27 October 1962. Far below the surface of the Atlantic, a stone's throw from Cuba in international waters, lies a submarine. Inside, lights flash red as three uniformed officers look one another nervously in the eyes, sweating and arguing about whether to launch a torpedo at enemy ships. A torpedo tipped with a nuclear payload.
The Soviet submarine, B-59, had sunk very deep in order to avoid US vessels, cutting it off from radio communication with other vessels in the flotilla and more importantly from Moscow. This also meant that it was impossible for the Soviet submarine to communicate with the US ships that were pursuing it. A common practice for war ships in this scenario was to drop signaling depth charges, a low yield submersible bomb, that inform submarines that their presence is known and force them to surface for identification. A controversial, and aggressive, practice to conduct in international waters.
It was under these circumstances that the captain of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, intended the launch of the nuclear torpedo, interpreting the US actions as a sign that war had already broken out on the surface. He needed to get the approval of the political officer on board, which he did. Ordinarily that would have sufficed, but that day the flotilla chief of staff was also on board meaning that he would also have to agree to the launch. This was Vasili Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, and he argued against the launch, rather that the vessel should surface and contact Moscow. Arkhipov insisted and a launch was avoided, and so were the consequences of a nuclear conflict.
It is not hard to argue that this was a moment that could have ended modern humanity. The incident took place at the tail end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a period of high intensity in the Cold War where both sides were ready to launch their nuclear arsenals and wipe the other off the face of the planet. An act that in the process would end most human life on earth. The prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1958 when the US placed intermediate range nuclear missiles in Turkey, uncomfortably close to Moscow. Followed by the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April of 1961, when the US helped Cuban exiles, which it had trained and armed, launch an amphibious invasion of revolutionary Cuba. The invasion failed and led to a secret agreement between the USSR and Cuba to station nuclear missiles within spitting distance of the US. When the US discovered this, they blockaded Cuba in order to stave off the completion of the missile bases. This was what became the Cuban Missile Crisis, marking October of 1962 as the climax of the Cold War when the two nuclear armed superpowers played an existential game of chicken. The crisis only came to an end when the US and USSR agreed to dismantle their intermediate range capabilities and the US guaranteed it wouldn’t invade Cuba. A peak of the absurdity that is mutually assured destruction and the insanity of nuclear conflict. Luckily for us, Arkhipov didn’t turn the key.
While this may have been the climax for us looking back at the conflict, and its absurdity, on full retrospective display, not all these details were known at the time. Additionally, it is easy to forget that, in hindsight, it all seems so condensed into a short linear course of events, yet for people present then it was experienced in real time. For those who lived at the time, the ever present existential dread brought on by the constant possibility of nuclear armageddon created a lot of anxiety, a state of feeling that must have become particularly acute during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But this was only one moment in the Cold War, with this anxiety permeating through the culture of the time, manifesting in many and often contradictory ways.
Pop culture in the 60s was wild, especially in the good ol’ US of A, where the paranoia of preparedness for nuclear conflict had been pushed by the government since shortly after World War II. By the early 60s it was fashionable, for white suburbanites, to show off their new fallout shelters. Or with public service announcements, such as Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter, describing the dangers of nuclear weapons and the benefits of fallout shelters.
Existentialism became the latest consumerist fad, just another tool to sell to the public. It went further into everyday culture of the time with it showing up in various forms in popular media such as film and song. Both fiction and non-fiction authors described possible incidents or war. Anti-war and anti-nuclear protest songs became a popular genre. There was also a level of humorous critique which often took the form of satire. The comedian Tom Lehrer, with his “rousing uplifting song” We will all go together when we go, took a positive spin as he rhymes “if a bomb drops on you, gets your friends and neighbors too, there'll be nobody left behind to grieve”. The black humour of the song, which Leher presents as a “survival hymn”, shows the paradoxical ways in which people cope with an omni-present, senseless existential threat.
Another stirring example is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick challenged the opinion, popular in the 60s, that the bigger your arsenal, the less likely you would be attacked. The assumption that people as rational beings are always ready to act in the interest of their own country is subverted by the character of Jack D. Ripper, the main antagonist of the movie and caricature of a crazy American general who is obsessed with weapons and the USSR. Ripper, portrayed by Sterling Hayden, blames the Soviets for ruining his sexual performance as part of an elaborate plot. Enough of a reason to drop the nuclear bomb on them, becuase the politicians are in on it too. Kubrick displays the irrationality that characterises every human being, we all act logically only within our personal rational frame of reference. The movie mocks the system that puts such powerful weapons, with the destiny of humanity attached to them, into the hands of people incapable of using them wisely. The film ends, and so does the world, with a cowboy riding a nuclear bomb as it drops on the USSR. Emphasising the sheer absurdity of it all.
All this being said, people at the time were not only affected by this absurd dread but also aware of its absurdity. When compared to today it seems like we are not too far off with the ever present threat of climate catastrophe and the recent reemergence of a brand new nuclear threat. Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis sent their President letters to “not press the red button”. Not unlike people pleading to Joe Biden on Twitter to not start World War III. In the same vein we today reflect our anxiety in pop culture, be it songs, films, books or memes. Especially the memes. We, the generation born around the millennium, are once again asking ourselves “what do we want to be if we grow up?”