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Lessons on Nuclear Security from the French memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis

30 June 2014

Last week Dr. Benoît Pelopidas led a presentation at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, in relation to the Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.

Last week Dr. Benoît Pelopidas, lecturer in International Relations at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), led a presentation at the Wilson Centerin Washington DC, in relation to the Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project. He analysed the contemporary memory of the Cuban missile crisis in France in light of the growing consensus that the absence of use of nuclear weapons during the crisis is due to luck or good fortune. Dr. Pelopidas identified three types of evidence supporting the case for luck: the lack of false information given to decision-makers, the limits of safety of the weapons involved, and the limits of presidential control over the weapons during the crisis. He argued that the French memory of the crisis is at odds with this consensus and does not lead to policy recommendations in line with it.

Using archival research, oral history interviews, and under exploited French publications, Pelopidas argued that the disconnect between recent scholarship and French memory of the events is based on three main factors: a very specific and to-date undocumented experience of the crisis in France, a possible distortion of De Gaulle’s words during and after the crisis, and very limited engagement with this scholarship by scholars writing in French.

If one accepts that the crisis is one of a few moments when the world stood on the precipice of nuclear war, understanding the outcome as a victory of skilful coercive diplomacy or an underestimation of nuclear risk rather than the product of chance might lead to overconfidence in nuclear safety and security in France. Beyond the crisis itself, Dr. Pelopidas’ analysis offered lessons to better understand how readings of and lessons learned from critical events in the nuclear age can create retrospective illusions of nuclear safety and security.


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