Jerry Pournelle in Chaos Manor: The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and Me

jerry pournelle cuban missile crisis
Written by Jerry Pournelle

Our Jerry Pournelle remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, he was right in the thick of it …

aNewDomain — In October 1962, I was an engineer and systems analyst with Boeing Advanced Plans in Seattle.

We owned a small house in the Green Lake district nearby.

At the Boeing Company, one of my assignments was strategic assessment. That means I had access to much of the intelligence data available to the Boeing Company, which included estimates of the air and missile forces available to the USSR.

The former Soviet Union had a lot of firepower. Seattle was not in range of the Soviet Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba, but the city certainly was in range of other Soviet assets.

Everyone took it seriously. Our unit director gave us the assignment of evaluating the probable outcomes and we couldn’t do it.

The probabilities depended on too many human factors — and too many real uncertainties. We’d all read Herman Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon Press, 1962). After the second day of the crisis, I went home and began filling burlap bags with dirt. We placed them in the basement. We also laid in groceries and filled water containers.

Seattle wasn’t likely to be a primary target — and Green Lake is in the northern part of the city, far from the Boeing plants. But there were naval bases west of us and we were in the fallout pattern. It wasn’t likely that we’d need fallout shelters. But if we did, there wouldn’t be time to fill the dirt bags.

It was a tense time, and it lasted more than week. And after U.S. President Kennedy proclaimed the crisis ended on October 28, we still kept the dirt bags filled for another couple of months. We finally carried them back out to the backyard.


The John F. Kennedy Library and The National Archives have  anniversary exhibits up now. Find the JFK exhibit here.


1 Comment

  • My recollections for what they’re worth: I was 3 when the Cuban missile crisis occurred. I still recall seeing Pres. Kennedy on television. He had previously seemed like a friendly man, always smiling, but he was very stern in this announcement. I remember him promising that order would eventually be restored, and it scared me to think about what was going to happen “before” order was restored. The looming chaos was unbounded in my mind since I had no context for it. I could also sense that my parents and older brother were terrified, which was a new experience for me, and amplified my own fears.