OGDEN -- Fifty-one years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was six days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, conferring with a general who could not guarantee a military air strike would destroy all the missiles the Soviet Union had secretly hidden on Cuba, which is only 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Two days later, Kennedy would sign a proclamation ordering a naval blockade of the island nation.
It was a lucky decision, because U.S. intelligence was unaware that the hundred or so missiles were nuclear, with each, on average, having half the power of the 1945 bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
"If the United States had invaded, it would have been nuked on the battlefield," said Eric G. Swedin, author and Weber State University history associate professor, one of four experts interviewed for "What If ... Armageddon 1962," which debuts Tuesday night on the Military Channel.
"America would have reacted with alarm and horror, and would have nuked the island, and it would have led to a general exchange of nuclear weapons, which would have been a catastrophe."
Top military advisers urged Kennedy to respond with firepower to the secret missile buildup, discovered and documented in photos. Instead, the president chose the blockade, which struck a balance between aggressive and passive. Kennedy also chose to ignore several incidents that could have sparked war.
"(Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev's first letter was very belligerent," Swedin said. "His second letter was conciliatory, so Kennedy decided to ignore letter one. There was a plane shot down, and a pilot killed over Cuba. Kennedy chose to ignore it. There were multiple incidents where the Soviet Union and the U.S. almost came to blows."
But what if an earlier assassination attempt had succeeded in killing Kennedy?
"(Vice President Lyndon B.) Johnson in charge would have been a disaster," Swedin said. "Johnson was strongly influenced to follow military advice, and the advice of the military at that time was wrong. For JFK, it was his shining moment."
And what if nuclear weapons had been launched by both sides?
"There would have been significant damage to the environment and the ozone," said Swedin, whose other areas of expertise include business and computer science. "Because of the number of Soviet bombs, we would have lost about 10 percent of our population, and the Soviet Union, and Europe and Asia, would have lost about 70 percent of theirs from our bombs.
"I don't think we would have had a man on the moon yet. Computers would not be as developed yet. There might be an attitude toward the United States that we destroyed our world, which would have been pretty accurate. Hundreds of millions would be dead, and it would take more than a century to recover."
Swedin said a result of the turn history did take was the Soviet Union's heavy investment in nuclear weaponry.
"They were not going to be caught weak again," he said. "It bankrupted them. It caused their collapse 30 years later. If the crisis had happened only five years later, the exchange would have been catastrophic, there were so many more weapons by then."
Other experts tapped to appear in "What If ... Armageddon 1962" are:
* Jeff Greenfield, political journalist and author of "Then Everything Changed" and the upcoming "If Kennedy Lived."
* John Gresham, a well-known commentator on military history, and coauthor of "DEFCON-2," a history of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
* Timothy Naftali, an expert on counterterrorism and the Cold War, and co-author of two books on the Cuban Missile Crisis and Nikita Khrushchev.
The program debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Comcast channel 274, and it repeats at 11 p.m. Its additional screenings have not yet been announced.
For Swedin (www.swedin.org), whose 11 books cover both science fiction and in-depth historical topics, "what if" is a natural question, and alternate time lines are an exciting intellectual concept. His 2010 history-based novel, "When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis" (Potomac Books Inc.), won him a 2011 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
"It's written as if it's a history book from an alternate time line," Swedin said. "I'm trained as a historian and also as a science fiction writer, and it was interesting for me to combine the two. And I've always been fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the biggest potential event in history for human destruction. Everything worked out for the U.S., and I've always been fascinated by that."
People old enough to remember the so-called "13 days in October" recall holding their breath, waiting to see if the world was about to end, Swedin said. People born later tend to assume what did happen was the situation's only possible outcome, he said.
"We have a tendency to say that what happened must have been inevitable, but a lot of other possibilities existed," Swedin said. "Historians often forget that for people of the time, they didn't know how it was going to turn out. For them, there were a lot of real possibilities. If the job of historians is to get into the minds of the people of the past, we've got to remember what it was like at the time."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.