Retrospective Illusions?

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

In this presentation, Benoît Pelopidas analyses 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 identifies three types of evidence supporting the case for luck: the lack of or 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 argues 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 argues 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 offers 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.

The presentaiton will be followd by commentary by Garret Martin and a moderated discussion chaired by Christian F. Ostermann

If you have questions regarding this event, please contact Evan Pikulski at or 202-691-4166


  • Benoît Pelopidas

    Lecturer, University of Bristol
  • Garret Martin

    European Institute
  • Christian F. Ostermann

    Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project