On the morning of Friday, 26 October 1962, I left for my high school thinking that I would probably not make it home alive. On that day, which I remember like yesterday, there were rumours that if the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Nkita Khrushchev, insisted on installing SS4 and SS5 nuclear missiles in Cuba, the United States would destroy the Soviet ships carrying the warheads for these missiles, which were stationary a few miles off the Cuban coast, causing a chain reaction that would lead to an all-out nuclear war and the death of all 3.1 billion human beings in a matter of hours. As I walked to my high school, with no information other than the radio and newspapers, I had the feeling that my life, still so brief, was going to be interrupted; that my city, so beautiful, was going to be destroyed; that the hopes of all were going to be dashed. I don’t remember being afraid: the situation was too unspeakable to be frightening. Much later, I understood that this fear was well founded: That morning, after ten days of intense negotiations, which could have gone nowhere, between a calm and resolute American negotiator (the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy) and a Soviet leader who had lived through the tragedies of the Second World War (Nikita Khrushchev), the Soviets agreed to dismantle the launch pads already built in Cuba and to return the ships loaded with nuclear warheads to their ports; In exchange, the Americans made a written commitment to withdraw their Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy (which had already been decided) and not to invade Cuba.
Twenty years later, during the winter of 1984/1985, I lived through a similar period, much less publicised, when the old cacochymes who were then leading the Soviet Communist Party, around Constantin Chernenko, showed themselves perfectly determined to drag the human race into their own tomb if we did not destroy our own nuclear weapons; I can still hear Chernenko shouting his threats, in a very small room in the Kremlin, where I accompanied an impassive and determined François Mitterrand. As I listened to him, I tried to imagine 4.7 billion human beings being dragged towards nothingness. Here again, I was not afraid, because it was still unimaginable. And yet, it was possible, and we were probably only saved by the death of Chernenko, earlier than expected, allowing Mikhail Gorbachev to succeed in his coup against the young Brezhnevans who were not yet ready to take over.
Today, we are living through a period of the same intensity. For the same reason: a desperate power that has no other solution for survival than to embark on an external adventure. We risk, once again, in the days, weeks and months to come, being dragged into a nuclear cataclysm. With even more powerful weapons, which could wipe out all eight billion human beings. Again, this is too gigantic to think about.
Too crazy to fear.
If the world is thus, for the third time, on the brink of the abyss, it is because Russia has not yet been able to anchor itself in democracy, the only real guarantee against bellicosity.
We will not have the same chance as in 1962: Vladimir Putin did not experience the Second World War. Nor will we have the same chance as in 1985: he does not seem to be as physically weakened as Chernenko was.
If anything saves us from the worst, it will be either a palace manoeuvre in Moscow or a realisation by Putin that he has everything to lose, personally, in the eyes of history, by acting as he does. Still, history and the place he will occupy in it should interest him. And, as on the two previous occasions, this can only succeed if the democracies do not give in to fear and blackmail.
If, once again, humanity miraculously pulls through, we must not return to the old rut. We must not believe that we are invincible. We must equip humanity with the means to prevent anyone in the future from threatening (and not only by war) its very existence.
Painting: John Martin, Pandemonium (1841), Musée du Louvre (Paris).