Friday, November 07, 2008

The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, and how it helped shape my own life and values


I remember sitting down with a cheeseburger and fries in the canteen of the first floor of the old George Washington University student union on G Street in Washington, next to a fire station, across the street from a then famous Quigley’s, one early evening the last week of October 1962, and watching President Kennedy address the nation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, on a black-and-white television monitor right above my line of sight. An hour later I would be safety tucked away in class, but I remembered that it hit me how dangerous things were getting.

At the time, I had a somewhat embarrassing living arrangement that I didn’t talk about. I was an in-patient at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, in a project studying two groups of mental patients: those who had experienced difficulty adjusting to college (an obvious and now ironic Cold War concern), and those with “family” problems. I was supposed to belong to the former group, but they sometimes mixed.

I was the only patient who regularly left the Clinical Center to go to college. I took the tediously long Friendship Heights bus line to get to and back from school, “on pass.” I was the only patient who really followed what was going on in the world (we called it “on the Outside”). There was no television on the Unit, and probably the doctors wanted it that way.

There were perhaps a dozen patients, some my age (then 19), and I got along well with some of them, and not with some others. Each week there was a full schedule of individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy (sometimes with art), group activities, and “unit government”. I do recall being nudged to disclose certain fantasy materials in the repeated individual therapy sessions, as if such a "confession" would lead to a miraculous, curative revelation. It didn't happen, of course. I thought of myself as more “intact” so sometimes I could bully others in subtle fashions just a little myself. (I’m going to get into the bullying problem, as recently covered on a Dr. Phil show, in more detail on another post soon.) For example, one time we had a ping pong “tournament” and I disoriented a couple of the other patients by winning games by playing defensively, avoiding slams, and keeping the ball on the table.

I was probably the only patient who knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis and what it could mean. Yes, I mentioned it a few times, and in a somewhat unkind fashion. Some of my life in the "Unit" during that period plays out in my mind like a Clint Eastwood movie (an episode from "Changeling" does bring all of this back to mind). But it speaks to a point that is not nice.

Of course, we all knew the doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction). But, in the back of our minds, we imagined something worse: maybe an exchange of one or two devices, and a world that eventually could be recovered from but that would ruin a generation of lives, including mine. We could face something like Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A world like that at first would have no use for someone like me. I think one could have said that about anyone who had failed to perform according to society’s social norms (including the other patients). No wonder the doctors didn’t want the patients to know what was going on.

Of course, we all know the history. Under President Kennedy’s leadership (whatever you think of it), we came back from the brink of that fall crisis, had a Civil Rights movement, a gay rights movement, increasing individualism, even a Reagan Revolution. There were severe crises, like the oil shocks of the 70s, and AIDS in the 80s. Today, at least with 9/11, we have been forced to contemplate how we could adjust to a true History Channel “mega disaster”. We now realize that some of these dangers can be manmade in a longer term sense: pandemics (it’s ironic how we look at avian flu twenty years after AIDS was a social controversy), global warming. We come to question the moral validity of individualism, and start to appreciate why societies, as a whole, until a few decades ago, felt that they had to enforce rigid social codes to function and survive at all.

The patients in that NIH Ward (then 3 West) in the Clinical Center were there in large part because they did not or could not conform to social norms and expectations. That’s certainly why I was there. (The entry on Nov. 28, 2006 on this blog explains my William and Mary expulsion for homosexuality.) Probably, each one of us had our reasons for believing that society’s demands, at least at a certain individual level, were wrong, unjust, or even “irrational.”

I do understand that even democratic societies like ours don’t always let citizens have complete autonomy over their own adult lives. I grew up in a world where there was a draft, and where student deferments (in the Vietnam War that would follow) provided one of the sharpest moral controversies of the era. Nuclear families had tremendous authority not only over minor children (obviously necessary to raise them) but even over unmarried adults, because the family could form a center of identity for those less able to compete for themselves, and because the world we lived in could not always "afford" to let individuals express their own course in life regardless of their family origins. (Again, half the patients on the ward were there for "family" problems, but these patients were all adults themselves!) In the 60s, we started to feel we could afford to really take individual rights seriously, and address the social justice issues that the “group values” of our society (the family) had allowed to continue. Ironically, this would develop so soon after this Cuban Missile Crisis and even the Kennedy assassination in Dallas in 1963. I do remember that Friday afternoon in November 1963, when I (having then been long discharged from NIH) was working on my first full time job at the National Bureau of Standards (then in Washington, where UDC is now), and my boss came in and told me. I remember waiting for the bus on K Street later, going to my parents’ home, wondering if the Soviers would blow us back into survival mode.

In August 1997, right after publishing my first "Do Ask Do Tell" book and before moving to Minneapolis, I would take a Sunday tour of the Cold War bunker underneath the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W Va.

Like it or not, our social values in the time, those that shaped the life I had since, were formed by circumstances beyond our locus of control.

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