Global Affairs Experts Discuss Nuclear Threats at IOP Forum


International affairs experts discussed modern and historical threats of nuclear war at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Monday evening.

The conversation, which was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, included Kennedy School government professor Graham T. Allison ’62, New School international affairs professor Nina Khrushcheva, and Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David R. Ignatius ’72. The panelists discussed current US-Russia relations and lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Allison kicked off the event with an overview of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as how President John F. Kennedy ’40 responded to the confrontation.

“Fortunately, Kennedy refused to make an immediate decision, instead, insisting on time for deliberation. Over the course of the week, he and his key advisors changed their minds more than once,” Allison said.


Khrushcheva followed by providing Russia’s perspective at the time of the crisis.

“[Cuba] is an ally, so we’re not gonna allow [the United States] to do anything to Castro,” Khrushcheva said. “What we are going to do is we are going to throw a hedgehog into Uncle Sam’s pants — and that rocket sent to Cuba was that hedgehog.”

Ignatius discussed how lessons learned from Kennedy’s actions during the 1962 crisis could be applied to President Joe Biden’s response to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“I want to start with the big obvious lesson, which is just how important it is to be careful and sensible in situations where you’re uncertain about the outcome,” Ignatius said. “I am pleased that the Biden administration is being pretty careful from what I can see.”

Khrushcheva said Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to learn the lesson former Soviet Union First Premier Nikita Khrushcheva — her grandfather — learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Even if you control things, you can’t control things,” Khrushcheva said. “That’s a lesson that Putin hasn’t learned, but Khrushcheva did.”

“Khrushcheva, in fact, delivered his final message to Kennedy on the radio — without warning anybody — because he really wanted it to take the global atmosphere, and explain, and say that they’re done,” she added, referring to Khrushcheva’s 1962 radio address at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Khrushcheva added that ignoring history has grave consequences, saying that "it does punish very severely those who haven’t learned" from the lessons it offers.

"In my view, Vladimir Putin learned zero lessons from this," she said of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In response to an audience question, Khrushcheva discussed how the world might predict Putin’s decision-making when it comes to nuclear threats.

“Putin is a singular decision-maker and therefore it’s very easy to predict what he is going to do,” Khrushcheva said. “Basically a lot of it, what has happened, is about power, is about him staying in power — because if he cared about the country, he would have left and there are plenty of people who can take care of this.”