WEAPONS of mass destruction, spy-in-the-sky photographs, and doom measured in minutes.
Not the trappings of the second Iraq war, but the real deal, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Fifty years ago this week, people were not pondering their plans for Christmas; they were wondering if they would still be alive by then. Thoughts of economic boom and bust seemed trivial compared to the chance of the biggest kaboom of all happening. As for the meaning of life, forget searching for that and start calculating your chances of survival.
Those 13 days that rattled the world have lived on in common memory for the good reason that people were genuinely scared. The more details that emerge, the more one realises how well-founded those fears were. Papers released this week by the John F Kennedy Presidential Library show JFK had gone as far as writing a speech to tell his fellow Americans that the US had begun military strikes against Cuba in response to the siting of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island. Had that occurred, an invasion would have followed, the Soviets would have retaliated, and ... to use the video game parlance of today, it would have been game over.
Though the crisis was a fast-moving one, its consequences took decades to surface. Those October days were a turning point in international affairs. We would not see their likes again, not on that scale anyway, but from now on conflict would be more difficult to manage, harder to resolve by men in suits facing each other over conference tables. After the ordered, mannerly terror of the Cuban missile crisis, conflict between states and individuals would become messy indeed. It is that ever stranger, chaotic new world that democratic states are struggling to cope with today.
The great survivor that is Cuba, meanwhile, ambles on. This week the communist dictatorship announced the latest of its slo-mo reforms, this one making it easier for most Cubans to go abroad on holiday or business (those in reserved occupations, such as doctors or scientists, will still have restrictions attached to their travel). From January 13, Cubans can holiday abroad to their hearts' content. Or at least they could if the average income was more than a typical British family spends on a two-week holiday. But that is Cuba, where the concept is always better than the reality.
Cuba's survival is an evergreen reminder of the limits of American power. The country's presidents, first Fidel Castro, now his brother Raul, have watched their American counterparts come and go, each one able to wound and isolate the island through sanctions but never deal a fatal blow to its leadership. Cuba sails on, always finding friends in the right places to keep it on course. First it was bungs from the Soviet Union, now it is above-board deals with China and Venezuela.
What Cuba showed America and the rest of the world was that small and poor, if it had a connection to the mighty and rich, could have an impact far beyond its means. There would be no more global wars, the price was too high for that, but there would be events with global implications, the most horrific being the attacks of 9/11.
Post the Cuban missile crisis, the preparation for war and the waging of it would also change. The world had been brought to the brink and didn't like the view from there. From now on, conflict would be about boots on the ground. When that led to the tragedies of Vietnam and countless wars in Africa, the emphasis shifted to intelligence-led operations.
Iraq, take two, showed the folly of abusing intelligence to prove a case that was not there. The build-up to the US-led invasion, from phoney 45 minute warnings to Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, doing a show and tell with photos at the UN, was straight out of the Cuban missile crisis playbook. Once again, the world was asked to believe that weapons of mass destruction were in the hands of a dictator and headed to your doorstep. The difference, of course, was that the WMDs of JFK's nightmares were real.
The Cuban missile crisis, as helter-skelter as it seemed, had an order to it. Government spoke unto government, what had to be kept secret (the removal of US missiles from Turkey as part of the quid pro quo) was kept secret. There was an element of madness, certainly, but there was method too. Diplomacy worked.
What keeps the watchers awake now is unpredictability. It is in such a world that the US consulate in Benghazi can be attacked and four staff, including the ambassador, die. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, nobly assumed responsibility for that this week, once again showing herself to be the great President that got away (for now, anyway). She could scarcely do anything else. The alternative, to simply say that there are some things governments cannot guard against, would be unacceptable. In a world of uncertainty there has to be at least the illusion of certainty.
Fifty years on from the Cuban missile crisis, it would be a brave soul who argued that the world is safer today. The risks of global thermonuclear war may have diminished but the chances of a rogue state deploying a nuclear weapon or a terrorist atrocity happening are always with us. So we watch and we hope. And for relaxation we lose ourselves in dramas such as Homeland, in which the CIA, through luck, technology and the true grit of a female agent, inches ever closer to its prey.
In a week heavy with nostalgia, there has been cause to remember another past crisis. A film called Argo, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival, is set in the bleak days of the Iran hostage crisis, a time when America once again felt it had a gun pointed at its head by what should have been a weaker force. Watching re-enactments of the embassy in Tehran being stormed gives a chilling sense of what happened in Libya.
It would be a mistake to see the Cuban missile crisis as a relic. How the crisis was resolved is even more pertinent today. The Kennedy administration, though it was prepared to go as far as air strikes, nevertheless started from the position that war had to be avoided at all costs, that responses should be proportionate, that consequences had to be considered. Had those rules been followed in subsequent crises many a war could have been avoided. Then, now, always, jaw-jaw was better than war-war.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.