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Monday, June 27, 2022

Eyeball to eyeball, the meaning and the myth

“We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

Written by Amitabh Ranjan |
April 18, 2016 4:17:41 pm
confrontation-759 “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.” Thinkstock Images

Last month, almost 10 months before his presidency comes to an end, President Barack Obama broke new grounds in diplomacy. Flying to Havana, ending 88 years of foreign relations apartheid vis-a-vis Cuba, he tried to put the last nail in the Cold War coffin.

It was at the height of the 1962 Cuban crisis that eyeball to eyeball, no newcomer to the English lexicon, became an iconic expression of the Cold War.

Attributed to the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, it refers to those moments on October 24, 1962 when the world came dangerously close to a nuclear showdown between the two superpowers – the US and the USSR.


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That day, American destroyers and Soviet ships carrying nuclear missiles to Cuba almost came to a confrontation. At the eleventh hour, however, the lead Soviet ship, the Kimovsk, turned away from the blockade line set up by the Americans, thereby avoiding a war. It was then that Rusk, by his own account, made the most memorable statement of the crisis to National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy: “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

A largely accepted position among military historians, however, is that the Kimovsk was at least 750 miles away from the blockade line already heading back to its home port at the time of the supposed ‘eyeball to eyeball’ incident.

An expression often used to imply foreign relations brinkmanship, a faceoff, eyeball to eyeball received an all new currency during the Cuban crisis and subsequently.

Let’s check out a couple of interesting similar sounding expressions. To give someone the hairy eyeball means to stare at someone in a disapproving or an angry way like, “Instead of giving me a friendly look, my new neighbour gave me a hairy eyeball.

Up to the (or one’s) eyeballs means an extreme degree of an undesirable situation. For example, “He is up to his eyeballs in debt.”

Highball, an interesting homophone, is a drink consisting of a spirit, especially whisky, and a mixer such as soda, served with ice in a tall glass. It also means to travel fast, as in: “They hit the highway and highballed to the mountains.”

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