With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Even With the Challenge of a Nuclear Crisis, 1962 Was a Year of Hope

"Nance," the author's future wife, tours Venice in 1962.

This is the first of a two-part essay, the second part will deal with 1968 as a year of dashed hopes.

1962 began as a year of great challenge and ended as one of great hope. This was true for our country and, less importantly, for me personally. At the start of the year I was an artillery lieutenant who for a month had been stationed along with others at the abandoned French Luneville-Chenevieres Air Base about halfway between Nancy and Strasbourg. I had been sent there as part of President Kennedy's beefing up of U. S. troops in Europe in response to the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961.  

Our mission (about 50 of us from our Fort Sill, Oklahoma battalion) was to maintain equipment sent from our unit to France. It included 8-inch howitzers with a tactical nuclear capability. If cold war tensions escalated, the remainder of our Fort Sill battalion could be flown to Europe and soon join us, ready for action. At our abandoned airbase, other new troops from other U.S. locations had similar responsibilities.

In January 1962, Kennedy had only been president about a year, and when he was elected in November 1960, at age 43, he was the youngest ever to win that office. It was a great time to be a young person, especially an American white male who, as I only fully realized later, had various privileges that most minorities and women did not yet enjoy. Having replaced the 70-year-old Eisenhower, JFK represented for, me and many others, youthful idealism. Words of his like “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country” and institutions he established like the Peace Corps resonated with us. Moreover, if you were a Catholic, as I was, his election as our first Catholic president had a special meaning--his adulterous ways were not yet public knowledge.

Ironically, a few years before Kennedy became president, an old man in his late seventies became head of the Catholic Church--Pope John XXIII. But like JFK, he pledged to bring forth new ideas and a new approach. And he did so by instituting the most sweeping twentieth-century change-organization in the Catholic Church, Vatican II (more of it later).

Meanwhile, in France in the first several months of 1962 I had few military duties--our unit had sent more officers than needed, so I had plenty of off-duty time. Part of it was spent teaching an English class to soldiers who had not graduated from high school. But more of it involved using accrued leave-time to travel around Europe. Besides Paris and some other French cities, I visited Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Italy, where I was able to receive a group blessing from Pope John XXIII.

I also spent many hours trying to decide what to do when my required two years of military service ended later that year. By the time I returned to the USA in April 1962, I had narrowed my choices down to two: enter the Peace Corps or begin working on a Ph.D. in Russian Area Studies at Georgetown University. Although an English major at Xavier U., where I had also earned an ROTC commission, I now decided that if I went to graduate school I would specialize in learning more about our greatest cold war foe--the USSR. A plus for the latter decision was that I could apply for an early discharge--up to three months early--if I went to graduate school.

While in Europe my future regarding women was also still undecided. People married younger in those days, and several of my friends had already done so. I had not, nor did I even have a steady girlfriend. And on the day I was scheduled to fly back to the USA, April 20th, I was to turn 24. But I had had a promising blind date just before I left for France. Her name was Nancy (I later usually called her Nance). Like the wives of my two best friends, she was a nurse in my hometown of Cincinnati, and I planned to go out with her at least several times when I stopped there for a short leave before driving back to Ft. Sill.

By the time I left Cincinnati less than a week later I thought I was in love, and suspected my feeling was reciprocated. On 15 May, I wrote in a quasi-diary, “I will marry Nancy Pierce I believe.” In a letter of 5 June, I told her I’d be back home from 12 to 28 June and that I received word I would get an “early out” from the army in September. Although still not 100 percent committed to graduate work at Georgetown, I had been admitted to their graduate program in Russian Studies.

Nance and I had a wonderful two weeks together in late June. From then until the end of 1962, we mainly communicated by writing letters to each other--totaling about 100 of them. In her July letters she tells me about the evolving plans she and her best friend (another nurse, named Kathy) are making for a few-month European trip. We also often wrote how much we loved each other.

In mid-August Nance and Kathy left by ship for Europe. After arriving there, they bought a used Volkswagen (VW) at a U.S. military base in Germany, and for the next nine weeks drove around Europe, with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on 5 Dollars a Day being their main guidebook. Belgium, England, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and France were the main countries which they toured, with Berlin (both West and East) and Rome being the most memorable according to Nance, who wrote me regularly.

Driving to and from Berlin meant that they had to pass through part of Soviet-controlled East Germany. In mid-September, after a few hours of apprehensive driving, they made it to West Berlin and the next day took a guided tour into East Berlin. Nance noted the sharp contrast behind the two parts of the city, including barbed-wire fences and bricked-up windows on the eastern side to help prevent escape to West Berlin. She also mentioned that their guide told them about a boy who the previous month was shot by East Berlin guards just short of making it to the western side.

Without naming him, she was referring to 18-year-old Peter Fletcher, who lay bleeding to death for about an hour in the “no man’s land” between two walls separating the two parts of the former German capital. Referring to the guards that shot him, Nance, who hated to see anyone suffer, wrote, “It seems impossible to me that anyone could be so cruel.”

After another day back in West Berlin, Nance and Kathy drove through East Germany and headed for Munich. Nance wrote that it took them five hours to drive through East Germany, that she was worried, and kept thinking what if something happened to their VW and they had to stop.

After stays in Munich and various Swiss and Italian cities, including Venice and Florence, Nance wrote from Rome that on 11 October they went to the Vatican for the opening of the Second Vatican Council--it met for months and then again in the autumns from 1963 to 1965. Although the Vatican was too busy that day for them to see Pope John XXIII, they were in the crowd beneath his balcony a few days later and received his group blessing--impressed by the compassionate behavior of many of the Catholic nursing students while she was also in training in Cincinnati, Nance had converted to Catholicism.

In a 23 October letter from Stuttgart, Germany, Nance wrote that they had sold back their VW, and would later take a train to Paris. She also mentioned that she had heard about the troubles in Cuba and that she’d feel a lot safer once they were back in the USA (more about Cuba later).

On 1 November, they bordered the RMS Queen Elizabeth bound for New York, and a week later made the train trip to D. C., where Nance and I were able to spend four or five days together while she and Kathy stayed with a nursing-school friend who lived in the area.

While she was travelling in Europe, I had gotten out of the army and entered Georgetown’s graduate school, taking three evening Russian-studies classes and a morning Russian language one. At first I had planned to find at least a part-time job to support myself--my dad was a blue-collar worker, and college and now graduate school expenses were my responsibility. Before I was discharged from military service, I was notified that I would receive a fellowship, but that one of its conditions was that I could not have any outside employment. That was fine because the stipend provided would pay my expenses, and I could still work summers.

Like Nance, in October I worried about the Cuban crisis. On 22 October I wrote to her that President Kennedy was making a major speech that night and hoped it would not interfere with her return to the USA. In his television address Kennedy revealed that Soviet medium-range missiles had been installed in Cuba--they could have reached as far as D.C.-- and announced a naval quarantine of Cuba. At the time many of us in the capital were worried about the possibility of a nuclear exchange, but we would have been even more worried if we knew that a the time the president thought the chances of one were “between one out of three and even.” He also stated that any missile launched from Cuba would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union, and, revealing his concern about a possible Cuban-Berlin linkage, he proclaimed that an attack “on Berlin would be an attack on the United States.”

For almost a week after Kennedy’s words, the crisis ebbed and flowed. On the 27th a U.S. U-2 pilot flying over Cuba to monitor the missiles was shot down and killed. Finally, increasingly concerned about the ability of President Kennedy and himself to prevent matters from escalating out of control, on 28 October Soviet leader Khrushchev backed down. In exchange for a U.S. promise not to attack Cuba, and an unofficial (and non-publicized) assurance that the United States would remove its missiles from Turkey (across the Black Sea from the USSR) in four or five months, he announced a dismantling of the missile sites and a return of the missiles to the USSR.

Thus, by the time Nance arrived in D.C. I was doubly elated. Not only was I was going to see her for the first time in over four months, but it seemed like the U.S. had won an important Cold-War victory without any of the horrors of warfare. We had a wonderful time together--we fixed Kathy up with a friend of mine. Besides going to favorite haunts, like Georgetown’s rathskeller bar (in the basement of the 1789 restaurant), I took Nance to Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, which was Catholic with mainly a Black congregation and one devoted to “social justice and racial equality.” Although not very well informed of the Black struggle to overcome southern segregation, I had become more concerned about racial injustice and had begun teaching a religion class to public-school children at this nearby Arlington County church. (Nance shared my abhorrence of racial discrimination.)

Although our futures--that of both our country and Nance and I us a couple--still contained many uncertainties, prospects looked very bright by the end of 1962. Robert Dallek writes that JFK saw “the missile crisis as a turning point that had opened a new era in history.” The crisis’s “successful resolution now allowed him to set a more rational agenda on nuclear weapons and to encourage possibilities of Soviet-American détente. And indeed in June 1963, Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to establish a Moscow-Washington “hot line” to facilitate mutual emergency communication. In August 1963, the two countries, plus Great Britain, signed a nuclear test ban treaty banning all but underground nuclear testing, and Khrushchev was hopeful that he and Kennedy could agree on even more sweeping measures to improve U.S.-Soviet relations.

Like our country, Nance and I ended 1962 full of hope and idealism--we had become engaged on Christmas Eve. That spirit continued until the end of summer 1963. In late August 1963 the soaring, idealistic “I Have a Dream Speech” of Martin Luther King occurred in D. C. About two weeks later, we (now a married couple) arrived back in our capital, where I would continue my studies at Georgetown and Nance would work as a nurse. But then, on 22 November, President Kennedy was assassinated. And with him, despite President Johnson’s later domestic accomplishments, died a certain hopeful, if at times naive, idealistic spirit. But more about that in Part 2 of this essay, which will focus on 1968.