From Kendall Stiles, Case Histories in International Politics, 5th Ed (2008)

For Academic Purposes Only



When making a decision, we typically know in advance what we want.  We consider the facts at hand, come up with a few alternative courses of action, imagine what might happen if we pick each one, and then choose the alternative that gets us what we wanted in the first place.  This is the epitome of what is meant by rationality.  Any other method is not purely rational, although the result is not necessarily wrong or bad.  We sometimes make choices based on habit or tradition, or we feel driven by our emotions.  Our analysis of the situation and consideration of alternatives may be cursory.  Anyone who has ever worked on a committee knows that groups rarely make decisions based on a careful calculation of costs and benefits - they typically go for the least common denominator.  And this tells us nothing about putting the decision into practice.

Scholars have learned that if they assume rationality on the part of the people they study, it is possible to predict how different decision makers will address similar situations, which in turn allows us to anticipate numerous events.  The filed of game theory attempts to explain how rational actors interact with one another.  When an actor faces a decision the outcome of which depends on what another actor decides, it is often possible to design a matrix that shows the range of outcomes. You can select the alternative that each actor will choose based on these outcomes and the goals each actor brings.  for example, where two players face the option of cooperating or not cooperating, but where cooperating opens up the possibility of losing something of considerable value, one can predict that the actors will likely shun that option (this helps to explain everything from an international arms race to marital infidelity).

With respect to the Cuban Missile Crisis, we see two sets of actors.  On the one hand, we have the "game" of superpower relations where each country plays a game of "chicken" with the other.  On the other hand, we have the interactions between domestic decision makers within each country (presidents, advisors, generals, and so forth).  As we explore the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, consider whether the various players are behaving "rationally" - that is, identifying goals, exploring options, selecting the "best" option, and seeing it fully implemented.

KEY FIGURES:  The Cuban Missile Crisis

John F. Kennedy  U.S. President, 1961-1963.  It was his responsibility to set U.S. policy with respect to detection and removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962.

Nikita Khrushchev  Soviet Premier, 1953-1964.  He led the Soviet Union to both deploy and withdraw nuclear missiles in and from Cuba.

Fidel Castro  Leader of the Cuban government since 1959.  He sought Soviet protection following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

John Scali  American newsman.  He was used for back-channel negotiations with Aleksandr Feklisov.

Aleksandr Feklisov (Fomin)  Soviet KGB operative based in Washington, D.C.

Anatoly Dobrynin  Soviet Ambassador tot eh United States, 1962-1986.

Selected Members of EXComm

Robert Kennedy  Attorney-General of the United States, 1961-1964.  As the brother of President Kennedy, he always had influence in shaping national policy in many areas.  He conducted the meetings of the Executive Committee.

Dean Rusk  U.S. Secretary of State, 1961-1963.

George Ball  Undersecretary of State, 1961-1966.

John McCone  Director of Central Intelligence Agency, 1961-1965.

McGeorge Bundy  National Security Advisor, 1961-1966.

Robert McNamara  U.S. Secretary of Defense, 1961-1968.  He discounted the threat presented by the Russian missiles.

Llewellyn Thompson  Ambassador-at-Large, 1962-1966.  Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, he was the only Russia expert on ExComm.



Fidel Castro takes power in Cuba at the head of a Communist revolution.

John F. Kennedy is elected to be the youngest president in history.

The Kennedy administration withdraws support for Cuban exiles who suffer defeat at the Bay of Pigs.  Castro demands additional military support from the Soviet Union to defend against future U.S. attacks.

June  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev comes away from his summit meeting with Kennedy unimpressed.

September  The Soviet Union begins deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba.

October 15  American U-2 aircraft detect Soviet activity in Cuba.

October 16-20  ExComm deliberates, ultimately recommending a blockade first, and an invasion second.

October 22  Kennedy announces his plan to the nation by televised address.

October 23  Kennedy orders the blockade against Cuba.  Later that day, Adlai Stevenson presents photos of the Cuban sites to the UN Security Council.

October 24  Russian vessels turn away from the blockade, prompting Dean Rusk's "eyeball to eyeball" comment.

October 26  A conciliatory message is sent by Khrushchev, followed shortly thereafter by a more intransigent demand for the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey.

October 27  The "Trollope Ploy" is formulated in response to two conflicting Russian messages.  The conciliatory message is treated as a genuine compromise and largely accepted.

October 28  Khrushchev agrees to withdraw the missiles from Cuba.  Kennedy secretly agrees to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey.

November 19  Removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba is complete.


Almost as soon as it was resolved, the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis became the object of scholarly attention.  It was one moment, suspended in time, when the earth's survival hung in the balance.  President John F. Kennedy himself is reported to have estimated that the chances of a nuclear war were "between one out of three and even" (Allison 1999, 1).  Fidel Castro felt the odds were 20:1 that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was virtually inevitable, and he urged Nikita Khrushchev to launch a full-scale nuclear strike in retaliation.  Give the extreme danger and risk of the situation on the one hand and its successful conclusion on the other hand, this episode in world history has become a popular case study in conflict management and crisis decision making.  Because of the ease of hearing from actual participants in the crisis, particularly since the end of the Cold War, and the voluminous documentary evidence available to scholars (including secret tapes of White House meetings), analysts have considerable details to study.

We will focus on what the Cuban Missile Crisis teaches us about how policy is developed and implemented in a crisis.  A crisis, as defined by Charles Hermann (1969), is a problem that combines the elements of surprise, salience, and urgency.  In other words, the problem erupts with little warning, directly threatens a high priority value, and must be resolved quickly to avoid negative consequences.  From another point of view, a crisis is "coercive diplomacy" used by an adversary to blackmail or intimidate a nation into submission with the direct use of force (Craig & George 1990).  Avoidance of bloodshed is the primary concern in such situations, even though the risk of war is usually extremely high.

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Hermann assumes that in a crisis situation, decisions are made at the top levels in a bewildering "pressure cooker" environment.  Issues of lesser importance are set aside, all energy is put into gathering facts and alternatives, and stress levels are high.  Conditions are ideal for intensive and creative problem solving as the combined energy and talent of some of the most able men and women in the country are brought to bear on a single issue.  Of course, the reverse can also happen when decisions based on a few facts must be made quickly by people with a great deal to lose.  The actual outcomes depend on many factors, including the personalities, perceptions, and decision-making styles of the key participants, the degree of contingency planning the preceded the crisis, and the organization of the decision-making unit itself.  To the extent that information is made available, options and objectives are clearly and creatively articulated, and the implications of various choices are thoroughly understood, the likelihood of a sound decision increases.

Before determining whether the decisions made during the Cuban Missile Crisis meet our ideal standard, we will review the history of the event.



In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for president on a platform of narrowing the "missile gap" between the USSR and the United Sates.  Upon reaching office, he was surprised to learn that, according to the CIA, the missile gap was larger than he expected - but it was in America's favor.  Soviet leaders were acutely aware of the U.S. advantage in number, quality, and deployment of nuclear missiles, however, and were considering options to achieve a balance.

In 1959, Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba and in 1961 declared himself unabashedly Marxist, to the dismay of American defense planners.  His presence in the hemisphere represented a "bridgehead of Sino-Soviet imperialism and a base for Communist agitation" (Ferrell 1985, 362).  U.S. agents made several attempts on Castro's life in these early years, and in 1961, the United States helped to orchestrate a failed amphibious invasion of Cuba aimed at overthrowing the regime.  Conservatives in Congress accused Kennedy of being "soft on Communism."

These events, combined with a disastrous U.S.-U.S.S.R. summit meeting in June 1962 that gave Khrushchev the impression that Kennedy was a political lightweight, set the stage for the Soviet decision to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba in May 1962 (Fursenko & Naftali 1997, 179).  By deploying missiles, Khrushchev hoped to achieve a nuclear balance, protect Cuba from U.S. invasion, and keep Castro in the Soviet camp (rather than defecting to the more radical China).  He wanted to deploy several medium-range missiles, along with defensive antiaircraft batteries, between May and November 1962 without revealing his plans to the United States.  Once the installations were in place, Khrushchev hoped the United States would feel obliged to accept this change in strategic balance (Gartoff 1989, 23; Trachtenberg 1985, 163).

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U.S. officials suspected Soviet intentions and tried to get information through both open and secret channels.  Each time they met with firm denials.  It was not until October 15, 1962, that the United States had proof of Soviet activities:  photographs of Soviet nuclear installations in Cuba taken by an American U-2 spy plane.  The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

The Crisis Erupts

Early the next morning, Kennedy was presented with the information from the photographs by his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, who stressed the seriousness of the situation:  The Soviets now had the capability to attack more than half of the United States, including Washington, D.C., with only a few minutes warning.  The president was astonished by the report.  As put by Robert Kennedy, the president's brother and U.S. Attorney General, "[T]he dominant feeling was one of shocked incredulity" (Kennedy 1969, 27).  President Kennedy determined during that first meeting that some forceful response was incumbent upon the administration, although not all agreed.  (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wondered aloud whether this discovery constituted, in and of itself, a mortal danger.)  Nonetheless, given the political climate at home and worldwide, Kennedy determined that this situation qualified as a crisis.

By that evening, a group that came to be known as the ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council - even though it included individuals who did not belong to the council) was organized by the president and was generating options for responding to the news.  Potential actions included blockade or quarantine, surgical air strike followed by invasion, diplomatic overtures and negotiation, talks with Castro, and leaving things alone (Sorenson 1965, 735).  Although everyone acknowledged that air strikes followed by invasion were the only means of being sure the missiles were removed, most did not want to pursue that option as a first alternative.  The diplomatic option was ruled as too timid and passive.  Ultimately, the air strike/invasion option and the blockade option were deemed the only viable responses, and the blockade was considered far weaker under the circumstances.

For nearly a week, the ExComm deliberated to develop a final operational plan that could win unanimous approval.  As time went on, the air strike option was set aside for two principal reasons.  First, if done without warning, an air strike would be seen by the rest of the world as a "Pearl Harbor in reverse" (as put by John McCone, the director of the CIA; Fursenko & Naftali 1997, 226) or as an unprovoked attack against an unprepared enemy.  Second, the air strike option was never guaranteed success by military planners, in part because no air strike is ever guaranteed and because the missiles were considered "moveable targets" and therefore able to be relocated without warning.  The blockade, in its favor, was a less "final" solution.  The United States could rather easily escalate its response if the blockade failed.  Also, a blockade was considered a fairly forceful reaction - an act of war according to international law.  It might be enough to force the Russians to back down and negotiate a settlement.  A blockade could not, in itself, remove the missiles, however.  And the ExComm had to consider what to do if the Russians attempted to run the blockade.  The crisis might simply be relocated rather than solved.

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By Friday evening, October 20, President Kennedy had made the decision to impose a blockade, citing the advantage of giving Khrushchev more time to consider the implications of the situation (Sorenson 1965, 691).  Kennedy readily acknowledged that "there isn't a good solution...but this one seems less objectionable" (National Archives, 1988, 7).  The decision was made formal on October 22, when Kennedy spoke to the nation in a televised address.  He announced the existence of the missiles, his intent to see them removed, and the approach he intended to use to do that.  He made sure to keep his options open.  He underlined the gravity of the problem for both American and Soviet audiences

My fellow citizens:  let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out.  No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred....The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are - but it s the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation. (National Archives, 1988, 10).

The Blockade Aftermath

Over the next four days, the situation worsened.  Khrushchev, alarmed to learn that the Americans had discovered his missiles, was relieved when he learned of the blockade.  He considered the blockade the policy of a weak leader, and he intended to take advantage of it.  He ordered the Cuban installations accelerated and instructed ships carrying nuclear equipment to move quickly to beat the blockade.  Only at the last minute, once the blockade was in place, were other Russian ships ordered to halt (prompting Secretary of State Dean Rusk to make the famous remark:  "We're eyeball to eyeball and I think the other guy just blinked!").  At the same time, Khrushchev moved to ensure his direct control over the nuclear missiles that were operational to prevent an accidental launch (fearing Castro's impulsiveness).

Meanwhile, the United States began a diplomatic assault against Russia in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN Security Council, where virtually every nation approved the U.S. response and demanded a withdrawal of Soviet missiles (Blight 1990, 17).  Robert Kennedy undertook back-channel negotiations through Georgi Bolshakov as well as front-door meetings with Anatoly Dobrynin, the USSR envoy in Washington, both to determine Russian thinking and to communicate American resolve (Fursenko & Naftali 1997, 249-252).  Perhaps most important, the Kennedy administration mobilized active-duty and reserve personnel and moved a half-million troops with accompanying equipment into the south Florida area.  It sent every possible signal that an invasion force was prepared to act at any movement.  (This helps explain Castro's alarm.)

Khrushchev also used a variety of channels to communicate his intentions.  He communicated through an American businessman in Moscow, through journalists, and through KGB agents in Washington.  Ultimately, a letter was delivered through Alexander Fomin (a code name for Aleksandr Feklisov) to John Scali, a reporter with ties to the Kennedy administration.  The initial proposal involved removal of the missiles by the USSR in exchange for a promise to respect Cuban sovereignty by the United States.  While the ExComm was formulating a response to this message, it received a second message via Radio Moscow adding the caveat that Jupiter missiles - American medium-range missiles based in Turkey - also be removed.

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The administration did not know what to believe after receiving conflicting proposals at almost the same time.  If they had known that Fomin was acting on his own initiative, the confusion would have been even greater (Garthoff 1989, 80).  Add to this the downing of an American U-2 over Cuba at the same time (October 27, 1962), and it was frankly impossible to know what was taking place.  (The downing was not even authorized by Moscow; Garthoff 1989, 91.)  For that matter, the United States was guilty of sending mixed signals of its own.  It had ordered the constant over-flight of the Arctic region by bombers with nuclear weapons, and one them strayed into Soviet airspace at about this time.  In fact, Khrushchev was very personally involved in the formulation of the proposals, and the second proposal to remove missiles from Turkey came when he considered an invasion of Cuba less likely (Garthoff 1989, 82).

Negotiating the Resolution

The ExComm made two decisions on Saturday, October 27.  The first was to make final preparations for an invasion of Cuba to begin on Monday (Blight 1990, 18), and the second was to draft a formal response accepting the conditions detailed in Khrushchev's first proposal.  This latter move was suggested by Soviet expert Llewellyn Thompson and was nicknamed the "Trollope Ploy."  Thompson also exerted considerable energy to convince a downhearted President Kennedy to implement the plan.  In addition to drafting a message to be sent to Khrushchev, Kennedy dispatched his brother Robert to present the American position as well as to offer a "sweetener":  secret removal of the Jupiter missiles over a five month period.

On October 28, Khruschev's response accepting these terms was received at the White House.  The Cuban Missile Crisis was at an end.  By November 19, much to Castro's chagrin, the missiles had been dismantled and removed.


Although several critical decisions were made at various points prior to and during the crisis, two are easiest for American audiences to study:  (1)  Kennedy's decision to accept the terms of the first Khrushchev letter and ignore the second message.  To determine whether these two decisions by Kennedy were "rational," we should consider his goals, assess the quality of the search for options and their respective outcomes, and check whether the final choice promised to achieve his original goals.  To the extent that the decision-making process comes close to this ideal model, we can say that it was rational (Allison 1999, 33).

The decision to impose a blockade was reached after roughly four days of intensive deliberations in the White House.  Within twelve hours of learning about the missiles, Kennedy had assembled a collection of individuals chosen for their authority over certain key areas of foreign policy and their subject-matter expertise.  He called in the secretaries of state and defense, the director of the CIA, the national security advisor, and the joint chiefs of staff (chaired by Maxwell Taylor).  Douglas Dillon, secretary of the treasury; Theodore Sorenson, presidential counsel; Pierre Salinger, press secretary; and Robert Kennedy were also included, though more for their relationships to President Kennedy than for their policy roles.  Six other men from the State and Defense Departments were brought in for their expertise, and Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, was permitted to join the group.  The ExComm met regularly, sometimes for ten hours at a time (not all members met all the time).  The group had no obvious seniority system, although Robert McNamara and Robert Kennedy informally led the discussions.

The ExComm structure has been praised as a nearly ideal form for crisis decision making, in that the individuals were present, as Sorenson later put it, "on our own, representing the president and not individual departments" (Sorenson 1965, 679).  Furthermore, as the days wore on, the group met without the president, divided into smaller caucuses, and otherwise ignored traditional rank and protocol as they deliberated.  Robert Kennedy commented, "It was a tremendously advantageous procedure that does not frequently occur within the executive branch of the government, where rank is often so important" (Kennedy 1969, 46).  Specifically, the arrangement minimized the tendency for peer pressure to lead group members to take a more hard-line approach than would normally be the case ("groupthink"; see Janis 1972).  It also worked against any bureaucratic struggle over turf.

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The first decision required was to determine whether the placement of missiles in Cuba was indeed a threat to national security.  In fact, that question did not even come up until the evening of October 16, and then at the instigation of McGeorge Bundy - not the president.  McNamara made it clear that he did not consider the new missiles a threat.  The joint chiefs unanimously disagreed ("White House" 1985, 184).  Kennedy dismissed McNamara's assessment, although he did not necessarily agree with the joint chiefs either.  He was more concerned about conservatives in Congress who, he felt, would likely have him impeached if he ignored the missiles.

Once the problem was identified, the process of clarifying the goals and options began, though not necessarily in that order.  Early on, Kennedy determined, with general approval, that the missiles must be removed but that the use of force should be a last resort.  Kennedy weighed not only U.S. security concerns but also the response of the America public and NATO allies.  The Europeans, he surmised, would not be especially alarmed at the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba because they lived every day with the prospect of a Soviet attack from the Ukraine and eastern Russia.  Kennedy kept in mind that a trade-off of Cuban missiles for Jupiter missiles would seem eminently reasonable to U.S. allies (October 27, 1962" 1987/88, 58).  As the crisis evolved, avoiding global nuclear war was likely the highest priority on Kennedy's mind and shaped his willingness to ignore Soviet provocations.

McNamara was the first to clearly articulate three options for dealing with the crisis:  (1) a "diplomatic" option involving public declarations, consultations with allies, UN resolutions, and other gestures aimed at condemning and publicizing the Soviet move; (2) a "middle course" of aggressive surveillance and interdiction (read:  blockade) of new weapons bound for Cuba; and (3) a "military" option with several variants ranging from air strikes on narrowly selected targets (missile launchers and installations) to a broad-ranging series of attacks on all Cuban military facilities followed by an amphibious invasion ("White House" 1985, 182).  Other ideas were mentioned, including taking retaliatory measures, doing nothing at all, and somehow persuading Castro to expel the weapons (Sorenson 1965, 682).  Beyond these general categories of action, the ExComm questioned the specific implementation of each approach at length.  Should an air strike be preceded by a public ultimatum, or should it be a surprise?  Should diplomatic initiatives include a specific ultimatum and a deadline for withdrawal?  Should an exchange of missiles in Turkey (which President Kenney had once ordered removed) be offered up front to persuade the Soviets to settle the problem quickly?  Should the nuclear arsenal be put on alert and forces mobilized?  What contingencies should be made for a likely Soviet move in Berlin?

By the evening of October 16, the choices seemed to have been whittled down to two:  blockade and diplomacy versus air strikes and invasion.  When the president seemed to be leaning toward an air strike, McNamara essentially halted the discussion:  "I think tonight we ought to put down on paper the alternative plans and probably, possible consequences thereof in a way that State and Defense could agree on, even if we disagree and put in both views....[T]he consequences of these actions have not been thought through clearly" ("White House" 1985, 189).  His suggestion was accepted, and the group split into two committees, each drafting the pros and cons of different options.  Heavy emphasis was placed on extrapolating the outcomes and implications of each action, including the variations of the actions.  Exactly how will oncoming ships be treated at the blockade perimeter?  What about submarines?  Will the OAS, NATO, and UN support the United States?  Should classified information regarding the missiles be divulged?  How and where will the Soviets respond to air strikes?  Will Berlin be affected?  (It is interesting that the joint chiefs initially anticipated that there would be no Soviet response to a U.S. air strike - a scenario that Kennedy rejected.)  Note this emotional exchange about the implications of an air strike between Undersecretary of State George Ball and McGeorge Bundy:

Ball:  This [surprise attack scenario] just frightens the hell out of me as to what's going beyond....

Bundy:...What goes beyond what?

Ball:  What happens beyond that.  You go in there with a surprise attack.  You put out all the missiles.  This isn't the end.  This is the beginning...("White House" 1985, 194)

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This process of deliberation, development of options, extrapolation of possible outcomes, and assessment of risks, reactions, and secondary options proceeded for three full days, before a decision was made.  at one point, the ExComm actually organized a sort of "moot court," assigning certain members to be advocates for particular policy options while others "cross-examined" them to identify weaknesses.  The blockade ended up as the most attractive option.  It at least had a chance of resolving the crisis, and at minimal cost.  Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatrick explained, "Essentially, Mr. President, this is a choice between limited action and unlimited action, and most of us think that it's better to start with limited action" (Sorenson 1965, 693-695).

In reconsidering this decision-making ordeal, we see that the participants self-consciously and painstakingly went out of their way to be rational.  Although the initial decision to declare the problem a crisis may have been rather poorly thought out, the decision to impose a blockade resulted from a very systematic, impartial, and thorough process.  An alternative point of view is that President Kennedy manipulated the process from behind the scenes, and some evidence indicates that Robert Kennedy played the role of president-in-absentia.  Also, one can ask whether the consideration of only a half-dozen alternatives to a situation that threatened the future of humankind was adequate.  Herbert Simon and James March argue that in the best of all worlds, the most we can expect of organizational decision making is "satisficing":  selecting the first option that satisfies the key elements of a solution, even though other options might have met a wider range of objectives (March & Simon 1958).


Several days of rancorous debate in the UN Security Council and a number of close calls on the high seas east of Cuba preceded the exchange between the U.S. and Soviet governments of what seemed to be genuine offers at settlement.  Three messages in particular arrived at the White House on Friday, October 26, and Saturday, October 27.  Adding information about the downing of the U-2 on Saturday morning, one could say that four messages were delivered.  The ExComm had to decide which of these conflicting messages to take seriously.

The most significant message delivered on Friday was a lengthy, disjointed letter from Khrushchev about the risks of nuclear war.  He compared the crisis to a knot that he and Kennedy were pulling tighter and tighter each day.  Unless they reversed course, the only way to undo the knot would be to cut it.  Buried in this message was the "germ of a reasonable settlement:  inasmuch as his missiles were there only to defend Cuba against invasion, he would withdraw the missiles under UN inspection if the U.S. agreed not to invade" (Sorenson 1965, 712).  At roughly the same time this message was received and translated, Alexander Fomin was communicating a similar proposal to John Scali on his own authority, although later reports indicate Fomin thought Scali was the one who put forward the proposal (Fursenko & Naftali 1997, 265).  Combined, the two messages offered a way out of the crisis.

On Saturday morning, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that the USSR would be willing to withdraw its missiles from Cuba if the United States dismantled its missiles in Turkey.  Although the message was sent publicly over the airwaves, Khrushchev did not intend to put any particular pressure on the United States; the channel was chosen simply to accelerate communication of the new message (Fursenko & Naftali 1997, 276).  Nevertheless, Khrushchev was well aware that this proposal was more demanding than the earlier one.  It was simply a gamble on his part, though one based in part on informal talks between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin.  The effect of the second message was despondency at the White House.  The growing sense of alarm and urgency was based in part on the mistaken notion that the Cuban weapons were not yet operational but soon would be.  The White House feared that local Cuban commanders might take it upon themselves to order a launch without Moscow's approval.

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The transcript of the ExComm meetings make it clear that President Kennedy was deeply shaken by Khrushchev's second letter:

...We're going to be in an unsupportable position on this matter if this [the trade] becomes his proposal.  In the first place, we last year tried to get the missiles out of [Turkey] because they're not militarily useful....Number 2, any man at the United Nations or any other rational man this will look like a very fair trade....I think you're going to find it very difficult to explain why we are going to take hostile military action in Cuba against those sites - what we've been thinking about.  The thing that he's saying is, "if you'll get yours out of Turkey, we'll get ours out of Cuba."  I think we've got a very tough one here.  ("October 27, 1962" 1987/88, 366-367)

The president's advisors, arguing against the trade-off, pointed out that it would be undercutting a NATO ally and might undermine the entire alliance.  This debate engendered a search for alternatives, although the pressure of time seems to have constricted the number of options considered.  McNamara and others pushed for an immediate cessation of work on the missile sites and some form of warning and implicit threat tot eh Soviets to remove the missiles within forty-eight hours.  From that point, it seems to have been assumed that air strikes would have to being by Tuesday at the latest.

As the ExComm prepared to reply to the messages, the option of simply ignoring the second message was raised.  The following pivotal exchange occurred between Llewellyn Thompson and President Kennedy:

JFK:...[W]e're going to have to take our weapons out of Turkey.  I don't think there's any doubt he's not going to retreat now that he's made that public, Tommy - he's not going to take them out of Cuba if we....

Thompson:  I don't agree, Mr. President.  I think there's still a chance that we can get this line going [i.e., ignore the second letter].

JFK:  He'll back down?

Thompson:  The important thing to Khrushchev, it seems to me, is to be able to say, "I saved Cuba - I stopped an invasion."...("October 27, 1962" 1987/88, 59)

Some in the administration surmised that the second letter might have been written by the alleged "hawks" in Khrushchev's Politburo and that ignoring it might effectively elevate Khrushchev's status in his own government.  We now know that this was merely wishful thinking and Khrushchev was, in fact, in firm control of the government at this time.

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At any rate, the ExComm decided to issue a response that simply did not mention the Turkish missiles.  At the same time, secret communications relayed in a meeting between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin indicated a willingness by the United States to remove the Jupiter missiles at a later time.  The ExComm continued to make detailed preparations for an air strike/invasion policy.  The starting time for the attack was given as Thursday at the latest.  The decision to ignore the U-2 downing was another U.S. effort to postpone the military option as long as possible.

The delay proved felicitous because Khrushchev's response arrived on Sunday morning.  Was Khrushchev's cooperation the result of U.S. prudence, or were Kennedy administration officials simply lucky?  In retrospect, much hinged on some communications that no one at the White House was aware of.  A KGB agent who worked as a bartender at the National Press Club overheard a number of conversations between American journalists, including speculation by Warren Rogers that a U.S. invasion of Cuba was imminent.  This information was communicated to Moscow along with reports of hospitals in Florida being warned to prepare for casualties and other rather disconnected observations that convinced Khrushchev on Friday that was was imminent (Allison 1999, 350).  Although he had changed his mind in the interim, the downing of the U-2, unauthorized as it was, further alarmed Khrushchev and prompted him to accept the American response.  He doubtless feared that the situation was spiraling out of control.  Two recent revelations support this view.  One is that Castro had actively encouraged the local Soviet commander to launch the missiles against the United States without seeking prior authorization from Moscow.  The other is that on October 27, the commander of a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear weapons was seconds away from firing a nuclear-tipped torpedo at an American sub destroyer in retaliation for dropping depth charged when he was persuaded by his senior officers to desist (Chicago Tribune 2202).  Khrushchev may have felt it was only a matter of time until a nuclear accident would force Washington's hand.


Thus, although the White House was operating on largely false assumptions and the messages that seem to have mattered most to Moscow were not the ones the administration deliberatively sent, the outcome was a peaceful one.  We should continue to ask whether the decision-making process was rational, however.  Clearly, the White House believed that no action that could be seen as "final" ought to be taken if at all possible.  This stalling ultimately proved to be the most prudent deliberate move.  This policy as as much the result of Kennedy's frazzled emotional condition and fear of commitment, however, and could easily be considered "nonrational."  Robert McNamara, in his popular 2003 documentary "The Fog of War," had a more succinct explanation:  "It was luck that prevented nuclear war!...Rational individuals came that close to the total destruction of their societies."

Much of the Kennedy administration's decision-making process was based on flawed intelligence and therefore faulty assessments of Soviet behavior and intention.  This stemmed in part from the organizational structures and processes in place at the time.  In addition, once decisions were made, they were often not carried out according to plan.  The implementing agencies frequently filtered the instructions from the White House through their own standard operating procedures and institutional cultures.

As it happens, the most significant actions that the administration took involved the substantial preparations for war that were telegraphed to Moscow on a daily basis.  In retrospect, it was perhaps this state of readiness that made the deepest impression on the Soviet leadership and prompted them to take the other message coming from Washington seriously.  Warnings, blockades, speeches at the UN, and so forth carried a powerful punch when placed against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of Marines and soldiers gathered in Florida.

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Interestingly enough, the Cuban Missile Crisis signaled the beginning of a long and winding process of superpower detente.  Having faced a nuclear exchange, both Moscow and Washington took steps over the next few years to prevent such a crisis from recurring.  The "hotline" was installed in 1963 to allow the heads of each government to communicate at any time.  Major arms control agreements and military safeguards were negotiated during both Lyndon Johnson's and Richard Nixon's administrations between 1963 and 1972.  Thus, although the world can fault the superpowers for bringing it to the brink of annihilation, we can take comfort from the fact that important lessons were learned and acted upon.


His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis catapulted John F. Kennedy to heroic status.  Does he deserve the credit he has been given?


Kennedy apologists routinely cite the following points:  (1) Kennedy single-handedly promoted the blockade solution as a way of helping the Soviets save face.  (2)  Kennedy overcame objections from both the military and the diplomatic corps (including his brother Robert) to maintain this course once adopted.  (3)  Kennedy carefully constructed a decision-making structure that promoted brainstorming and "buy in."


Those who question Kennedy's stature point out the following:  (1)  The blockade solution actually heightened risks by alerting the Soviets to U.S. intentions without removing the missiles itself.  (2)  Kennedy did not assert control of intelligence gathering and the implementation process until after serious mistakes were already made.  (3)  Kennedy was beneficiary of numerous strokes of luck that were beyond his control (and even knowledge).


Although the case aims at illustrating rationality in decision making, the fact is that there is just as much evidence for as against this theory.  Let us consider two completely different alternative explanations.  Institutionalists would be quick to point out - as did Graham Allison many years ago - that most if not all of the decisions taken by both American and Russian officials were driven by bureaucratic dynamics:  the imperfect quest for information, the limited search for options, the selection of "least bad" alternatives and their flawed implementation.  But there is another approach that may be less familiar to the student.  Constructivists argue, among other things, that the values one holds near and dear can direct choice by privileging certain ideas and making other options taboo.  Consider the Kennedy's response to the military options presented before him:  he wasn't so much concerned about their effectiveness as their legitimacy.  He did not want to go down in history as the president that launched a massive surprise attack against a small, Third World country.  This fear of losing his reputation was closely tied to his perception of his own and the American people's values about what is right and wrong - regardless of whether what is wrong might be effective.