Honoring the South Carolinian who was the Cuban Missile Crisis’ lone casualty
Fifty years ago, citizens across the United States lived in fear of a nuclear attack. Families were glued to their television sets, anxiously awaiting any news of the crisis. Churches across the nation conducted prayer vigils. In preparation of an attack, bomb shelters were stocked, and students engaged in “duck and cover” desk drills.
The most intense moment in the near 50-year Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day period that began after U.S. U-2 spy planes photographed Soviet missile installations on the island of Cuba, an island only 90 miles away from the continental United States. From their sites, the missiles had the capability of destroying almost any point in the continental U.S. Residents of the Southeast were particularly vulnerable.
According to Joseph Crespino’s recently released book, “Strom Thurmond’s America,” Sen. Thurmond was the first member of Congress to publicly state that the Soviets were stockpiling weapons in Cuba. One month before the 13-day crisis, he called for an invasion of the island.
In an effort to stop the buildup in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy opted not to engage in an air attack or land invasion but instead implemented a naval quarantine of the island. The USS MacDonough, a guided-missile destroyer assigned to the Charleston Navy Yard, was part of the fleet along “Walnut,” the code name for the quarantine line. As the U.S. military readied for war, all attack submarines in the Atlantic Fleet were ordered to the waters just north of Charleston. The Navy Yard was one of four places that any Soviet vessels seized by the U.S. during the quarantine would be transported. After days of escalating angst, the crisis ended on Oct. 28, 1962, when President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement which ordered the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in exchange for U.S assurance not to invade the island. In the early 1980s, declassified evidence revealed that the U.S. agreed to remove Jupiter missiles in Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union as part of the deal as well.
Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The “most dangerous moment in modern history,” as one historian refers to the crisis, had been concluded peacefully, representing a victory for international diplomacy. The heavy tension that weighed on Americans who had been fearful of the outbreak of World War III had been alleviated.
Every state in the U.S. escaped this crisis unscathed. Every state, that is, except South Carolina. The Oct. 28 agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev was preceded by the death of Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr., a Greenville native and Clemson graduate who was shot down while performing a top-secret reconnaissance U-2 flight over Cuba on Day 12 of the crisis. Maj. Anderson was the lone combat fatality of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the Upcountry, relief regarding the peaceful conclusion of the crisis was complicated by the fact that one of its beloved native sons would not be returning home.
Not long after the crisis, the highly regarded journalist Eric Sevareid wrote, “the U-2 pilot shot down ... was our one known soldier representing hosts of others who did not die. ... Major Anderson would surely be immortalized as the martyr who died for us all.” Sevareid predicted that Americans would annually lay flowers at Anderson’s grave to honor the one casualty of the crisis in which the world came closest to nuclear warfare.
Unfortunately, the shooting down of the U-2 over Cuba is an overlooked event in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the man whose death helped bring an end to this crisis has similarly been under-recognized. Why isn’t South Carolina’s native son better known?
Anderson’s death occurred in the midst of a crisis with grave potential consequences. Meeting minutes from ExComm, the committee of advisors that President Kennedy convened during the crisis, reveal that Anderson’s death was reported at 4 p.m. by Gen. Maxwell Taylor. The minutes read: “General Taylor read a late report of the shooting down of the U-2 reconnaissance plane in Cuba which said that the wreckage of the U-2 was on the ground and that the pilot had been killed. He felt that we should make an air attack tomorrow on the SAM [surface-to-air missiles] site responsible for shooting down the U-2 plane.” Anderson’s name was not mentioned.
President Kennedy and ExComm viewed the Soviets’ act of shooting down our U-2 as an escalation of the conflict. In the midst of this crisis, when every hour and minute could have determined the difference between peace and nuclear warfare, Anderson’s death was viewed contextually by military and diplomatic strategists who urged the president to take military action.
Kennedy elected not to take the advice of ExComm and other officials. Anderson’s death, it seems, provided acute perspective for Kennedy: U.S. military retaliation would invite subsequent Soviet military retaliation, and could incite a series of cascading events that could have had disastrous consequences. Within hours of receiving the news of Anderson’s death, Kennedy engaged in more forceful diplomacy, and Khrushchev, to his credit, responded favorably.
The New York Times headline the day after Anderson’s death read, “U-2 Lost on Patrol.” For years after the event, Kennedy’s vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, referred to Anderson simply as “that U-2 boy.”
Thus, the crisis had been peacefully resolved. But what about its sole casualty?
A community’s monuments and memorials reveal what and who in our history are valued by that community. Today, on the 50th anniversary of Maj. Anderson’s death, the city of Greenville will rededicate the redesigned Maj. Rudolf Anderson Jr. Memorial along the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Cleveland Park and premiere a brief film commemorating his life.
While history has yet to appropriately honor the man behind the mission, Greenville has. Our efforts will ensure that Maj. Rudolf Anderson’s courageous service to country will be honored for generations to come.
Courtney Tollison Hartness, Ph.D., is assistant professor of History at Furman University, museum historian for the Upcountry History Museum. William Shelley, a sophomore from Concord, N.C., is a history major at Furman University.