50 years ago, Baltimore and other U.S. cities feared missile strike

For anyone growing up in the 1950s, black-and-white television images of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatening Western leaders with his "We will bury you!" statement were more than a little frightening.

In an era when communism and the nuclear arms race were considered palpable and real threats, schoolchildren throughout the country were instructed about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.


As Civil Defense sirens whined in air raid drills that seemed to me to be held several times a year, we were instructed by our teachers at my central New Jersey elementary school to climb under our desks, as if they were a bulwark and haven from radiation and flying debris.

Other times, we were herded into hallways and told to face the wall and put our hands over our heads. Upon reflection, both of these drills were absurd, as most of us were familiar with pictures of what had happened after atomic bombs obliterated two Japanese cities in 1945.


We knew if such a calamity befell our town, there would be no New Market Elementary School, no desks, hallways or well-meaning teachers concerned with our safety and no us.

Civil Defense signs — holdovers from World War II — directing people to shelter locations seemed to be everywhere. They were on hotels, office buildings, railroad and bus stations, government buildings, post offices, department stores and theaters.

But the fear that such a nightmare might happen became chillingly real 50 Octobers ago, when Baltimoreans as well as the rest of the world had real reason to fear a nuclear war. The U.S. and Russia careened toward the brink of such a calamity over Soviet missiles being placed in Cuba pointed north toward the U.S. mainland

It was early in the morning of Oct. 16, 1962, that President John F. Kennedy summoned his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to the White House to inform him that a U-2 spy plane had just finished a detailed photographic mission over Cuba that revealed Russia was placing atomic weapons and missiles in the country.

Thus began a 13-day diplomatic pas de deux between the United States and Soviet Union.

At 7 p.m. Oct. 22, a grim President Kennedy, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and tie, spoke to the nation in a firm and direct televised speech.

"The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war," he said.

In a seven-point program, Kennedy explained that there would be a blockade and a strict quarantine of all offensive military equipment bound for Cuba. All ships carrying such weaponry and military supplies — no matter from what country or port — would be stopped on the high seas and turned back.

He also said that any missile launched from Cuba would result in an attack on the Soviet Union. He appealed to Khrushchev to abandon this reckless course.

"Best speech I ever heard," George Smith, a retired petty officer, told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "He told them where to get off. That means Khrushchev and [Fidel] Castro too."

"A growing concern over the Cuba crisis is being demonstrated in Baltimore's churches, classrooms, supermarkets and municipal offices," reported The Evening Sun.

Church attendance grew, schools conducted survival exercises, and food was swept from grocery store shelves.


Civil Defense offices in the city were deluged with phone calls asking the location of public shelters and for advice on how to protect families and homes.

Unsettling reports in The Sun said missiles launched from Cuba could reach as far as Baltimore, Cincinnati and Dallas, while 27 public shelters in the city had room for only 40,000 people.

The crisis came to an end Oct. 28 when Khrushchev told Kennedy that he had ordered all Soviet rocket bases in Cuba to be dismantled and the rockets returned "in the interest of peace."

An extra edition that day of The Sunday Sun told the story: "RUSSIA ORDERS MISSILES OUT OF CUBA; KENNEDY HAILS MOVE."

As the national anxiety began to ease, The Sun reported that the University of Maryland homecoming crowd of 8,000 that gathered Oct. 27 at College Park was "toned down," no doubt because of the crisis.

"I am relieved that the situation has been straightened out and that peace will be maintained," Nancy L. Taylor, a nightclub hostess, told the newspaper. "But if war came, I'd rather be caught in a bar than a bomb shelter anytime."

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