by rogue states, radical groups or even individuals with access to such weaponry. Now more than ever we must continue efforts to reduce and control nuclear arms—and hope that none of the brave young men and women who serve in the military today ever have to enter codes or turn the keys to launch a nuclear strike.
Joseph Maiolo teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is the author of My Turkish Missile Crisis, a memoir of his time in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis.