The remarkable World Series of 1962 between the Yankees and the Giants ended with a Yankee victory 50 years ago this week on October 16, 1962. On that same day, the Kennedy administration was presented with incontrovertible proof that the Russians were building missile sites on the island of Cuba, just 90 miles from our coast.
Talk about the World Series — and about everything else for that matter — soon faded as the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over the presence of missiles in Cuba took center stage. Tension rose dramatically as the possibility of a nuclear Armageddon seemed very real.
On the very next day, President John F. Kennedy visited Connecticut. Air Force One touched down at the Stratford-Bridgeport Airport, and JFK traveled by motorcade to both Waterbury and New Haven. The purpose of the trip was political. Kennedy was campaigning for Democrats, especially his good friend, former Gov. Abe Ribicoff, who was running for a Senate seat againt George Bush's father, Prescott Bush.
Fellow Irishmen, Congressman John Monagan and Governor John Dempsey, were both up for re-election as well and also benefited from the presidential visit. More than 50,000 heard Kennedy speak in Waterbury, and over 70,000 listened to his speech on the New Haven Green. Little did the crowd realize the drama that was being played out behind the scenes centered around the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
One Connecticut resident, however, was fully aware of what was on the line. His name was Roger Hilsman. A current resident of Lyme, Roger Hilsman will turn 93 next month. A graduate of West Point in June of 1943, Hilsman had entered World War II as an officer in the Pacific Theater of Operations, fighting against the Japanese. He was a member of that storied group of fighters known as "Merrill's Marauders."
Later, Hilsman joined Detachment 101 of the OSS — forerunner of the CIA — and went on a mission to liberate American POWs in Manchuria in 1945. Among those he liberated was his own father! A decorated veteran, Hilsman was machine-gunned by Japanese soldiers but survived. His World War II story is documented in detail in his 2005 book entitled American Guerilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines.
His war experience in the Far East would eventually qualify Hilsman to be Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in 1963; however, in 1962, he served President Kennedy in the State Department as the director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). It was in that capacity that Hilsman played a crucial role in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis and averting a potential nuclear holocaust.
Much of what happens in the realm of negotiations between foreign powers has always been and will always be hidden from public view, as images must be protected for political reasons. The Cuban Missile Crisis was no different.
Based on his summit with Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, Khruschev, quite a bit older than Kennedy, believed that he could intimidate his younger rival by placing missiles in Cuba. Years later his son, Sergei, reported that his father said that Kennedy "would make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree" to Russian missiles in Cuba. The Soviet premier could not have been more mistaken.
Eventually, Khruschev had to withdraw the missiles from Cuba. Connecticut's Roger Hilsman played a vital behind-the-scenes role in the delicate negotiations that saved the world from a massive nuclear exchange. The details of that resolution will be featured in next week's column.