Graham Allison: At 50, the Cuban Missile Crisis as Guide

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Graham Allison is director and professor of government at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This is a condensed version of an article that will appear in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.

Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. Such a conflict might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians....

Every president since Kennedy has tried to learn from what happened in that confrontation. Ironically, half a century later, with the Soviet Union itself only a distant memory, the lessons of the crisis for current policy have never been greater.

Today, it can help U.S. policy makers understand what to do — and what not to do — about a range of foreign policy dilemmas, particularly the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program....

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