Signature Lecture: "Empathy or Death: Applying the Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 21st Century"

Thursday, October 25, 2012 7:00 PM
  • Philip Brenner
  • Kingston Reif

Fifty years ago, the world as we know it came within a hair’s breadth of being destroyed. In the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, all the pieces were in place for the initiation of a catastrophic nuclear war. Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev had secretly deployed strategic nuclear weapons to his new ally, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, whom the U.S., led by President John F. Kennedy, was threatening to attack and invade. On October 22, Kennedy addressed the nation and the world on radio and television. He announced that the Soviet missiles in Cuba had to be removed by the Soviets, or the U.S. would remove them in a military strike. Cuba was suddenly the hinge of the world—a world poised on the precipice of the nuclear abyss. 

How did this happen? How did three leaders, none of whom was suicidal, arrive at such a moment of maximum peril? How did they inadvertently weave a tangled web of misunderstandings, missed signals and misperceptions creating a temple of nuclear doom in the Caribbean? And what are the lessons we can learn from history’s closest brush with Armageddon? 

These questions will be addressed by Prof. Philip Brenner of American University in Washington, DC. Prof. Brenner is widely regarded as North America’s foremost authority on Cuban foreign policy and the history of U.S.-Cuban-Russian relations. He has led a multinational effort to, as he has written, “put Cuba back into the heart of the Cuban missile crisis.” He will argue that the crisis originated, evolved and became supremely dangerous because the three leaders and their respective governments lacked empathy with one another—lacked the ability to put themselves into one another’s shoes. In particular, neither of the superpowers understood the mindset of tiny Cuba—neither its Soviet ally nor its American adversary. Prof. Brenner will draw lessons from the crisis and apply them to some of today’s most dangerous confrontations: between the West and Iran; Israel and Iran; North Korea and South Korea; and Pakistan and India, all of which have the potential for going nuclear if war breaks out.

Philip Brenner is professor of international relations and history at American University, Washington, DC. He is the co-editor of the landmark book, A Contemporary Cuba Reader: Reinventing the Revolution (2008), and the co-author of Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle With the Superpowers After the Missile Crisis. He has been working on, and in, Cuba for nearly forty years and is the preeminent American scholar of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. He is also a member of the Boards of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and many other scholarly and policy-oriented organizations.

Commentator: Kingston Reif is the director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation in Washington, DC. His work at the center has focused on: (1) strategies for reversing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, (2) preventing nuclear terrorism, and (3) the legislative process connected to these issues. He has published widely on issues of nuclear non-proliferation in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Survival and many other print and web publications. He blogs at He is a graduate of Brown University, the London School of Economics and the University of St. Andrews.

Introduction: James G. Blight, CIGI Chair in Foreign Policy Development, BSIA and Department of History, University of Waterloo

Moderator: janet M. Lang, Research Professor, BSIA and Department of History, University of Waterloo

W5/CTV will air a special on the Cuban missile crisis. At a meeting in March at CTV’s HQ in Scarborough, James Blight, janet Lang, Koji Masutani, agreed to work with the W5 team, including on-air W5 host Lloyd Robertson, to produce a program that is historically accurate but also innovative and engaging to an audience composed largely of people with no memory of the crisis, and in fact may never have heard of it. The half-hour show, hosted by Lloyd Robertson, will air from 7:00 PM-7:30 PM on either October 20th or October 27th.The work of Jim Blight and janet Lang will be featured in a new PBS documentary, The Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Who Went to War. The hour long documentary will air on October 23rd, from 8 PM-9 PM, on WNED Buffalo/Toronto.

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