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The unbearable lightness of luck: Three sources of overconfidence in the manageability of nuclear crises

  • Benoît Pelopidas (a1)

Overconfidence in the controllability of nuclear weapons creates danger. The passing of the last elite witness of the most dangerous nuclear crisis, that is, the ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, and the current Trump administration only make this more salient. In this context, this article reviews the scholarly literature about the limits of predictability and controllability of nuclear crises and investigates three failures of learning from them. Given that France displays in particularly acute form some of the sources of overconfidence in the controllability of nuclear crises that can been found in other nuclear armed states, this article offers the first study of the French experience and evolving interpretation of the Cuban missile crisis in comparative perspective, based on untapped primary material. In security studies, this article makes three contributions. First, the publication and interpretation of primary sources is a contribution in itself given the frequent misconceptions about nuclear dynamics due to theory-driven extrapolations. Second, it challenges a widespread assumption of automaticity linking a fear-induced deterrent effect and the presence of nuclear weapons. Third, empirically, this article studies part of a regime of valuation of nuclear weapons. It finally outlines a research agenda to take luck seriously in security studies.

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Correspondence to: Benoît Pelopidas, Junior Chair of Excellence in Security Studies, CERI / Sciences Po, 56 rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, France. Sciences Po is a member of USPC. Author’s email:

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1 Ten former nuclear launch officers wrote an open letter to The Washington Post prior to the election explaining that: ‘The pressures the system places on that one person are staggering and require enormous composure, judgment, restraint and diplomatic skill. Donald Trump does not have these leadership qualities.’ Available at: {} accessed 26 November 2016; Bruce Blair, ‘Trump and the nuclear keys’, New York Times (12 October 2016), available at: {}.

2 KristensenHans and NorrisRobert, ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis: a nuclear order of battle, October and November 1962’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 68:6 (2012), p. 2 , MuntonDon, ‘Hits and myths: the essence, the puzzles and the Missile Crisis’, International Relations, 26:3 (2012), p. 305 ; HaineJean-Yves, Les Etats-Unis ont-ils besoin d’alliés? (Paris: Payot, 2004), p. 203 ; HershbergJames, ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis’, in Melvyn Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume II: Crises and Détente (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 65 . Paul Nitze considered the Berlin crisis as even more dangerous and Ray S. Cline is one of those in the US who maintains that the danger of the Cuban missile crisis was overestimated and, overall, quite minimal. Both of those judgements were formulated before the key discoveries of the 1990s reviewed in Section 1. ClineRay S., ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis’, Foreign Affairs, 68:4 (1989). Thanks to Leopoldo Nuti for directing me to this article.

3 KhongYuen Foong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992); NeustadtRichard and MayErnest R., Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1988); JervisRobert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), ch. 6 .

4 Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, ch. 6.

5 JohnsonDominic links overconfidence to the breakout of war in Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). In the realm of computer safety, Donald McKenzie showed that: ‘The safer a system is believed to be, the more catastrophic the accidents to which it is subject.’ McKenzieDonald, ‘Computer-related accidental death: an empirical exploration’, Science and Public Policy, 24:1 (1994), p. 246 . This notion has been applied to nuclear weapons by SchlosserEric in Command and Control (New York: Allen Lane, 2013), p. 313 .

6 KnopfJeffrey W., ‘The concept of nuclear learning’, Nonproliferation Review, 19:1 (2012), p. 81 and ‘The importance of international learning’, Review of International Studies, 29:2 (2003).

7 Pioneering work here would include LebowRichard Ned, Nuclear Crisis Management: A Dangerous Illusion (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

8 KahnemanDaniel describes how heuristic biases lead us to overconfidence as denial of the role of luck in Thinking Fast and Slow (New York: Penguin, 2011), part III .

9 On the responsibility of scholars focusing on nuclear weapons issues, see PelopidasBenoît, ‘Nuclear weapons scholarship as a case of self-censorship in security studies’, Journal of Global Security Studies, 1:4 (2016), pp. 326336 .

10 KapurS. Paul, ‘Revisionist ambitions, conventional capabilities and nuclear instability: Why nuclear South Asia is not like Cold War Europe’, in Scott Sagan (ed.), Inside Nuclear South Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 202 , quoting Russell Leng in part.

11 Richard Rhodes, ‘Absolute power’, New York Times Sunday Book Review (21 March 2014).

12 HeuserBeatrice, Nuclear Mentalities? Strategies and Beliefs in Britain, France and the FRG (London: Palgrave, 1998), p. 75 .

13 Jean-Yves Simon-Michel, statement at the Main Committee I, 2015 NPT Review conference, available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016, pp. 3–4.

14 This literature is too abundant to quote here. James Hershberg distinguishes three waves in the scholarship on the Crisis and sees the emergence of a body of work trying to analyse it as a global event. The first wave focused on the US and a second one including a Soviet and Cuban perspective. Christian Ostermann and James Hershberg (eds), ‘The global Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: New evidence from behind the Iron, Bamboo, and Sugarcane Curtains, and beyond’, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 17/18 (2012), p. 7. One of the efforts from the ‘third wave’ is Keller’sRenataLatin American Cuban Missile Crisis’, Diplomatic History, 39:2 (2015). However, publications around the 50th anniversary of the Crisis show that the ‘first wave’ remains hegemonic. SternSheldon, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths and Realities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); ColemanDavid, The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012); and GibsonDavid, Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). Exceptions and early calls for going beyond the first two waves are WeldesJutta and LaffeyMark, ‘Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis’, International Studies Quarterly, 52:3 (2008).

15 Publications in French not taken into account by the existing scholarship on the Crisis in English include: Alain Joxe, ‘La crise de Cuba: entraînement contrôlé vers la dissuasion réciproque’, Stratégie, 1 (summer 1964); JoxeAlain, Socialisme et crise nucléaire (Paris: L’Herne, 1973); DelmasClaude, Cuba: De la révolution à la crise des fusées (Brussels: Complexe, 2006 [orig. pub. 1982]), pp. 119164 ; RobinGabriel, La crise de Cuba: Du mythe à l’histoire (Paris: IFRI/Economica, 1984); SemideiManuela, Kennedy et la révolution cubaine: Un apprentissage politique? (Paris: Julliard, 1972); TouzeVincent, Missiles et décisions: Kennedy, Khrouchtchev et Castro et la crise de Cuba d’octobre 1962 (Paris: André Versailles, 2012); VaïsseMaurice (ed.), L’Europe et la crise des missiles de Cuba (Paris: Armand Colin, 1993); VaïsseMaurice, ‘France et la crise de Cuba’, Histoire, Economie et Société, 13:1 (1994). In 2006, an entry on the Crisis in Claire Andrieu, BraudPhilippe and PikettyGuillaume (eds), Dictionnaire de Gaulle (Paris: Bouquins, 2006).

16 This is compatible with the fruitful agenda of memory studies, both in IR and international history. See FinneyPatrick, ‘The ubiquitous presence of the past? Collective memory and international history’, The International History Review, 36:3 (2014). For the connection between interpretations of the past and expectations of possible futures, see PelopidasBenoît, ‘The oracles of proliferation’, Nonproliferation Review, 18:1 (2011), pp. 300301, 308–9 and Pelopidas, ‘Nuclear weapons scholarship’.

17 On the former, see Vipin Narang, ‘The Use and Abuse of Large-n Methods in Nuclear Studies’, Forum H-Diplo/ISSF 2 (2014), available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016 and PelopidasBenoît, ‘Renunciation: Reversal and rollback’, in Joseph Pilat and Nathan Busch (eds), Routledge Handbook of Nuclear Proliferation and Policy (London: Routledge, 2015).

18 NarangVipin, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 3 ; DeudneyDaniel, Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 246 .

19 MartinSusan, ‘The continuing value of nuclear weapons: a structural realist analysis’, Contemporary Security Policy, 34:1 (2013), pp. 188 , 174.

20 LebovicJames, Deadly Dilemmas: Deterrence in US Nuclear Strategy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 193 .

21 Contemporary proponents of virtual nuclear deterrence include DrellSidney and JeanlozRaymond, ‘Nuclear deterrence in a world without deterrence’, in George Shultz, Sidney Drell, James Goodby (eds), Deterrence: Its Past and its Future (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2011). Pioneering works are MazarrMichael, ‘Virtual nuclear arsenals’, Survival, 37:3 (1995) and SchellJonathan, The Abolition (New York: Knopf, 1984).

22 RitchieNick, ‘Valuing and devaluing nuclear weapons’, Contemporary Security Policy, 34:1 (2013).

23 Ibid., p. 166.

24 WeartSpencer, The Rise of Nuclear Fear (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2012); SauerFrank, Atomic Anxiety: Deterrence, Taboo and the Non-Use of U.S. Nuclear Weapons (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).

25 ScottLen, ‘The only thing to look forward to’s the past’, in Len Scott and R. Gerald Hughes, The Cuban Missile Crisis: Critical Reappraisal (London: Routledge, 2015), p. 225 .

26 On the evening of 27 October 1962, Castro thought that a US invasion of Cuba was imminent. Therefore, he sent a cable to Khrushchev asking for a Soviet nuclear strike if the United States attacked Cuba. BlightJames G. and WelchDavid, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill & Wang, 1989), p. 109 ; GarthoffRaymond, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1989), p. 62 ; Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, with Anna Melyakova (eds), ‘New Evidence on Tactical Nuclear Weapons – 59 Days in Cuba’, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book (11 December 2013), available at: {} accessed 23 May 2016.

27 SaganScott, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 7980 .

28 Ibid., p. 116.

29 Ibid., p. 137.

30 Ibid., pp. 135–8.

31 DobbsMichael, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Knopf, 2008), pp. 303ff .

32 Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory.

33 Ibid., pp. 157, 163.

34 McDermottRose, ‘The politics of presidential medical care: the case of John F. Kennedy’, Politics and Life Sciences, 33:2 (2014), p. 85 and McDermottRose, Presidential Leadership, Illness and Decision Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 118156 . I am aware of the literature suggesting that Kennedy’s treatment did not affect his judgement; see GilbertRobert, The Mortal Presidency: Illness and Anguish in the White House (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998); ParkBert, Ailing, Aging, Addicted: Studies in Compromised Leadership (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993); and DallekRobert, John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917–1963 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003). However, these findings are contradicted by some of Kennedy’s own commentary and his brother’s (see McDermott, Presidential Leadership). Whether or not Kennedy’s judgement was actually impaired or not, the point remains that betting on the consistency of a man who relies on large quantities of medication with potential psychotropic side effects and on competing treatments by doctors who do not know what the other treatments are is a very risky bet. Dr Eugene Cohen, Kennedy’s long-term endocrinologist, warned JFK against the dubious practices of one of his doctors, Dr Jacobson, nicknamed Dr Feelgood, who would in 1975 be denied his authorisation to practice medicine, as early as November 1961. He wrote: ‘You cannot be permitted to receive therapy from irresponsible doctors like M.J. who by forms of stimulating injections offer some temporary help to neurotic or mentally ill individuals … this therapy conditions one’s needs almost like a narcotic, [and] is not for responsible individuals who at any split second may have to decide the fate of the universe.’ Quoted in Laurence Leamer, ‘A Kennedy historian assesses the Dallek disclosures’, Boston Globe (2 November 2002). Luckily, Dr Jacobson, who gave amphetamines to the president, stopped visiting the White House before the Cuban Missile Crisis, according to Rose McDermott and based on George Buckley record of the injections the President received in 1962–3. See McDermott, Presidential Leadership, p. 120.

35 Schlosser, Command and Control, p. 261, based on interviews with weapon designer Harold Agnew.

36 Ibid., p. 329.

37 SorrentiDeborah, L’Italia nella Guerra fredda: La storia dei missili Jupiter 1957–1963 (Roma: Edizioni Associate, 2003), pp. 63 , 79. For UK examples, see Schlosser, Command and Control, p. 262.

38 HollowayDavid, ‘Pathways to nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union in October 1962’, in Benoît Pelopidas (ed.), Global Nuclear Vulnerability: 1962 as the Inaugural Crisis? (book manuscript under review).

39 Scott, ‘The only thing to look forward to’s the past’, pp. 241–2.

40 FitzGeraldRéachbha, ‘Historians and the Cuban Missile Crisis: the evidence-interpretation relationship as seen through differing interpretations of the Crisis settlement’, Irish Studies in International Affairs, 18 (2007), p. 202 .

41 CampusLeonardo, I Sei Giorni che sconvolsero il mondo: La crisi dei missile di Cuba i le sue percezioni internazionali (Florence: Le Monnier, 2014), pp. 123140 . The book won the 2015 Fruili Storia award.

42 ScottLen and SmithSteve, ‘Lessons of October: Historians, political scientists, policy-makers and the Cuban Missile Crisis’, International Affairs, 70:4 (1994), p. 683 . At the end of the 1990s, while reviewing works published during this decade, Melvyn Leffler concluded similarly that they: ‘highlight contingency and inadvertence’. LafferMelvyn, ‘What do we “now know” ?’, The American History Review, 104:2 (1999), p. 501 .

43 AchesonDean, ‘Dean Acheson’s version of Robert Kennedy’s version of the Cuban missile affair’, Esquire (February 1969), p. 76 ; for McNamara, see Eroll Morris, The Fog of War (Columbia Tristar, 2003); for Leonov, see BlantonThomas S. and BlightJames G., ‘A conversation in Havana’, Arms Control Today, 32:9 (2002), p. 7 .

44 Sagan, The Limits of Safety, p. 154; also p. 155.

45 CraigCampbell, ‘Testing Organisation Man: the Cuban Missile Crisis and The Limits of Safety ’, International Relations, 26:3 (2012), p. 293 ; also Campbell Craig, ‘Reform or revolution: Scott Sagan’s Limits of Safety and its contemporary implications’, in Scott and Hughes, The Cuban Missile Crisis, p. 104.

46 On the difficulties of some of this scholarship to properly account for luck, see Benoît Pelopidas, ‘We all lost the Cuban Missile Crisis’, in Scott and Hughes, The Cuban Missile Crisis, pp. 173ff and ‘The book that leaves nothing to chance’, unpublished manuscript.

47 Patrick Porter’s excellent essay on ‘Taking uncertainty seriously’ shows good examples of this inconsistency between the theoretical acknowledgement of limits of knowledge of the future and planning practices which still assume the possibility of such knowledge. PorterPatrick, ‘Taking uncertainty seriously: Classical realism and national security’, European Journal of International Security, 1:2 (2016).

48 GaddisJohn Lewis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 269270 , emphasis added.

49 ClarkeLee, Worst Cases (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 41 .

50 Touze, Missiles et décisions, p. 631, my translation.

51 Ibid., p. 639, my translation. Like Gaddis, he ends up focusing on leaders only. In his case, Kennedy only (p. 639).

52 See, for example, DodgeRobert, Schelling’s Game Theory: How to Make Decisions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ch. 12 ; DixitAvinash, SkeathSusan, and ReileyDavid, Games of Strategy (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), ch. 14 .

53 DouglasMary, ‘Risk and danger’, in Mary Douglas, Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1994 [orig. pub. 1992]), p. 44 .

54 EidinowEsther, Luck, Fate and Fortune: Antiquity and its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 158 .

55 Thomas Schelling, ‘The Role of Theory in the Study of Conflict’, RAND Research Memorandum, RM-2515-PR (13 January 1960), p. 28, cited in TrachtenbergMarc, ‘Strategic thinking in America 1952–1966’, Political Science Quarterly, 104:2 (1989), p. 311 .

56 LabbéMarie Hélène, Le Risque Nucléaire (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2003), p. 21, my translation.

57 Ibid., pp. 21, 34, emphasis added. Labbé mentions the risk of accidental nuclear war, but only in relation to India and Pakistan (p. 23) and states that ‘nuclear proliferation is the primary cause of [nuclear risk]’ (p. 13).

58 Jacques Villain, Le livre noir du nucléaire militaire (Paris: Fayard, 2014), pp. 96–7, 201. The exact same lesson was emphasised three decades earlier and before the discoveries about limits of safety and control during the Crisis in L’aventure de la bombe, De Gaulle et la dissuasion nucléaire, proceedings of a conference of the Foundation Charles de Gaulle (Paris: Plon, 1985), p. 185. An exception is Georges-Henri Soutou in his public lecture at the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques (6 June 2011), available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016.

59 This latter point is developed in Pelopidas, ‘Nuclear weapons scholarship’.

60 AllisonGraham and ZelikowPhilip, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd edn (New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 159160 , p. 160.

61 SaganScott, ‘The problem of redundancy problem: Why more nuclear security forces may produce less nuclear security’, Risk Analysis, 24:4 (2004), p. 937 ; PerrowCharles, Normal Accidents: Leaving with High Risk Technologies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 304 .

62 Bruno Tertrais, ‘In Defense of Deterrence: The Relevance, Morality and Cost-Effectiveness of Nuclear Weapons’ (Paris: IFRI, Proliferation Papers, 2011), p. 27. He considers the risk of escalation as coming from the Soviet Union only: that avoids the episode of the US F-102s described above as well as the limits of safety and of command and control on the US side during the Crisis. This is interesting given that the most complete study in French makes the exact opposite assumption. Vincent Touze writes that: ‘any American attack would have led to Soviet retaliations’ and as a result focuses on Kennedy’s decisions. (Touze, Missiles et décisions pp. 639, my translation.)

63 Thérèse Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the Twenty First Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation 2012), p. 57. This study has been translated into French and published by Odile Jacob in 2013.

64 Delpech, Nuclear Deterrence in the Twenty First Century, p. 69.

65 Ibid. She had written about those issues in a previous essay: Savage Century: Back to Barbarism (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007), pp. 171–2.

66 Ibid., p. 69.

67 Ibid., p. 10. Exceptions which fully recognise the features identified in the first section of this essay are Le GuelteGeorges, Histoire de la menace nucléaire (Paris: Hatier, 1997), pp. 5253 and Le GuelteGeorges, Les armes nucléaires, mythes et réalités (Arles: Actes Sud, 2009), pp. 131134 .

68 Somehow even General Lucien Poirier falls for the practical inconsistency. In his ‘elements pour une théorie de la crise’, he fully acknowledges contingency and improvisations in crisis management, warns against the dangers of systematisation and notes how issues of accidents are left aside but ends up inviting continuous progress towards a ‘science’ that has to be possible. PoirierLucien, Essais de strategie theorique (Paris: Les Sept Epees, 1982), pp. 370 , 372, 374.

69 GavinFrancis J., ‘What if? The historian and the counterfactual’, Security Studies, 24:3 (2015), p. 425 .

70 Ibid., p. 425, emphasis added, same phrasing, p. 430.

71 Ibid., p. 430.

72 Ned LebowRichard, ‘Counterfactuals and security studies’, Security Studies, 24:3 (2015), p. 406 .

73 HassnerPierre, ‘Violence, rationalité, incertitude: des tendances iréniques et apocalytiques dans l’étude des conflits internationaux’, Revue Francaise de Science Politique, 14:6 (1964), pp. 11711178 . Interestingly, one of the other very few French exceptions to Hassner’s diagnosis is a fellow philosopher and not a diplomatic historian: Jean-Pierre Dupuy. He displays an interesting form of confidence which cannot be reduced to control and treats the possibility of accidents as conditions of possibility of a fate that prevents disaster, but acknowledges that this cannot last forever. DupuyJean-Pierre, foreword in Günther Anders, Hiroshima est partout (Paris: Seuil, 2008), pp. 2728 and DupuyJean-Pierre, Dans l’œil du cyclone (Paris: Carnet Nords, 2009), p. 313 .

74 In French, the short edited volume by Florian Besson and Jan Synowiecki, Ecrire l’histoire avec des ‘si’ (Paris: editions de l’ENS, 2015); d’AlmeidaFabrice and RowleyAnthony, Et si on refaisait l’histoire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2011); and DeluermozQuentin and SingarevélouPierre, Pour une histoire des possibles: Analyses contrefactuelles et futurs non advenus (Paris: Seuil, 2016) are exceptions.

75 ChillaudMatthieu, ‘IR in France: State and costs of a disciplinary variety’, Review of International Studies, 40:4 (2014), p. 809 . In all fairness, Renouvin’s methodological intervention came out of a frustration with diplomatic explanations for the origins of the First World War. He wanted to move beyond the ‘narrow horizons’ of diplomatic history, from the relations between diplomats to the relations between peoples. RenouvinPierre, ‘Introduction générale’, in Pierre Renouvin (ed.), Histoire des relations internationales, Volume I: Le Moyen-Age , ed. François-L. Ganshof (Paris: Hachette, 1953). The next generation blamed him for not being entirely consistent with this agenda though.

76 FrankRobert, ‘Histoire et théorie des relations internationales’, in Robert Frank (ed.), Pour une histoire des relations internationales (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2012), p. 82 , my translation.

77 DuroselleJean-Baptiste, ‘Le marchandage tacite et la solution des conflits’, Revue Francaise de Science Politique, 14:4 (1964).

78 Haine, Les Etats-Unis ont-ils besoin d’alliés, p. 203.

79 Two landmark studies would be TetlockPhilip E. and BelkinAaron (eds), Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and LebowRichard Ned, Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

80 Touze, Missiles et décisions, p. 120, my translation.

81 Ibid., p. 120, my translation.

82 Ibid., p. 629, my translation.

83 Based on the testimony of McNamaraRobert S. in BlightJames G., The Shattered Cristal Ball (Rowman and Littlefield, 1991), p. 8 ; Haine, Les Etats-Unis ont-ils besoin d’alliés, p. 216 and Holloway in Pelopidas, Global Nuclear Vulnerability (under review).

84 Under 21 October, he writes: ‘Slept rather badly, which is unusual for me … After 10 pm, got a message from President Kennedy, giving a short account of the situation wh. was developing between US and USSR, over Cuba’. MacmillanHarold, The Macmillan Diaries, Volume II: Prime Minister and after 1957–1966, ed. and introduction Peter Catterall (Basingbroke: MacMillan, 2003), p. 508 . He then opens his account of the following day as ‘the first day of the World Crisis!’ (p. 508) On 24 October, he continues: ‘an anxious day [too]. For the first clash will soon begin, if the Russian ships sail on.’ (p. 511) He continued following the developments of the Crisis closely, writing on 28 October: ‘I am writing this in a state of exhaustion, after being up all Friday and Saturday nights – to about 4 am. (The difference of hours in America and England is the cause).’ p. 513.

85 Kennedy’s speech and the Crisis were on the front page of Le Figaro on 23 October 1962, for a brief analysis only. On the 24th, the editorial in Le Monde questions the validity of American evidence, but two days later, after Sherman Kent came to show some photographs to the journalists, another piece was published to confirm the validity of this information.

86 LedwidgeBernard, De Gaulle (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), p. 273 .

87 These words are from Ambassador Gabriel Robin. Phone interview with Gabriel Robin, 17 July 2014. National mobilisations against the force de frappe did not take place before 1963. TopcuSezin, ‘Atome, gloire et désenchantement: résister à la France atomique avant 1968’, in Céline Plessis, Sezin Topcu, and Christophe Bonneuil (eds), Une autre histoire des ‘trente glorieuses’: Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre (Paris: La découverte, 2013), p. 198 .

88 Macmillan, The Macmillan Diaries, pp. 514–15.

89 ScottLen, Macmillan, Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis (London: Palgrave, 1999), p. 1 .

90 Etienne Burin des Roziers, Retour aux sources: 1962, l’année décisive (Paris: Plon, 1986), p. 136.

91 ‘The talk of the town’, New Yorker (3 November 1962).

92 GeorgeAlice, Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 164 .

93 BeurierJoelle, ‘Passions françaises et culture de Guerre froide’, in Philippe Buton, Olivier Buttner, and Michel Hastings (eds), La guerre froide vue d’en bas (Paris: CNRS éditions, 2014), pp. 213236 . The Crisis benefits from a longer article than other events including a few titles mentioning the possibility of a war but she notes that the lexicon as well as the iconography are downplaying the danger.

94 Maurice Vaïsse, foreword in Vaïsse (ed.), L’Europe et la crise des missiles de Cuba, p. 9. This is evidence that for the French at the time, this is an Americano-Soviet crisis and that they are not involved in it. Maurice Vaïsse, ‘Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps’, in Vaïsse (ed.), L’Europe et la crise des missiles de Cuba, p. 89; interview with Maurice Vaïsse, Paris, 27 August 2013. French domestic politics at the time were intense focal points, which easily distracted from considering the Crisis: Algeria, which had been a French department since 1830, had become independent a few months before, on 18 March 1962 and, on 28 October, in the middle of the Crisis, a referendum took place, deciding that for the first time the French President will be elected directly by the citizens. A failure to win this referendum would have meant the end of the Presidency of Charles de Gaulle, after four years in power under a new Constitution and only a few months after he survived an assassination attempt. As a consequence, the speech of US Secretary of Defense McNamara on the shift to flexible response has more impact on the French conversation than the Crisis. This mostly reflects a fear of conventional war in Europe and a fear centered on Berlin.

96 Available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016, my translation.

97 Claude Delmas, ‘Reflexions sur la guerre’, writes that: ‘the strategy of deterrence includes risks, because of the possibilities of misunderstandings, of the obsessive fear of surprise attack (an atomic “Pearl Harbour”) and mutual difficulties of appreciation of intentions; finally deterrence is hard to stabilize due to the arms race (more qualitative than quantitative).’ See Revue de Defense Nationale (July 1962), p. 1186, my translation. In the same journal, Colonel de Saint Germain wrote: ‘the nuclear phase can only be an accident, or a series of accidents, to be avoided all the more as they are more serious, more definitive. … Our army keeps the possibility of accident in its forecasts, in its equipment, in its behaviour.’ Later, he writes about ‘the fragility and precariousness [that nuclear weapons’] existence give the world, placed by them at the mercy of a miscalculation among many other imponderable factors.’ See Revue de Défense Nationale, 205 (August/September 1962), pp. 1352, 1355, my translation. Jacques Vernant wrote about it briefly in 1963 as a game: Jacques Vernant, Le jeu diplomatique à l’âge nucléaire (1963), pp. 862–8.

98 Christian Malis, Pierre Marie Gallois: Geopolitique, Histoire, Strategie, Lausanne: L’Age d’homme (2009).

99 Interview with Pierre Hassner, Paris, 9 December 2013.

100 For Camus: his op-ed in Combat (8 August 1945); Simone Debout, ‘Sartre et Camus face à Hiroshima’, Esprit, 239:1 (1998); Annie Kramer, ‘A l’aube de l’âge atomique “entre l’enfer et la raison”’, CISAC Honors thesis (Stanford University, 2013).

101 There is not one word about it in the essential Dictionnaire André Malraux edited by Charles-Louis Foulon, Jeanine Mossuz-Lavau, and Michael de Saint-Cheron (Paris: CNRS editions, 2011). The volume of published letters by Simone de Beauvoir that covers the years 1940–63 does not include any letter for the year 1962. de BeauvoirSimone, Lettres à Sartre, Volume II: 1940–1963 (Paris: NRF Gallimard, 1990). Her biographers Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier mention her visits to Havana with Sartre and comment on her impressions on Castro but do not make any mention of the missile crisis. FrancisClaude and GontierFernande, Simone de Beauvoir (Paris: Perrin, 2006 [orig. pub. 1985]), pp. 300312 and 321–2. Mauriac’s Bloc note for the year 1962 does not mention the Crisis. His correspondence with fellow writer Jean Paulhan at the time interestingly mentions the OAS – Organisation of the Secret Army or Secret Armed Organization, an armed group opposed to the independence of Algeria – but not the Crisis, in the middle of a theological conversation, suggesting the primacy of domestic politics in French intellectual life at the time. MauriacFrançois, D’un bloc-notes à l’autre: 1952–1969 (Paris: Bartillat, 2004) and MauriacFrançois and PaulhanJean, Correspondance 1925–1967 (Bassac: éditions Claire Paulhan, 2001), p. 345 .

102 For ‘Les temps modernes’, I do not include October of course since there was a double issue. In ‘Esprit’, there is an article by Stanley Hoffmann about the Franco-American relationship but it is about the post-Second World War period.

103 BadalassiNicolas, Pour Quelques Missiles de Plus (Sarrebruck: éditions européennes, 2011), p. 140 . The only writing by Sartre I found that related to issues of nuclear security was also published a year before the Crisis, at the time of the Bay of Pigs. L’express (20 April 1961), p. 8, quoted in Denis Bertholet, Sartre (Paris: Plon, 2000), p. 434. See also pp. 421–4, 430.

104 On the intimate connection through the correspondence between De Gaulle and the French public, and how hopes and fears are the core of it, see HazareesinghSudhir, Le mythe gaullien (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), p. 119 .

105 Archives of the Presidency of the French Republic, Peyrefitte sur Seine, France, 5AG1/1322-1358. Of course, the sample I was able to consult was not complete. However, the presence of aggressive letters to De Gaulle blaming him for the outcome of the Algerian war suggests that no purposeful sanitation has taken place.

Moreover, the presence of correspondence with private citizens and with the mayors of France which did not call for or receive an answer suggests that expressions of fears would not have been removed simply because no one replied to them. In any case, the kind of letter I was looking for would not have been either particularly offensive or easy to single out. Sudhir Hazareesingh had already noted that major events like May 1968 had generated a surprisingly small amount of correspondence from the French population. Hazareesingh, Le mythe gaullien, p. 119. Therefore, the silence of the available correspondence can plausibly confirm my argument.

106 Interview with Robin (2014).

107 Commission de publication des documents diplomatiques francais, Documents diplomatiques francais 1962 tome 2, 1er juillet–31 decembre (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1999), p. 222.

108 Pierre Marie Gallois, ‘Les conséquences de la crise de Cuba sur l’alliance’, in Vaïsse (ed.), L’Europe et la crise des missiles de Cuba, p. 172.

109 Ibid., p. 171, my translation.

110 Ibid., p. 171, my translation.

111 Giscard d’EstaingValéry, Mémoire vivante: Entretien avec Agathe Fourniaud (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), pp. 100 , 111, my translation.

112 The limited literature in French on the topic quotes it but does not engage with the argument. Gabriel Robin told the author that the ideas of his book were either ignored or quickly disregarded among his colleagues in the French foreign service. Interview with Robin (2014).

113 Georges-Henri Soutou, ‘Raymond Aron et la crise de Cuba’, in Vaïsse (ed.), L’Europe et la crise des missiles de Cuba, who notes that Aron only changed his mind about theater nuclear weapons in Europe because of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

114 AronRaymond, Penser la guerre: Clausewitz, Volume II: l’âge nucléaire (Paris, Gallimard, 1976), p. 147 , my translation. Also p. 146.

115 AronRaymond, Thinking Politically, trans. James and Marie McIntosh (London: Transaction Publishers, 1997), p. 184 . In his memoirs, he treats the Crisis with no more than the reproduction of a paragraph of a letter he received from Carl Schmitt congratulating him for his analysis. AronRaymond, Mémoires (Paris: Julliard, 1983), p. 456 . This section does not appear in the English translation of Aron’s memoirs by George Holoch (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990).

116 Pierre-Marie Gallois, ‘A quoi sert la stratégie? Entretien avec Alain-Gérard Slama à propos du livre d’Edward Luttwak Le Paradoxe de la stratégie’, Le Figaro (30 March 1989), p. 35, my translation.

117 Pierre Marie Gallois, ‘Risques d’escalade au niveau nucleaire’, Revue defense nationale (November 1980, pp. 61–70; Malis, Pierre Marie Gallois, p. 471; correspondence with army general Claude Le Borgne, 14 December 2013. Based on the memories of his son, Gallois never seems to have mentioned the Cuban missile crisis in conversations with his family. This might have happened had he thought there was a serious risk of nuclear war. Interview with Philippe Gallois, 13 March 2013.

118 In the documentation he kept, one finds an article from Le Monde of 20 February 1960 with an insert on p. 2, with the title ‘Eviter une guerre declenchée par erreur de calcul’. Archives of Pierre-Marie Gallois, 30Z 37602/1, Services Historiques de la Défense, Vincennes. I regard it as telling that Gallois chose to cut it out of a newspaper and kept it in his records.

119 OffredoJean. ‘Interview with André Beaufre and Gilles Martinet, “La guerre atomique est-elle possible?”’, in Jean Offredo (ed.), Le sens du futur (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1971), p. 110, my translation.

120 Early on, strategist Alain Joxe made the same point in his 1964 essay, ‘La crise de Cuba’.

121 Correspondence with Army General Claude Le Borgne, 14 December 2013.

122 See, for example, an op-ed entitled ‘La crise cubaine’ from the March–May 1963 issue of Socialisme ou Barbarie, pp. 80–2.

123 One exception would be a textbook reviewed by Gabriel Robin in 1984, which argued that: ‘the crisis seems to bring the world on the brink of World War III’. Quoted in Robin, La crise de Cuba, p. 10, my translation.

124 ‘Conseil supérieur des programmes, projets de programmes pour les cycles’, 2–4 September 2015, p. 301, available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016 ; ‘Bulletin Officiel 42’ (November 2013), available at: {} accessed 16 May 2016, pp. 7–8. Interestingly, nuclear history does not appear at all.

125 Resources for teachers at technological and general high school, classes of 1ere (11th grade), available at: {} my translation. The exact same instructions were there in 2010 and can be found for series L and ES in 2015. Thanks to Yannick Pincé for pointing me to those documents.

126 Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, part III; Porter, ‘Taking uncertainty seriously’; Brian Rathbun, ‘Uncertain about uncertainty: Understanding the multiple meanings of a crucial concept in International Relations theory’, International Studies Quarterly, 51 (2007); Pelopidas, ‘We all lost the Cuban Missile Crisis’ and ‘The book that leaves nothing to chance’; Pelopidas, ‘Nuclear weapons scholarship’; Katzenstein’s notion of protean power as opposed to control power is already doing this with regard to the concept of power, as a result of his efforts at tracing the blurring of uncertainty and risk; see Peter Katzenstein and Stephen Nelson, ‘Uncertainty, risk, and the financial crisis of 2008’, International Organization, 68:2 (2014). For an early formulation of protean power, see Katzenstein’s ‘Civilizations, Anglo-America and Balances of Practice and Power’, available at: {}.

127 Early attempts would be LewisPatricia, WilliamsHeather, PelopidasBenoît, and AghlaniSasan, Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy (London: Chatham House, 2014) and Gordon Barrass, ‘Able Archer 83: What were the Soviets thinking?’, Survival, 58:6 (2016).

128 This is all the more important as Article 17/L.213-2.II of the law 2008-696 about archives passed on 15 July 2008 constraints communication of archives related to nuclear history. It is available at: {;jsessionid=025DCB092EAA198A6EA37986D4516BC0.tpdila10v_3?idArticle=JORFARTI000019198568&cidTexte=JORFTEXT000019198529&dateTexte=29990101&categorieLien=id} accessed 27 May 2016. On this, see Maurice Vaïsse, ‘L’historiographie francaise relative au nucleaire’, Revue historique des armees, 262 (2011), pp. 3–8.

129 On the self-serving dimensions of the memories of all Excomm members, see Stern, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory.

130 See Pelopidas, ‘Remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Humility’, European Leadership Network, 11 November 2014 and Pelopidas, Global Nuclear Vulnerability (under review).

131 SloterdijkPeter, La mobilisation infinie: Pour une critique de la cinétique politique (Paris: Christian Bourgeois, 2000), p. 108, my translation.

* Correspondence to: Benoît Pelopidas, Junior Chair of Excellence in Security Studies, CERI / Sciences Po, 56 rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, France. Sciences Po is a member of USPC. Author’s email: /

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