To the Brink: iPad app shares Cuban Missile Crisis history

App screenshotThere was an ad in the dead tree edition of the New York Times yesterday promoting a free iPad app from the National Archives called “To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” (Link is to its app store page.)

The app is an attempt to bring the Archives’ JFK Library and Museum exhibit on the crisis to a wider audience. I checked it out—it’s great.

Even though I was born just before the Crisis and grew up hearing about it, I really didn’t know what it was. Like a lot of people, I got the broad outlines from a 1974 TV miniseries dramatization, “The Missiles of October.” 

Essentially, the Crisis was 13 days of diplomatic brinkmanship that brought the world very close to nuclear war. The US government discovered that Russia, despite its frequent denials, had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, within range of almost every major US city. The unanimous position within our government was that Russia had to be confronted with the deception, but there were widely divergent views of what form that confrontation should take.

The app presents a chronology of the events of the crisis, including declassified documents, photos, video, and, most interestingly, secret audio recordings between President Kennedy and his advisers. Listening to these men (and, yes, this was 1962, so they were all men) arguing in real time about what to do in response to Russia’s provocation is chilling. Wait’ll you get a load of former Air Force chief Curtis LeMay’s advice to the president.

Also fascinating are Russian Premier Nikita Kruschev’s missives to Kennedy during the crisis, and Kennedy’s responses. Through their words, you can almost sense the helplessness both men feel at finding themselves having to make decisions with such potentially momentous consequences. And all of it couched in diplomatic politesse.

Even though I didn’t know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was, my childhood was definitely colored by its aftermath. Though a shooting war was narrowly avoided then, to my way of thinking, the Crisis more or less ushered in an era where an eventual nuclear apocalypse was viewed as a looming inevitability. I grew up firmly believing the world would end in nuclear war. My only doubt was whether I would be alive when it happened, but I was pretty sure I would be.

Luckily, a lot of my younger friends and colleagues did not have to grow up fearing that. If you’re among them and are at all intested in history, the “To the Brink” app will be a real eye opener. Check it out