How I prevented a nuclear war

Author Paul Scott. Picture: Kate Chandler

Author Paul Scott. Picture: Kate Chandler

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FROM the crucial role of an Edinburgh-born Foreign Office chief to the fears of a future sports reporter, we gather memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis 50 years on.

It was the closest the world ever came to nuclear war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world on red alert half a century ago as the defining chapter of the Cold War between the Western and Communist worlds.

The Soviet Union, keen on matching the arms race led by the United States, decided to place intermediate-range missiles in Cuba.

American president John F. Kennedy subsequently ordered a naval quarantine around Cuba, publicly declaring on October 22, 1962, that the Soviets remove all of their weapons.

Tensions culminated on October 27 when an American U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded the removal of US missiles from Turkey. The threat of nuclear disaster would only ease on October 28 when Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the Cuban missiles in exchange for American co-operation.

On the 50-year anniversary of the conflict, five Capital residents tell Dale Miller what they were doing during those fateful days as the world hung on a knife’s edge.

Paul Scott, 91, former Foreign Office worker

He may not be Superman, but Paul Scott can lay claim to having helped prevent the end of the world.

The 91-year-old from the Capital’s west end was on the ground in Cuba in October, 1962.

And it is believed that his emergency telegram sent at the peak of the crisis appeased the American decision makers in the highest reaches of the White House.

Mr Scott had been promoted to the rank of Foreign Office counsellor that summer and was eventually posted to Cuba’s capital Havana. He caught one of the last flights from the US to Cuba with only one other person on the plane – a “reluctant” diplomat returning to his post.

They learned the full extent of the crisis only after touching down in Havana.

“That evening President Kennedy announced in a broadcast that the Soviet Government was installing ballistic missiles with atomic warheads in Cuba and that the American Navy would impose a blockade of the island until they were removed,” he said.

“We were now at the epicentre of a crisis that involved the risk of a 
nuclear war.

“A welcoming party with our Western colleagues, who were not very 
numerous, became an inquest into the situation. I think that we felt a bit like the garrison of a besieged town...

“There was a general air of despondency, but no sense of panic. After all, we were hardly more exposed than anyone else. A nuclear war would leave few, if any, survivors.

“I do not suppose that any of us really expected it to come to that. We all believed, I think, that common sense would prevail, because the alternative would have been so catastrophic.”

His critical role in the crisis came after Kennedy and Khrushchev had reached an agreement on October 28.

“Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles and Kennedy to lift the naval blockade. (Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro refused to admit UN observers to report the removal of the missiles, but that did not disturb the Americans because their reconnaissance aircraft kept a constant watch on the situation.)

“At the crucial time, however, when the missiles should have been moving to the ports, the ground became invisible from the air because of heavy cloud. We received a somewhat frantic emergency telegram. The hawks in the Pentagon were becoming impatient. Could we provide hard evidence that the Russians were complying with the agreement?

“This was quite simple. We knew where the missile sites were from the American reconnaissance photographs. I simply drove around them and saw the Russians hard at work. In places they were having problems with missile trailers in muddy fields, but they were clearly doing their best.

“Convoys of these long, sinister trailers were moving to the port of Matangas and the ships were waiting to receive them. It has been said that my report, by calming nerves in Washington, may have prevented a nuclear war.”

Mr Scott retired in 1980 after more than 30 years with the Foreign Office.

He has since written 13 books and been a university rector and vice-president of the SNP, but his time in Cuba remains the most interesting chapter of his career.

Tom Farmer, 72, Scottish entrepreneur

Sir Tom was still a sales representative in Edinburgh – two years away from starting the tyre retailing business that would go on to make his fortune – when the Cuban missile crisis unfolded.

Like most of the Western World, the Kwik-Fit founder recalled listening to the radio and hanging on tenterhooks to learn the outcome.

Sir Tom said: “Were you aware of the situation? You were very much aware of it.

“Were you aware of the fact that this could escalate into another war, the Third World War? I think there was that fear.

“I was actively interested. You listened to a lot of news bulletins ... my recollection is that it was a period of real concern. We were aware that at the end of the day we were all on the brink of something which could be a disaster.

“It was a time of anxiety. We were basing our hopes on this man called John F Kennedy. He was the man and it was up to him. We were hoping and praying that he was making the right decisions.”

Kennedy ultimately ruled out ordering an air strike against Russian missile bases or a military invasion of Cuba, with those decisions pivotal to averting a 
nuclear war.

Sir Tom said it was the making of the young American president, adding to the shock of Kennedy’s assassination little more than a year later on November 22, 1963.

He said: “When you 
realised the decisions that he had to make – even more so today when you have a bit more experience in the world – while being surrounded by advisers, he was the ultimate man.

“I could imagine the relief he felt, the same as the rest of the world felt, when the word came through that the ships had turned around. He was, to a certain degree, a young person’s hero.”

David Brown, 82, retired civil engineer

The enduring memory for David Brown on October 28, 1962, was not relief at nuclear disaster being 
averted.

It was rather relief at the healthy birth of his first child.

The 82-year-old from Niddrie welcomed the birth of his first son, David junior, at the now-closed Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital in Abbeyhill on that critical day in history.

A former serviceman himself, Mr Brown said he did not feel connected with the impending drama in Cuba because the country was unfamiliar to him.

He said: “I’d already served in the army and been in Malaya and in various places like that. That was a bigger concern to me. Had it been like Iraq or Afghanistan or these countries I was in, it would have been 
different.

“Everything went well with the birth. I remember they used to do a visiting time at 7.20 at night, believe it or not, until 8 o’clock.

“If you went up too early, the old matron used to say ‘my ladies are not ready yet’. You had to wait out in the corridor and she never extended the time.”

He said he remembered the ten-day mandatory wait that wife Mary was forced to spend in hospital after the birth far more than the missile crisis.

He said: “All the ladies did that at that time, even though they were quite healthy. Nowadays they would be two days and out, but in those days it was a ten-day minimum.

“When my wife had our sons, there were a dozen women in the one room. Things have went ahead quite a bit from then.”

Bill Lothian, 60, Sports Reporter

Earlier this year Hibs fans trooped from Hampden Park imagining it was like Armageddon after their team suffered a Scottish Cup Final thrashing by Hearts.

But back on October 27, 1962 – the day that Hearts lifted a League Cup by defeating Kilmarnock 1-0 and the Cuban crisis reached its peak – Bill Lothian didn’t have to imagine too hard.

The Evening News sports reporter said: “For several hours, the end of the world really was nigh and I was a primary schoolboy on the terracing traumatised by terror over which we in Britain had no control.

“As easily as I can recall my Dad’s Pools coupon winnings of £7 7/6d that week covering the cost of our outing to Glasgow, I remember shivering with fear on that terracing with what might have been diagnosed as Castro-enteritis if it hadn’t been so serious.

“By the time Dad and I returned to Edinburgh there was some lifting of the gloom because the stop-press column of the late edition of the Evening News reported, just above the 3.30 racing results from Newbury and Kelso and ‘Davidson scored for Hearts in 26 minutes’, [that]: ‘Kruschchev today offered to withdraw offensive weapons from Cuba if Americans would withdraw missiles from Turkey.’

“It was the basis of a diplomatic settlement, but that night’s television – BBC had Juke Box Jury, Dixon of Dock Green, the Ken Dodd Show and Laramie compared with ITV’s offerings comprising The Bruce Forsyth Show, Bonanza and Thank Your Lucky Stars – still had a hollow feel.

“As I settled down on the carpet for my nightly game of Subbuteo Soccer, the fact my mum had earlier in the day hoovered up a star player didn’t appear to matter very much either in the bigger picture. It was only when the late TV news showed a smile of relief returning on the face of US President John F Kennedy that the world began to relax.”

Eric and Helenor Anderson, 74 and 70, retirees

Tensions may have been escalating between the world’s two superpowers, but Edinburgh couple Eric and Helenor Anderson were focused on a more intimate crisis at home – their wedding.

The couple, from Warriston, were married at Edinburgh’s Kirk O’Field Parish Church, then known as the Charteris-Pleasance, on October 27, 1962.

It was a day that would be dubbed “Black Saturday” by the White House because of how close it brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

An American U-2 spy plane had accidentally flown into Russian airspace that day, with Soviet nuclear weapons in firing positions 15 miles from Guantánamo Bay, risking the threat of retaliation.

But for retired head cashier Eric, the wedding trumped everything else happening in the world. It was a modest affair with 80 guests.

Eric recalled: “It was October and it was raining. In those days you only went in a taxi if you were either going to a wedding or a funeral.

“I can remember my mother making sure I was dressed for it. We didn’t go to a fancy hotel for a reception. When I got married, I was getting £28 a month wages – £7 a week.

“We went to a hall and we had a homemade buffet. I felt quite special getting all dressed up because I didn’t get dressed up very often.”

Helenor admitted her mind had been on the wedding, not the growing threat of nuclear war.

She said: “If I had have been an older person, I might have thought ‘oh, my gosh. Not another war’. But I was born in 1941.

“When you’re younger, and I was only 20 at the time, these things you never really worried about. I thought to myself it would just be sorted. I was too concerned about this wedding.”