While suitably impressive as a whole, the most stirring element of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum's immensely detailed and immersive "Clouds Over Cuba" interactive presentation is the slice of "alternate history" that shows what might have happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis hadn't been peacefully resolved 50 years ago this month.
The material created by The Martin Agency and Tool of North America goes into great depth about the construction of Russian missile bases in Cuba and the tense October 1962 standoff between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that brought the superpowers perilously close to nuclear conflict. (The approach is similar to a the library's effort three years ago to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing, but this work is possibly more comprehensive, and given the subject matter, a lot more harrowing.) The centerpiece is a documentary narrated by Matthew Modine, which is supported by an array of audio, video, memoranda and assorted other data designed to provide an in-depth, panoramic understanding of global events that drove the conflict and the motivations and thought processes of the players involved. The sheer volume of information to sift through provides an extra level of insight into the complexity of events that unfolded as both sides struggled to make decisions they knew might change the course of human history forever. Users can get a taste for that incredibly charged atmosphere—pressure mounting at the White House and Kremlin as nerves got increasingly frayed—in real time (more or less) by choosing to follow the 13 most important days of the crisis "live" on their 50th anniversary dates.
At first, I viewed the "alternate history" piece—a 10-minute film detailing what might have happened had World War III not been averted—as a quirky gimmick. But ultimately it's the emotional core of the entire campaign and its inclusion is nothing short of inspired. The narrative is sober, solemn and understated, without overblown Hollywood special effects. (There are no fiery scenes of mass destruction or garish makeup for the small cast.) This exercise in restraint makes it all the more powerful and chilling. In the alternate timeline, civilization hasn't exactly been destroyed—the overall impact of the war is left to the viewer's imagination—though nuclear strikes by the U.S. and Russia have left portions of both nations in ruins. (For me, the highlight is the rotting hulk of a beached warship, its rusted guns pointing harmlessly at the sky.) The story is told in a series of documentary-style interviews with characters including a middle-aged guy who was a kid when nukes rained down on New Orleans—"Everybody we knew was gone," he says, surveying the rubble of his childhood home—and the Russian pilot who dropped the bombs and who relates, simply, "I felt very sorry about this," with haunting believability. Kennedy's decision to launch rockets is relived by an ICBM analyst who was forever scarred by the events he witnessed in the presidential bunker.
The "What If?" scenario brings the gravity of the crisis into sharp focus and helps define the at-times overwhelming collection of facts and figures in starkly human terms. It reminds us to learn the lessons of history well, because sometimes the alternatives are almost too terrible to contemplate.