François Heisbourg: Five Days in December

The following article appears in the 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal. For the month of November, read the entire 25th anniversary issue, fall 2008, for free!

By Francois Heisbourg

This author is old enough to remember the dread-laden days of the Cuban missile crisis with all of the vividness of a fear-struck 13-year-old living just a few hundred yards from the prospective ground-zero at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As we guessed at the time, and what we now know with even more chilling retrospective clarity, is that things could have turned out very nastily indeed. There are such turning points in history, where radically different long-term outcomes of an earth-shaping (or shattering) import are all entirely possible during a highly compressed timeframe in which the fate of mankind rests on the decisions of a limited cast of players—and on chance.

Along with the Cuban missile crisis, Britain’s positive choices at the end of May 1940 and Europe’s negative decisions in July 1914 belong to this rare category. Even decades after these moments of decision, historians have not ceased to dissect the circumstances under which the fate of humanity was sealed.

So it was to be for the historians of 2033, as they reconsidered the Iranian crisis of a quarter of a century before. Continue reading…

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