My wife Durrene and I remember vividly the day that President John Kennedy drew a line in the sand and stared down Soviet dictator Kruschev, who had serious weaponry en route to Cuba in 1962.
I was a young father working as information director at the N.C. Farm Bureau in Raleigh. Durrene stood in the screen doorway of our small apartment as we said our goodbyes and turned to a sunny afternoon that might be totally uneventful. But we knew and feared that it might be a date that would live in infamy.
The president, certainly not a brash and foolhardy leader, had dug his heels in, so to speak, and made it known that Soviet cargo ships were closing on Cuba, laden with powerful long-range missiles that could reign destruction on the U.S., just 90 miles away -- if Kruschev stuck by his belligerent boast to continue toward the Cuban coast.
We had been glued to the little black-an-white television set in our living room, watching whenever we could, to follow the scary international drama that was building just off Florida's coast.
On that day, only one who was totally disconnected from the realities of the world could have been unaware of the threat that loomed, and might erupt any moment -- a nuclear exchange that could decimate American cities, and cause countless deaths in the span of a heartbeat.
I looked back at my wife, who held our first son Byron in her arms, and appeared shaken by the news. What had me stricken was the realization that, whatever happened, I would be unable to protect and help her and our wonderful child. I turned toward my car, waved, and drove off to work in downtown Raleigh.
For thirteen days in October 1962 the world waited—seemingly on the brink of nuclear war—and hoped for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In October 1962, an American U-2 spy plane secretly photographed nuclear missile sites being built by the Soviet Union on the island of Cuba. President Kennedy did not want the Soviet Union and Cuba to know that he had discovered the missiles. He met in secret with his advisors for several days to discuss the problem.
After many long and difficult meetings, Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade, or a ring of ships, around Cuba. The aim of this "quarantine," as he called it, was to prevent the Soviets from bringing in more military supplies. He demanded the removal of the missiles already there and the destruction of the sites. On October 22, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about the crisis in a televised address.
No one was sure how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would respond to the naval blockade and U.S. demands. But the leaders of both superpowers recognized the devastating possibility of a nuclear war and publicly agreed to a deal in which the Soviets would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba.
In a separate deal, which remained secret for more than twenty-five years, the United States also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey. Although the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba, they escalated the building of their military arsenal; the missile crisis was over, the arms race was not.
In 1963, there were signs of a lessening of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. In his commencement address at American University, President Kennedy urged Americans to reexamine Cold War stereotypes and myths and called for a strategy of peace that would make the world safe for diversity.
Two actions also signaled a warming in relations between the superpowers: the establishment of a teletype "Hotline" between the Kremlin and the White House and the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on July 25, 1963.
In language very different from his inaugural address, President Kennedy told Americans in June 1963, "For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."
Visit our online exhibit: World on the Brink: John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile
Fast forward to the last days of August, 2014. Barack Obama is in the White House. Like his predecessor, John Kennedy, American's 44th president faces his own problems with a Russian dictator -- in this instance, Vladimir Putin, leader not of an imposing Union of Soviet Socialist Republics -- but of a scaled-down nation now known only as Russia -- smaller, perhaps, but still lethal as a snake.
And Putin, who longed to return to his "glory days" as a feared and respected strongman and bully who enjoyed being photographed riding horses while stripped to the waist (and other such smarmy acts of faux bravado) -- well, he just seems to like where he is.
But many things are different. Obama, who has drifted aimlessly about as he toyed with shaping some sort of cohesive foreign policy, is now an easy mark for Putin, having squandered any chance of being respected in the global arena.
This is not only emasculating for Obama, but also opens the gate for his Russian rival to solidify his hold not only on Ukraine, but on Crimea as well. And where will it stop?
It's a scary time for America, again facing real threats from Russia, where Putin proclaims that his country is a nuclear power, while warning -- you better not mess with Russia.
To put it all in perspective -- Obama isn't John F. Kennedy. And Putin isn't isn't Nikita Kruschev. And this isn't a game at all.