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The black-and-white image is as familiar as it is iconic. The Oval Office photograph captures the solitude and solemnity of the U.S. presidency and the overwhelming sense that the young John F. Kennedy carried the weight of the nation on his ailing back.
The picture, taken from behind, shows Kennedy with his head bent and his hands outstretched on his desk. It actually was taken in February 1961, only a month after he took office, yet it would come to symbolize the pressures of the Cuban missile crisis that unfolded more than a year later. The 13-day standoff in October 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had installed nuclear weapons in Cuba, is when analysts say the world came closest to nuclear Armageddon.
The photo, christened “The Loneliest Job” by The New York Times, whose photographer George Tames snapped it, is part of a new Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs website marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis. The site is devoted to providing background on the conflict and encouraging reflection on the lessons learned from an event that eventually was viewed as a deft dance of diplomacy and an enduring teaching tool for current and future leaders.
“Because it was, I think everybody agrees, the most dangerous moment that human beings have lived through and survived so far, it has a compelling character,” said Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Belfer Center director. “We are very interested as a center and as a School in what lessons you can learn from history that you might apply to help deal with current problems; I think the Cuban missile crisis is an excellent illustration of that.”
The site draws from the Belfer Center’s trove of material about the crisis and from other sources. It includes a historical timeline, archival photos, original documents, video clips, an assessment of present nuclear fears, and teaching tools for educators, such as a lesson plan with guiding questions, worksheets and simulations. It also includes lessons learned by key players involved in the incident. Visitors to the site are invited to offer their own lessons gleaned from the dangerous stalemate. In collaboration with Foreign Policy magazine, the Belfer Center is sponsoring an essay contest for students in grades six to 12, for the public, and for international-affairs scholars and practitioners.
“The website is designed around the lessons and the learning opportunities,” said James Smith, the Belfer Center’s director of communications, who, together with a team led by Arielle Dworkin, the center’s digital communications manager, helped to develop the site. “We want to remind people that the lessons are still relevant, that there are current crises where the key lessons from the original Cuban missile crisis are still very useful today.”
Allison, an authority on the crisis, wrote in the publication Foreign Affairs in June, “The lessons of the crisis for current policy have never been greater.” read more
Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and Belfer Center director
“The lessons of the crisis for current policy have never been greater,” said Allison.
Detail of notes taken by President John F. Kennedy during a meeting of his security council on Oct. 25, 1962. Note the word "missile" written repeatedly in the upper right corner.
Photo Credit: National Security Archive