At 7 PM Eastern Daylight Time, the nightly news broadcasts on CBS, NBC, and ABC started. Two of the ‘Big Three’ anchors were broadcasting live from Europe. Tom Brokaw was in London, and Peter Jennings was in Brussels. Dan Rather remained at the CBS studios in New York City much to his chagrin. He wanted to be in Europe as well, but the network brass ruled it out entirely. Rather’s personal safety was the main reason for the decision. The CBS anchor was grateful for the concern, but nevertheless understandably frustrated.
The news broadcasts were entirely dedicated to coverage of the worsening global situation. By this point it was painfully clear the chances of a peaceful end to the crisis were diminishing with every passing hour. Storm clouds were moving in and the reality of the moment was starting to be reluctantly accepted by millions of people in the United States and around the world. Video taken by an NBC cameraman of US transport aircraft arriving at an ‘undisclosed airbase’ in Western Europe was shown at length on that network’s news. It prompted an immediate phone call from the White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker to NBC executives at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Baker complained that even though the location of the filming was undisclosed, it would not be hard for a knowledgeable Soviet military or KGB officer to figure it out. NBC did not run the clip again until months after the war came to an end.
As the broadcasts went on, millions of Americans were tuning in. 1987 was a different time. Cable news was still in its infancy, although CNN would be coming into its own in a matter of days. The internet was still mainly a government and academic instrument back then. Prodigy and CompuServe were the main online service providers and social media wasn’t even an embryo in technology’s womb yet. The majority of Americans in 1987 received their news from television news programs, radio, and newspapers.
At that hour, as millions of people were glued to the news, millions of others were embarked on other paths either by choice, or by necessity. In a number of cases it was a combination of the two. It was after 4 PM on the west coast, and even earlier in Alaska, and Hawaii. In these areas the work day was not yet over. In spite of the global tension, daily life went on in America. People worked, paid bills, ran errands, and attempted to cling to a sense of normalcy for as long as possible.
Fear of nuclear war motivated some to take action. In the larger cities and their surrounding communities, a small number of people and families had already fled to more rural areas. These self-imposed evacuations were generally presented to neighbors and friends as summer vacations that had been planned long before the first hints of crisis even broke. In some cases the explanation was probably true given the time of year. In others, a summer vacation simply made for a convenient cover story. Other people dithered, wondering if the situation was dire enough to justify packing up themselves and their families and heading to rural areas far away from the big cities, which in their minds were the main targets for Soviet ICBMs.
Jim Goldberg was a 32 year old corporate attorney with a wife and two children, ages 6 and 9. He, and his family lived in Summit, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. He commuted to Manhattan every day, and as tensions rose through the first week of July, 1987, Goldberg began thinking about moving his family away from the New York metropolitan area. Manhattan, he reasoned, would be vaporized if a US-Soviet conflict went nuclear. His wife was on the same page and as the crisis worsened, she informed her husband that her parents in northern Maine invited to come up there until things settled down. Preparations were made and by the evening of 8 July everything was set. They would leave the next morning for her parents’ retirement home in Caribou, Maine, just west of the US-Canada border.
After packing up the car in the early evening Jim visited his neighbor Mike Thurmond. He explained that he and his family were leaving early in the morning, gave Thurmond a set of spare house keys and asked him to keep an eye on the house while they were away. Thurmond, a first officer with United, accepted the responsibility. He also understood why the Goldbergs were leaving and couldn’t fault Jim for doing what he felt was best for his family.
“So, can you at least tell me where you’re headed?” Thurmond asked.
“Caribou Maine,” Jim replied, and his neighbor couldn’t help but laugh.
“Tell me that’s a joke,” Thurmond asked softly. As it became apparent that Caribou was the intended destination, Thurmond gently placed a hand on his neighbor’s shoulder. “Buddy, that’s the worst possible place to be if the missiles start to fly. Do you know what Caribou is next to?”
“No,” Jim answered truthfully.
“Loring Air Force Base. It’s a SAC base and home to a wing of B-52s. It’s one of the first targets the Russians will hit, along with every other SAC base and missile silo in the country. Loring will go way before New York. You might want to think twice about taking your family up there.”
Goldberg did just that. He returned home and told his wife about the conversation with their neighbor. But in the end, the two decided to head north anyhow. If nuclear war did come, no place would be safe for very long. What was more important, they both reasoned, was to be with their children and surrounded by family at the end.
Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings were unaware that the first shots of World War III had been fired less than five minutes into their respective broadcasts. As the news programs ended at 7:30 PM on the east coast, it was 1:30 AM in Western Europe. Within twenty minutes all three anchors would be back on the air as the first fragments of news reports from Brussels and West Germany made their way into the media.