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Reviewed by:
  • Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • David A. Welch
Alice L. George , Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 264 pp. $29.95.

Most scholars of the Cuban missile crisis have been preoccupied with high-political drama and have rarely paid more than passing attention to the way ordinary people reacted to and coped with the most dangerous episode of the nuclear age. Alice George has set out to right the balance, and in Awaiting Armageddon she has made a welcome contribution to a crowded shelf.

George begins with a brief narrative of the main events of the public week of the crisis (22–28 October 1962) before discussing, in six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, how Americans reacted psychologically and behaviorally to nuclear vulnerability and possible imminent catastrophe; the utter inadequacy of civil defense; the role of the media; the domestic political context and subtext; and the long-term effects of the crisis on America's children. Always fascinating, often gripping, and occasionally poignant, her analysis of these topics provides a great deal of detail and color normally missing from histories of the event. Readers who remember having lived through the crisis will find themselves transported, possibly in an unsettling way, back in time. Readers who do not remember the crisis will find in George's lucid prose the best available proxy for the lived experience.

Nonetheless, although the book is extremely effective in recapturing the sense of the time, it does not do so in a way that will shock or surprise. It makes no grandiose claims to revelation, advances no particularly bold thesis, and provides no particular [End Page 146] grist for interpretive mills, be they orthodox or revisionist. George shows that many Americans were profoundly scared during the crisis, but also that many were not. She suggests that some who reacted calmly may have been in denial, though others may not. She notes that the media were rather more compliant in 1962 and therefore relatively more vulnerable to political manipulation than is the case today, but she suggests that even if this was an unwelcome departure from journalistic norms in the abstract, it may have helped to avert nuclear war. She reminds us that the crisis took place in the context of a midterm election campaign, but she concludes that, at the end of the day, the Kennedy administration's handling of the crisis reflected a greater concern for avoiding a nuclear holocaust than for keeping Congress for the Democrats. All of this seems right, but none of it is surprising. George comes close to advancing a thesis—that the Cuban missile crisis played a bigger role in unsettling American politics and society than we typically recognize—but does so timidly and tentatively, and ultimately backs away. "Some historians," she writes, "have claimed the roots of the divisiveness and cynicism that shook the nation in the 1960s and 1970s can be found in the Vietnam War or Watergate. I could assert that the missile crisis was the real fount of that loss of faith, which still permeates American culture to this day; however, to do so would be to embrace a fallacy. The currents of history do not flow from a single source" (p. 168). Most certainly they do not. But the claim is implausible in any case.

Although Awaiting Armageddon is not a book about the high politics of the missile crisis, it evinces a good grasp of the voluminous literature. Outright errors are few and relatively minor, and they generally result from the use of older sources (some of which, alas, are my own). Thus, George fails to note that on 22 October (East Coast time) Soviet leaders rescinded the standing authority earlier given to the Soviet commander in Cuba to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event of an American attack (p. 13). She also fails to realize that it was standard procedure in 1962 to issue DEFCON alerts in the clear (p. 53). The story of the missile crisis continues to evolve, more than forty years after the event, and the "facts" are something of a...