By Max Holland
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis in October 2012 is being commemorated with documentaries, conferences, and new books. Several educational institutions are also making primary sources and other historical materials available for educators on websites—among them the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The “For Educators” link on the site ranks Graham T. Allison’s book, Essence of Decision, (first published in 1971; second edition, 1999, with Philip Zelikow) number one on its list of Top 10 books on the subject. Essence “continues to be the definitive analysis of the decision-making that prevented a nuclear catastrophe,” according to the August 6 press release launching the website. There is no question but that Essence has been one of the most widely read books about the missile crisis—a political science best-seller—and extraordinarily influential. But what does it signify to call a book “the definitive analysis?” And does Essence merit that distinction and the number one ranking?