When I was growing up, in the midst of the Cold War, it not only seemed a possibility that there would be a nuclear conflict in my lifetime but it also appeared to be a morbid certainty. It is strange, looking back on the atomic-bomb-haunted teenager that I was, to have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet system and subsequently, a new enemy to Western civilization emerge since 2001. I have always been an adamant opponent of nuclear weapons. I do not think that there is any ethical framework or value system that can justify the mass obliteration of civilian populations, no matter what end is intended. Nuclear power is equally a dangerous tool, as demonstrated with the Fukushima disaster following the earthquakes that devastated Japan in 2011. Atomic capabilities did not always hold such equivocal possibilities, and the Atomic Age of the 1940s and 1950s seemed to herald a future in which this new potential would transform humankind for the better. This optimism is visually incarnated in the credits for the 1959 Disney film, Our Friend the Atom.
The death of such buoyant enthusiasm is often dated to major accidents such as Three Mile Island in 1979, but in reality the nuclear dream perished with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. During these two weeks, the leaders of the USA and the USSR brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war, a conflict which would, by its very nature, end all conflicts. Contemporaries felt as if such a terrible prospect was almost reached, and historians have been able to verify just how close our planet came to its own act of suicide.
The leaders, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro, do not come out of the situation with any probity. Not even Fidel himself, who far from being a pawn, vehemently pushed the Soviet Union to initiate a nuclear strike. Fortunately, there are two relatively unsung heroes from both ideological sides. Vasili Arkhipov was aboard a Russian submarine and refused to countenance a nuclear-headed torpedo strike on US ships, an act that would, without any doubt whatsoever, have precipitated a full-scale, authentic war. The decision needed the unanimous consent of all three senior Soviet officers, and the other two were strongly in favour of a strike, leading to a heated argument. Arkhipov would not back down, and but for this stubborn and courageous man, there might not have been a world after 1962. The other quiet hero is Pope John XXIII, pictured above. John XXIII was elected pope in 1958 and his robust frame contrasted sharply with the ascetic appearance of his predecessor, Pius XII. John loved good food, smoking, and had a wicked sense of humour. He was also a remarkable, gifted man who had the common touch and a deep love of his fellow creatures. Before meeting Jacqueline Kennedy, above, at the Vatican, he asked his aide how he should address the First Lady. He was told to call her Mrs. Kennedy or Madame. He repeated both over and over, trying to get the one that seemed most natural. When the doors were flung open and she was formally announced, the pontiff opened up his arms, and in a spontaneous and welcoming greeting that came from the heart though breached all official protocol, exclaimed “Jacqueline!”.
During the worse moments of the Crisis, he issued a public appeal, writing a letter and giving a radio address in his faultless French, which may be found here. Because he urged compromise in the cause of peace for humanity, it enabled the Soviet leader to back down with grace. The Romans well understood the absolute necessity to offer defeated enemies a means of saving face, and John XXIII engineered this to happen. The Pope had informal but direct contacts with both leaders, and his role was acknowledged by all the players. The import of this is enormous. What is striking is that John XXIII had received news that he was terminally ill just before the crisis took place, a revelation that did not diminish his concern for the planet he was to leave within a matter of months.
Another unlikely hero, and one who was a witness of the passage of the Atomic Age from potential to fear is Robert Oppenheimer, largely responsible for the creation of atomic weapons. When the first successful atomic bomb was tested, Oppenheimer’s reaction was poetic and prescient:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
I would urge you to take one minute to watch this brilliant, gentle man say these words in 1965, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and utter them with tears in his eyes, here. Oppenheimer had been publicly blacklisted by the anti-Communism committees of the 1950s under the odious Senator McCarthy who, while a Republican politician, was heavily bankrolled by the Kennedy family. It was finally proved from Soviet documentary evidence in 2009, that not only had Oppenheimer not been a security risk, but that he had consistently refused Soviet approaches to recruit him and he had also, without fuss or ostentation, removed any personnel from the atomic project who had any Communist leanings. He had been denounced by a jealous colleague. Great individuals are often felled by little ones, but their greatness remains impervious to the stain of pettiness and envy. While the sad affair of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the worst crevices of our dark nature, the acts of the two men above, a cleric and a commander, also demand that we never lose hope.
Today’s cufflinks evoke a hopeful period during the Atomic Age and evoke the atom itself. They are crafted by one of the greatest Mexican artists, Sigi Pineda, in 1955 and carry his cheerful and distinct maker’s mark of “Sigi”. Pineda used a purer grade of silver than sterling, 970 or 97% pure silver, which gives a different oxidization and patina over time with a slightly yellowish hue. These cufflinks are large (1.5″ from face bottom to face top) and quirky, evoking the Atomic Age theme of the 1950s yet off-kilter in their symmetry and count among the designer’s best work. Pineda’s piece of jewellery does not capture any sense of impeding world danger nor of the car accident which would end his designing career for several decades and, in this, there is a touching innocence to be found in them, with the benefit of hindsight.