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For 13 agonizing days a half century ago, nuclear Armageddon was only minutes away. American warships and Soviet submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes played out a tense high-seas standoff.

American spy planes had spotted Soviet missiles – capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads and only a few minutes flight time from incinerating U.S. cities – being deployed in Cuba.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had rashly ordered the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of the Communist-controlled Caribbean island a year earlier – made a dramatic televised address: putting the United States on a war footing, announcing a blockade of Cuba and...

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