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Panelists Compare Cuban Missile Crisis to Present-Day Conflict With Iran

By Steven S. Lee, Contributing Writer

Harvard professors drew on lessons from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, comparing that controversy with the current Iranian nuclear armament program in a panel discussion at the Institute of Politics Friday.

Panelists argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis could serve to guide policymakers’ thinking in handling relations with Iran today, pointing to the decision-making of President John F. Kennedy ’40 as an example of strong leadership.

During the 13-day confrontation with the Soviet Union over its placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, Kennedy, who was also a Crimson editor, refrained from attacking the island; panelists argued that this decision was a watershed moment that current world leaders should study with respect to Iran’s nuclear enrichment programs.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Graham T. Allison ’62, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, read aloud from a transcript of a private meeting at the White House that indicate that various advisers urged Kennedy to order a military strike on Cuba. “Had that choice been made 50 years ago,” Allison said, “we would not likely be here today.”

In the panel, Allison noted because the media was unaware of the crisis until Kennedy announced the situation to the country, Kennedy was able to make his decision without the distraction of other interests.

“The main lesson from Kennedy’s point of view [was that] nuclear powers must avert confrontations that bring an adversary to a binary choice between humiliating retreat and war,” Allison said.

Panelist R. Nicholas Burns, a professor at the Kennedy School, focused on the comparison between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

“I think that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu need to answer the same question that President Kennedy had to answer,” Burns said. “What are we trying to achieve? Are we trying to achieve a total victory over our adversaries or are we trying to achieve a situation where we stop short of war and both sides can walk away with their pride intact and believing that some kind of compromise has been made that allows them to have a peaceful resolution?”

In an interview with The Crimson Burns said, “We’ve got to have an individual occupying the presidency who’s not just smart and successful and a good politician but who has good judgment and a keen understanding of history and an ability to have intellectual courage.”

Absent from the panel was the highly-anticipated Sergei N. Khrushchev, a professor at Brown University and the son of Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy’s Soviet Union counterpart during the crisis. Khruschev was slated to speak at the panel but was unable to attend due to airport delays.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy SchoolGovernment