Would you indulge me? Today’s post isn’t about growth or faith or fitness. You’ve been warned.
I finally got around to listening to the latest Hardcore History episode, entitled “The Destroyer of Worlds.” This is the so-called “Dan Carlin version” of how the world’s leaders adjusted to the incredible power of nuclear weapons.
Carlin is a gifted storyteller and an avid reader of history, giving him a plethora of skills for telling deep, complicated stories across multiple fronts. “Destroyer of Worlds” is no different, as it dives into the responsibilities and psyches of various world leaders, including Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan, along with Secretaries Stalin and Khrushchev.
What pressures these men faced, armed with weapons beyond the imagination of a world that was suddenly moving at lightspeed. Think, for a moment, what the world looked like in 1910.
Then jump forward *only 40 years.* Europe has been utterly ravaged by two enormously brutal conflicts, shifting the balance of power away from the Old World and into the new.
The Soviet Union has emerged as a dominant, terrifying power. And, perhaps most amazing of all, the once isolationist United States stands as a superpower on the world’s stage. Shockingly — these two nations stand opposed.
Oh, and now a few of those nations possess weapons of mass destruction.
How can one prepare for that?
The most fascinating part of the episode is Carlin’s discussion on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Carlin doesn’t say this or quote anyone saying it, but one gets the sense that Kennedy and Khrushchev both felt this horrible burden. Both wanted to be seen as strong, powerful leaders — and yet, both knew the weight that would fall upon their shoulders should either have elected to use the nuclear weapons. All of those lives would fall at the feet of either man, for all of history.
The weight of that drained both men. Kennedy and Khrushchev both were said to have hardly slept or left their major offices during the crisis, each burning the candle fast at both ends. Imagine the pressure. Imagine being told that it was best to move your family away from the White House, because the nation’s capital was an obvious target for the USSR. You, however, being the commander-in-chief, do not get that luxury of leaving. Imagine hearing the plan of how rescue teams planned to retrieve you — from your bunker — in the event of an attack.
Imagine feeling the weight of millions and millions of families, many of whom voted for you to protect them in this kind of moment, as they went to bed at night terrified of what might greet them in the morning. But don’t think that just Americans or Russians had such fears. Oh, no — the world went to sleep each night with one eye open.
As Carlin put it, the human race had experienced such terror before. If Genghis Khan was bearing down on your village, you knew existential fear. But when in the history of the world had everyone felt such a fear, all at once?
For 13 days, Kennedy and Khrushchev endured a pressure that no world leader before them could have understood. And so, it is understandable why both seemed to have reached out to the power for a lifeline. I sense — and this is just me, I could be totally wrong — that both men desperately did not want this war. I sense both men thinking, “Please don’t make me do this.” It is easy for an armchair general (you know, like me) to talk about the power and scope of nuclear weapons, and their potential role in various conflicts.
It is an entirely different equation to actually be at the helm.
Sometimes we forget that our leaders are humans as well, rife with fears and insecurities, doubts and troubles. Neither Kennedy nor Khrushchev were perfect men. And even as a proud American, I sympathize with the pressures felt by the Soviet General Secretary.
One wonders if any human could ever be prepared for such a responsibility. The world’s fate in your hands.
What a terrible predicament to be in.