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The Cuba crisis and the illusion of control

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(Read caption) US President John F. Kennedy (r.) met with Soviet Deputy Premier Anas tas Nikoyan (fa r left) at the white house on Nov. 29, 1962, one month after the cuban missile crisis.

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History is like archaeology. What humans live through in the present – economic struggles, political contests, national crises – drifts to the ground and slowly gets buried under the strata of more recent events. Then one day we excavate and wonder: What were our predecessors thinking?

When Graham Allison reviews October 1962 with people under the age of 50, their usual reaction is dropped-jaw amazement. How, they ask, could leaders have felt so boxed in that they seriously entertained the idea of nuclear war?

“It just seems incredible to people who didn’t live through those times,” says Dr. Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “They can’t believe that there was a real chance of a war that would leave hundreds of millions of people dead.”

The Cuban missile crisis, which unfolded 50 years ago this week, was the closest the human race has come to nuclear holocaust. It is often explained as an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. (A good place to explore the crisis is at www.cubanmissilecrisis.org or in Allison’s book “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.”) To Allison, who has spent a career examining strategic decisionmaking, the crisis was a turning point in understanding that even the sharpest minds and best teams of advisers are prone to misperception and miscalculation. 

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