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an Ancient Roman Game Board at Hadrian’s Wall

Fifty years ago this month, the United States and Soviet Union faced off in what is commonly considered the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War and, given the catastrophic consequences of a thermonuclear exchange, perhaps the most frightening military confrontation in human history.

In October 1962, the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was deploying in Cuba medium-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons that could hit much of the continental United States, after President John F. Kennedy had vowed never to allow such an act and the Soviets denied they would ever do such a thing. Kennedy and his advisers undertook almost two weeks of intense analysis, debate and back-channel diplomacy, employing a naval quarantine and crafting a complex deal that led the Soviets to remove the missiles (and other military forces) in exchange for an American guarantee not to invade Cuba and a secret promise to remove its nuclear-tipped missiles from Turkey.

There have already been and will continue to be numerous workshops, analyses and articles conveying “lessons” from this signal historical event. What should a nonexpert make of these accounts? Aficionados of the crisis still debate scores of smaller details that likely appear confusing and obscure to most outsiders. And despite countless books, articles and reams of declassified documents, the origins, resolution and consequences of the crisis remain both contentious and murky. Yet while there is little consensus on the answers and much scholarly work still to be done, it is possible to at least identify three key questions that should frame any discussion of the Cuban Missile Crisis.