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History's Headlines: To the brink and back: Lehigh Valley a target during Cuban missile crisis?

Lehigh Valley a target during Cuban missile crisis?

There were few people in the Lehigh Valley who were more disappointed in the second week in October, 1962 than local Democrats. With a tight Congressional election coming up in November, they had been hoping for the one event that might turn it in their favor: a promised visit to Allentown by President John F. Kennedy.

JFK was the president whose photogenic family graced the cover of Life and Look magazines, an appeal that was sure to turn out a crowd and energize local Democrats. So there must have been a crushing feeling when the White House sent word that a cold had forced the president to cancel all his campaign trips.

What no one in Lehigh County could know was that Kennedy's illness was, in the language of international relations, a "cold diplomatique," or an excuse of illness for something else.

On the morning of October 16, McGeorge Bundy, assistant to the president for national security affairs, showed Kennedy photographs recently taken by a U-2 spy plane flying over the Communist controlled island of Cuba. Guided missiles, undoubtedly Russian and Soviet Mig jets, were clearly being set-up on the island 99 miles from the U.S. mainland. The Cuban Missile Crises, which brought the world closer to nuclear holocaust than at any other time in its history, had begun.

The primary headline grabber in the press that day was the passage of a $7.4 billion dollar spending bill by Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of former President Franklin Roosevelt and an international figure in her own right, who was recovering from a bout with a lung illness, had had a relapse. In Rome Pope John XXIII had, in an unprecedented move, gotten down from his throne to mingle with the non-Catholic observers at the Vatican Council.

In entertainment news, actress Tuesday Weld was being hailed as "the next Marilyn Monroe" and Anita Ekberg was confessing she was having a tough time losing the 50 pounds of weight she had put on since her appearance cavorting in Rome's Trevi fountain with Marcello Mastroanni in the 1960 film "La Dolce Vita."

Locally plans for the Tocks Island Dam were being unveiled in East Stroudsburg by the Army Corps of Engineers. What had many people stirred up in Allentown was an attempt by New Yorker Robert McArthur to set up a coffeehouse in the city. Fear of "beatniks" led to public outrage and forced McArthur to flee Allentown.

But all this faded into the background on October 20th when the Associated Press announced that U.S. Army jets had suddenly been shifted to Key West, Florida. Kennedy tried to get the Russians to admit what they were up to in Cuba but they refused to take the diplomatic bait.

On October 22, 1962 the president made a nationally televised speech that startled the world. Russia had missiles in Cuba. This challenge to the U.S. could not be tolerated. A naval "quarantine" was to be established around Cuba to keep future deliveries of weapons from taking place.

"It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union," he said. If the Soviets did not respond, World War III would be the result. Local newspapers showed a map of the Lehigh Valley, with Bethlehem Steel as the prime target for a possible Soviet attack.

Local reaction to Kennedy's speech went from apathy to suggestions that an army invade East Germany. The late Jerry Docket, then Allentown's Civil Defense director, recalled being swamped with calls after Kennedy's speech. "Everybody wanted to know where fallout shelters were," he remembered in the 1990s. "Pamphlets about home fallout shelters that had been gathering dust were suddenly disappearing from our shelves."  

Would the Soviets stop their ships and what would happen if they did not? Was Kennedy prepared to use force to stop them? Would the U.S. invade Cuba?  Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled many years later that Russian tactical nuclear weapons were in Cuba. "No one should believe…the United States would have refrained from responding with nuclear weapons. And where would it have ended? In utter disaster."

On the morning of October 24 things seemed to have eased just a bit. "SOME CUBA BOUND SHIPS TURN BACK; KHRUSHCHEV VOWS NO RASH ACTION," read the headline in the Morning Call. The Soviet leader had apparently realized the possible deaths of 100 million Russians as projected in a nuclear war was too much of a price to pay for Cuba. U.S. reporter John A. Scali, who covered the State Department for ABC News, was asked by a Russian agent to see if a diplomatic solution could not be worked out.

Things were still unclear on October 27, 1962. The day before a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba and its pilot killed. "CUBA BUILDUP PUSHED; U.S. WEIGHS NEW ACTION," read the Morning Call's front page headline that Saturday morning.

The night before a surprise four-inch snowstorm fell over the Lehigh Valley. Later that day Max Hess decided to show off to the public his latest attraction, a puppet show that was the debut of Pip the Mouse. "It's the most exciting puppet show you've seen," the first ad for it read.

It was not until October 29 that an agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union finally had been reached. Russia would withdraw its planes and missiles. Although it was not known until later, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its outdated missiles from Turkey and Italy that faced the Soviet Union.

Today the Cuban Missile Crises, the Soviet Union and the Cold War are chapters in history books and the world, with all its faults and foibles, is still here.                                            

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