10/30/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2012

My Family's Missile Crisis

Fifty years ago this week, I was a high school freshman in Washington, D.C., playing on the basketball team, rehearsing for the school play and dreaming about having my first girlfriend. That same week, my father was working especially late at the office, and being very tight-lipped about what was going on at work during October 1962.

Two years earlier, my dad, Roger Hilsman, had been appointed by President Kennedy to be Director of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. Most of his work consisted in supervising research analysts in drafting policy papers -- pretty boring stuff in the eyes of his 14-year-old son. However, I was impressed when, shortly after his appointment, several men in white coveralls installed a secure White House phone in my parent's bedroom. We children were warned, in the sternest of tones, never to touch that phone.

On the evening of October 15, 1962, my dad got a call on the secure phone from the Deputy Director of the CIA. The subject was the U-2 photos of nuclear missiles in western Cuba. Over the next week, the Cuban Missile Crisis not only plunged the world into turmoil, it also had a profound impact on me and my family. While my dad always worked long hours, during that week he seemed never to be home.

As the week progressed, rumors began to appear in the press about a crisis brewing. In one of the few conversations I had with my dad that week, I remember asking him while he was shaving what was going on. Of course, he wouldn't answer as I rattled off a series of possible hot spots -- Berlin? India? Israel? Only when I suggested Cuba did he pause for a moment, though certainly not long enough to let the secret slip out.

For the rest of that long and anxious week, as the extent of the missile crisis became public, I was swept up with a mixture of fear and pride -- fear that nuclear war was imminent and pride that my father was somehow part of this unfolding drama. There was near panic among my classmates as they feared that that their young lives -- and perhaps the whole world -- could come to an abrupt and violent end. I vividly remember our history teacher leading us in a prayer for peace on the eve of President Kennedy's speech announcing the quarantine of Soviet vessels. And I sat riveted to the television watching UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronting the Soviet ambassador. What I did not know at the time was that my father was sitting nearby, having delivered the U-2 photos to Stevenson.

For me, my family and the rest of America, much changed over that week in October. As a nation and a world, we had stared down the barrel of nuclear destruction. It was real and tangible. Schoolchildren were led into bomb shelters with the expectation that nuclear war was imminent. Everyone in America -- even young people -- understood that the human race had come closer to annihilation than ever before in history.

The aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of relief, but also of the loss of innocence. We could no longer trumpet war as a solution to political conflicts or as a vehicle of simple revenge. In a nuclear war, there would be no victors, only victims. We realized how vulnerable we were to the decisions of not only our own leaders, but the leaders of our adversaries. And we understood how fragile and precious was peace.

In the 50 years since that week in October, there has been some progress towards peaceful solutions to human conflict, despite the tragic wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the scores of other bloody civil conflicts around the world. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, human beings everywhere have understood that another global conflict would likely lead to destruction on a scale that humankind has never before witnessed.

There has been modest progress in the control of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Most nuclear states have signed international treaties, and there have been efforts to slow nuclear proliferation. Still, there are many nations who either possess or are actively developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that countries like Iran must be prevented from developing nuclear weapons, and nuclear nations like Pakistan must do more to make sure those weapons are secure.

However, it seems clear that 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, we are not much closer to banishing the threat of nuclear war. This means that our highest priority must not simply be on preventing the use of nuclear weapons, but rather on the active, vigilant and ruthless pursuit of peace. Peace will not simply settle gently and magically over our planet. It will only come through the grinding, frustrating and persistent pursuit of peace as the ultimate goal.

For each of us that means holding our leaders -- and the leaders of the rest of the world -- accountable for the pursuit of peace. It means making peace a priority in our everyday lives and in the faith and values that each of us holds dear. It does not mean weakness in the face of aggression or threats. But it does mean looking always to the better angels in our nature to find solutions to the challenges of human conflict. Fifty years after that terrifying week in October, 1962, we must never lose sight of those angels.