Save the world -- and win an iPad!

For decades, U.S. presidents and their advisers have been drawing the wrong lessons from the Cuban missile crisis. On the fiftieth anniversary of the thirteen days that brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction, Foreign Policy and the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center are offering you the chance to outshine some of our most brilliant statesmen. Come up with an original, persuasive lesson from the crisis -- and you could win a brand new iPad.

To ensure a level playing field, the competition will be divided into separate categories for middle and high school students, scholar-practitioners, and the general public. Contributions are limited to 300 words, in response to the question: "What can statesmen learn from the most dangerous confrontation in human history to better address challenges of war and peace today?" Full details of the contest are available here

The Cuban missile crisis is the most studied conflict of the Cold War, providing the raw material for countless books, Ph.D. theses, university seminars, and even movies, such as Thirteen Days and Doctor Strangelove. Scholars and policy-makers have scoured the historical evidence for insights into everything from the role of personality in politics to the theory of game play.   

John F. Kennedy's skill in persuading Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba without plunging the world into nuclear war was widely hailed as a masterful display of presidential power. But success breeds hubris. In seeking to replicate JFK's diplomatic triumph, future presidents frequently ended up in deep trouble. There is a good argument to be made that the drawing of erroneous parallels from the Cuban missile crisis contributed to two of our greatest national disasters, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

Encouraged by their success in defusing the missile crisis, the foreign policy advisers known as the "best and the brightest" thought they could use a similar strategy of "controlled escalation" and "flexible response" against the North Vietnamese communists. Ho Chi Minh and his followers were unimpressed, and matched the Americans escalation for escalation, dragging the United States ever deeper into an unwinnable war.

George W. Bush drew an equally erroneous lesson from the missile crisis when he cited Kennedy's refusal to accept Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba as justification for his new doctrine of strategic pre-emption in Iraq. A few months before the invasion, the president evoked the memory of his Cold War predecessor in arguing that "we cannot wait for the final proof-the smoking gun-that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Former Kennedy aides such as Ted Sorensen immediately cried foul, pointing out that JFK went out of his way to avoid the use of force in October 1962.

For a helpful archive of these and other missile crisis lessons by presidents, policy-makers, and scholars, see the Cuban missile crisis website put together by the Kennedy School's Belfer Center. I have pulled together some of my own lessons from the Cuban missile crisis in a study for the U.S. Institute of Peace, based on my book, One Minute to Midnight. A sampling:

  • The first rough drafts of history are almost always unreliable.
  • Presidential decision-making-under any administration is a lot more chaotic than the memoir writers would have you believe.
  • The view from the Oval Office can be very limited.
  • Remember the "irrational actors".
  • Containment worked.
  • Character counts.

I will be one of the judges for the competition organized by Foreign Policy and the Belfer Center. Remember, we are not looking for regurgitations of other people's lessons.  We are looking for your own original thoughts-as applied to a world that has changed a great deal in the last fifty years. Back then, it took 10-12 hours to transmit a message from Washington to Moscow. Win an iPad, and you will be able to communicate with our former Cold War enemies virtually instaneously!

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