Back to the Nuclear Brink

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Anyone who was alive 35 years ago (and many of us who weren't) will look at the calendar Thursday and shiver: On this day in 1962, the world began to head toward the nuclear brink.

The Cuban Missile Crisis 13 days that shook the world began when President Kennedy was brought reconnaissance photos showing ominous dark gray patches where they shouldn't be: Ninety miles south of the United States.

Details of the national security meetings that followed remained shrouded in mystery. But unknown to anyone but the president, Kennedy was a bit of a Nixon he'd been discreetly taping his Oval Office gatherings.

Now, on the 35th anniversary of their recording, the Missile Crisis tapes (excerpted in TIME magazine) have been published by Harvard University Press.

The 700-page transcript paints a frightening picture of how clearly America's top officials could visualize an all-out thermonuclear exchange or, as they euphemistically put it, "general war." Sample extract: "There's bound to be a reprisal from the Soviet Union," says Kennedy. "Going in and taking Berlin by force. Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons, which is a hell of an alternative."

Thanks to the late President's paranoia well-justified, it seems, considering the military mutterings of "cowardice" captured on the tapes we have a glimpse today of one of the darkest moments in human history.