Cuban Missile Crisis
13 Days of October, 1962

(The following is a vignette; for a fuller analysis, read Allison and Zelikow 1999, Chapter 6 "The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Third Cut" pg. 325-328;338-346.)

On October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was informed that the Soviet Union had installed offensive missiles in Cuba. Once the missiles were discovered, crisis decision-making was organized around an informally selected group of advisers that met initially at the White House or the State Department. From October 20, the process became more formal and regular in successive meetings of the National Security Council. The decision makers had narrowed to an inner circle, designated as the Executive Committee ("ExCom") of the NSC. They met at the White House for the duration of the crisis. After the crisis the ExCom continued to work on other issues during the Kennedy administration. The major players in the ExCom included:

Each player saw a different face of the issue posed by the Soviet deployment of missiles on Cuba.

President Kennedy was incensed, especially since the policy of his administration had been aimed at relaxing tension and building trust between the two countries.

McNamara saw the spectre of nuclear war and argued that the missiles did not affect the strategic balance of power. He maintained that "a missile is a missile" and that "it makes no great difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba." (Hilsman 1967, p. 195)

Robert Kennedy was concerned that, should the US decide to launch an aggressive attack on Cuba, his brother's name would be discredited in history, since a sudden attack would be like a "Pearl Harbor in reverse." (Sorensen 1963, p. 684)

To the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the missile deployment provided the occasion for removing the Castro communist threat from the Western Hemisphere, and they advocated a massive air strike, leading to an invasion, and the overthrow of Castro.

Despite the diversity of stands and perceptions, by the second day of the crisis, the Executive Committee had converged on two military alternatives: the air strike or the blockade.

President Kennedy wanted a forceful, decisive response to bolster his leadership and confidence in his leadership (particularly after the fiasco of the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs a year before).

Under attack from other members of the ExCom, McNamara came to concede that the missile deployment did affect the balance of power. In the end, the non-military option was abandoned more because of the intra-governmental balance of power than because of logical argument (Allison 1971, 1999).

At first, President Kennedy favored a surgical air strike to destroy the missile bases alone, but this alternative was blocked on several fronts. McNamara remained firmly against the air strike, while Robert Kennedy continued to press his Pearl Harbor analogy. Together with Sorensen, the three men, comprising the President's most trusted advisers, were united in a 'triple alliance' coalition against the air strike.

The players who supported the air strike, the Chiefs of Staff, chief of CIA, Secretary of State and others, were not the people the President considered his natural allies. McNamara introduced the information that a surgical air strike was militarily impractical in the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that any military action would target all miltary installations in Cuba, leading to an invasion (Kennedy 1969, p. 34).

The Air Force was apparently preparing for a massive air attack for which, the Air Force admitted, "there could be no assurance that all the missiles would have been removed." (Sorensen 1963, p. 684) It was probably this that swayed the President over to the option of a blockade.

The rest of the Executive Committee had to be persuaded, and Robert Kennedy and Sorensen were given the task. Robert Kennedy was particularly effective in encouraging uninhibited discussions, although the words of one participant may also be telling: "We all knew little brother was watching; and keeping a little list of where everyone stood." (Abel 1966, p. 58)

On the evening of October 18, President Kennedy informed the Executive Committee that he was in favor of the naval blockade. Nevertheless, the advocates of the air strike continued to press their arguments over the next three days. The Joint Chiefs of Staff intercepted the President the next day to make their case again, and on Sunday the Air Force made a last plea for a massive air strike. But the President stayed his course -- while a blockade may not remove the missiles, an air attack could not completely destroy the missiles either.

In the decisive White House meeting on October 20,

  1. McNamara presented the blockade + negotiate approach
  2. Taylor, supported by Bundy, presented the case for an air strike
  3. Robert Kennedy argued for the blockade + ultimatum option
  4. Rusk proposed the blockade + freeze alternative.

President Kennedy first rejected the blockade + negotiate approach (feeling that the world would think the US has been frigthened into abandoning its positions), and then ruled in favor of the blockade + ultimatum option, while urging that any air strike be limited only to the missile sites. The meeting "resembled a Greek drama in which the players manoeuvered according to a plot that moved inexorably toward the predetermined outcome." (Allison 1971)

On Monday October 22, Kennedy announced to the world the US decision to blockade Cuba to counteract the missile build-up in Cuba.

Allison (1971, 1999) summarizes: " The decision to blockade thus emerged as a collage. Its pieces included the President's initial decision that something forceful had to be done; the resistance of McNamara, Robert Kennedy, and Sorensen to the air strike; the relative distance between the President and the air-strike advocates; and an inaccurate piece of information [McNamara's information that the surgical air strike was militarily impractical]." (p. 206-207; 346)

(Adapted from The Knowing Organization, Chap. 5: based on Allison 1971 and Allison and Zelikow 1999).

Case Discussion

Using the Political Model, identify features in the case that may be explained by the model:

  1. What were the different goals and alternatives being pursued?

  2. Were there coalitions or groups?

  3. What decision procedures or forums were adopted?

  4. How was power exercised to influence decision making?

Additional Resources