Scholars

  • Graham Allison
  • Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow
  • Bruce Allyn
  • David Barrett
  • Richard Betts
  • James Blight and Janet Lang
  • James G. Blight, Bruce Allyn and David Welch
  • James G. Blight, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and David A. Welch
  • James G. Blight and David A. Welch
  • Al Carnesale
  • Michael Dobbs
  • Les Gelb
  • Alexander George
  • Fen Hampson
  • Rafael Hernández
  • David L. Larson
  • Richard Lebow
  • Ernest May
  • Ernest May and Philip Zelikow
  • John J. Mearsheimer
  • Richard Neustadt
  • Richard Neustadt and Graham Allison
  • Richard Neustadt and Ernest May
  • Joseph Nye
  • Michael Peck
  • Walter Pincus
  • Barry R. Posen
  • Joan Rohlfing
  • Stephen Rosen
  • Henry Rowen
  • Joel Rubin
  • Scott Sagan
  • Simon Saradzhyan and Artur Saradzhyan
  • Thomas Schelling
  • William Taubman
  • Marc Trachtenberg
  • Kenneth N. Waltz
  • Matthew Waxman
  • David Welch
  • Viktor Yesin
  • Philip Zelikow
  •  “The relations among the members of the ExComm, their experiences on the job, and their relations to the President seem to me to be critical. These factors vary quite widely over time. Don’t lean on a single case to derive lessons for crisis management and prevention, because when we do that, we overlearn.” (p. 97)

Lesson: Learn a myriad of different cases and examples. If you focus on one case, you overlearn.

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  • “Because of the changes in communication and the media and the Administration’s ability to keep things secret, imagine that the Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred today. Suppose President Kennedy had forty-eight hours to make up his mind before the story leaked. He could either choose to make up his mind in forty-eight hours or forfeit the initiative.” (p. 97)

Lesson: Be wary of leaks. They are far more likely today than in 1962.

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  • “The frame of reference you bring to the issue is vital-the factors you think are important and the weight you attach to them….It’s very hard to get to nuclear war if the framework you bring to the equation is purely rational. But if irrational factors are important in your frame of reference, things look very different.” (p. 97)

Lesson: Recognize that irrational forces are at play during crises. Irrational forces can push mostly rational men to choose nuclear war.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “Kim must be convinced that American nuclear forensics will be able to identify the molecular fingerprint of nuclear material from his Yongbyon reactor. He must feel in his gut the threat that if a nuclear weapon of North Korean origin explodes on American soil or that of a U.S. ally, the United States will retaliate precisely as if North Korea had attacked the United States with a nuclear-armed missile: with an overwhelming response that guarantees this will never happen again.
  • “Here, the president can take a page from President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, as the Soviet Union was emplacing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, some worried that these weapons could be transferred to a young revolutionary named Fidel Castro. Kennedy issued an unambiguous warning to Nikita Khrushchev. "It shall be the policy of this nation," he announced, "to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." Khrushchev knew that meant a nuclear war.”

Lesson: Be serious about deterrence. America’s lack of seriousness towards DPRK has jeopardized our ability to deter them from further acquiring nuclear weapons.

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“Deterring Kim Jong-Il” (WP, 10/27/06)

  •  “What, then, is to be done? First and foremost, the president should not think narrowly about his options, trying to decide between going to war or allowing Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb. Obama’s challenge is to refuse the options available and invent an alternative as far outside the box as Kennedy did during the Missile Crisis.”

Lesson: During crises, consider all available options, or create your own.

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  • “The first and most important lesson from the Missile Crisis for Obama is that when presented with a binary choice between unacceptable options, it is important to explore alternatives that, however unacceptable, are less catastrophic. Kennedy summarized his key take-away from the Missile Crisis this way: Success requires averting “confrontations that bring an adversary to a choice of either humiliating retreat or nuclear war.”

Lesson: If presented with unacceptable options during a crisis, create your own, new option.

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“Will Iran be Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis?” Washington Post, March 8, 2012.

  •  “Instead of choosing between them, he crafted an imaginative alternative with three components: a public deal in which the United States pledged not to invade Cuba if the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles; a private ultimatum threatening to attack Cuba within 24 hours unless Khrushchev accepted that offer; and a secret sweetener that promised the withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved.”

Lesson: When faced with two unacceptable options, create your own, third one.

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  • “The Israeli factor makes the Iranian nuclear situation an even more complex challenge for American policy makers than the Cuban Missile Crisis was. In 1962, only two players were allowed at the main table. Fidel Castro, the Cuban prime minister, sought to become the third, and had he succeeded, the crisis would have become significantly more dangerous. Precisely because the White House recognized that the Cubans could become a wild card, it cut them out of the game. Kennedy informed the Kremlin that it would be held accountable for any attack against the United States emanating from Cuba, however it started.”

Lesson: Make sure all actors part of a crisis know the consequences of their actions.

“At 50, the Cuban Missile Crisis as Guide” (NYT, 6/15/12)

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  • “Lesson One: In addressing nuclear dilemmas, military might and diplomacy are not distinct alternatives, but necessary complements. Kennedy believed that the use of military muscle should be a last resort but knew that projection of U.S. power in ways that threatened potential use of force was an essential instrument of statesmanship. For JFK, force was the hand inside the glove of diplomacy.”

Lesson: Military might and diplomacy are not mutually exclusive.

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  • JFK’s successful strategy in CMC depended on imaginative diplomacy: he invented additional options short of war; presented Khrushchev with the right mix of carrots and sticks.

Lesson: When two options are unattractive, consider a broader scope of possible actions, invent additional alternatives, combining elements of both hard and soft power.

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  • “Lesson Two: President Kennedy famously said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”  Vice President Dick Cheney articulated the Bush administration’s neocon alternative: “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it.” Following that principle, the Bush administration watched as North Korea added eight bombs of plutonium to its arsenal and conducted a nuclear test. Only then did the United States resort to diplomacy…”

Lesson: Always leave the door open for negotiations and diplomacy.

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  • “Lesson Three: The perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Although his ultimate goal was to bury Communism, Kennedy knew that this was a long-term project. Success would require careful small steps that avoided confrontations that could lead to a nuclear war neither country would survive…Robert Gates wrote… "Iran is not on the verge of another revolution . . . The durability of the Islamic Republic and the urgency of the concerns surrounding its policies mandate that the United States deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall".”

Lesson: Distinguish between the ideal outcome in the long-term and what can be achieved in the short-term.

“Lessons from JFK on Power, Diplomacy” (Boston Globe, March 2, 2007).

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  •  “JFK paused to reconsider, concluding upon reflection that his first answer was not the best answer. Probing his advisers about likely Soviet responses, U.S. countermoves, and subsequent third and fourth steps in this deadly chess game, Kennedy stimulated a decision making process that invented additional options short of war… if Bush presses his point, his advisers will discover additional options.”

Lesson: Take time to consider all options before going to war.

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  • “…JFK drew a cardinal lesson: Where the consequences could be catastrophic, never force an adversary to choose between humiliating retreat and war. Before today’s confrontation ends, this may prove the most valuable lesson of the Missile Crisis for Bush.”

Lesson: Give your adversary a “way out” that avoids humiliation or war.

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“Is Iraq like the Cuba Crisis? It’s Worth Bush Considering” (Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 2002)

  • “As President Bush pushes ahead with his campaign proposals to simultaneously build national missile defenses and reduce strategic nuclear offensive capabilities, he should consider the lessons of the Missile Crisis…What, for example, could Russia or China do in response to U.S. missile defense? History shows that such reactions can include unlikely, unforeseen, and highly risky initiatives that pose grave dangers for America.”

Lesson: Consider how your adversary might respond to a perceived change in the status quo.

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  •  “Nuclear war is really possible… No event demonstrates more clearly the fateful gap between “Implausibility” and “impossibility” than the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Lesson: How close the world came to nuclear war during the Cuban crisis should be a reminder to us today of the very real possibility of nuclear war.

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  • “The principal risk of nuclear war arises from the uncontrollable. Both leaders showed a fine sense for risks beyond their control [such as those due to accidents, misperceptions, human fallibility and lack of time]”.

Lesson: Elements of chance can push two nations to the nuclear precipice.

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  • “The reality of nuclear interdependence: an inescapable common interest in avoiding nuclear war… One should always ask: Who depends on whom and how much? Painful as it is for Americans, as well as for Soviets, our security is affected by their insecurity, and vice versa.”

Lesson: Nuclear powers are interdependent based on their shared interest in avoiding nuclear war.

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  • “The perils of crisis management: Any one of dozens of accidents, misperceptions, personal fallibilities, or time driven choices by the Soviets or by Americans could have triggered a chain of reactions ending in war. Lesson: crisis must be prevented.”

Lessons: Avoid crises to prevent escalation to war.

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“Second Look: Lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Boston Globe, October 26, 1987)

We cannot provide the full-text of the recent Foreign Affairs article by Professor Allison. However, a link with some paragraphs is here. A paraphrased list of the lessons is below.

  • On Iran: the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran is like a “Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.

Lesson: When faced with two unacceptable options (as in the Iranian nuclear crisis), make a creative third option.

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  • On North Korea: during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy signaled American resolve by publically demanding the withdrawal of the missiles. With North Korea, the United States has consistently failed to enforce any “lines in the sand”

Lesson: When you warn an adversary, make sure you back up your threats. Don’t bluff!

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  • On China: during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy judged that Cuba had violated the “rules of the road” between the United States and Soviet Union established by previous crises during the Cold War.

Lesson: in the future, the United States and China need to establish their own geopolitical “rules of the road” as the two share power in Asia.

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  • On national security: the lack of leaks gave EXCOMM a chance to decide how to respond to the Soviet Union. A leak of information could have compromised the decision-making process.

Lesson: Secrecy is quite important in decision-making to give time for deliberations.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2012).

  • “For the student or citizen, the chapters on the Missile Crisis are meant to make persuasive an unhappy, troubling, but inescapable fact about this world. No event demonstrates more clearly than the Missile Crisis that with respect to nuclear war there is an awesome crack between unlikelihood and impossibility. Especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, most people would like to imagine that the nuclear sword of Damocles has been carefully lowered and put away, even if it has not been hammered into a plowshare. But in fact the superpower nuclear arsenals and stockpiles, even if diminished, are still in the U.S. and Russia today and will remain there for the foreseeable future (highly enriched uranium having a half-life of three quarters of a million years).” (p. xii)

Lesson: Beware; nuclear war is still possible.

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  • “While the adversarial competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union that led to the Missile Crisis has now faded, other nuclear risks have arisen. For reasons that will become evident in the conceptual chapters, the risk of one or more nuclear weapons exploding on American soil may even be greater now than during the last decades of the Cold War.” (xii)

Lesson: While Cold War is over, be alert for new nuclear dangers.

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Essence of Decision also provides a political scientific analysis of decision-making. Allison and Zelikow identified three models of decision-making: Models I, II, and III. Model I focused on decision-making from the perspective of a state as a rational actor. The second Model focuses on the role of organizations within a government as actors in a collaborative decision-making model. The third model focuses on “governmental politics” and the role of individual policymakers and statesmen negotiating and deliberating to form policy. The following are lessons drawn from the Missile Crisis using these three models.

1. Lessons from Model I:

  • Since nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union would have been mutual suicide, neither nation would choose nuclear war; nuclear war not a serious possibility.
  • Given its strategic nuclear advantage at the time, the U.S. could choose lower-level military actions without fearing escalation to nuclear war.
  • Nuclear crises manageable; when vital interests at stake, leaders of both nations will think soberly about the challenge and their options and find limited actions to resolve disputes short of war.

2. Lessons from Model II:

  • Nuclear crises inherently chancy; information and estimates available to leaders reflect organizational capacities and routines as well as facts.
  • Leaders presented with much narrower options than the menu that analysts might consider desirable.
  • Organizational rigidities and even mistakes crucial for U.S. success.
  • Problem of control and coordination of large organizations, so prescription to put thought into the routines established in principal organizations before a crisis.

3. Lessons from Model III:

  • U.S. leaders can choose actions that they believe entail real possibilities of escalation to war.
  • Process of crisis management obscure and exceedingly risky.
  • Interaction of internal games within White House or Kremlin could yield war, even nuclear war as an outcome. Mix of personality, expertise, influence, and temperament that allows a group to clarify alternatives even while it bargains over separate preferences must be better understood.

Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Longman, 1999).

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  • “The most important lesson about crisis management, one that we continue to fail to follow, is ‘never fear to negotiate’.”
  • “There is one lesson more important: the need to institutionalize the process of learning after such critical historical events.”

Bruce Allyn, “Interview with Mark Thompson: 50 Years Later: The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Time, 10/22)

  • “Keep open the lines of communication to the mavericks, to the iconoclasts who approach matters in a different way. In the Kennedy administration, it was McCone.”

Lesson: Employ multiple viewpoints, including iconoclastic ones, in decision-making process.

David Barrett, “Interview with Jeff Gammage: The Truth about the Cuban Missile Crisis” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/26)

  • Potential benefits and costs of many risk-reduction measures are closely balanced because it is often difficult – especially in crises – to distinguish between deterrence and provocation.  For example, Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba in 1962 and U.S. missiles deployed in Europe since 1983 were deterrents to the side deploying them and provocations to the side facing them.  Moreover, deterrence is based on threat, and the two sides often disagree about which types of weapons and deployments are inherently retaliatory rather than first-strike threats.  In crises mistrust and commitments harden, making it more difficult for leaders to be confident that they can discern or demonstrate the differences between enhanced communication and deception or between restraint and weakness.  The best solution to these tensions is to install sober and careful statesmen in both capitals – a vital but lofty goal. (79)

Lesson: Deterrent measures are frequently seen as provocative, especially in crises; to mitigate tensions resulting from this paradox we need good leaders.

Richard K Betts, “Surprise Attack and Preemption” in Allison, Graham T., Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye, ed. Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War (New York: Norton, 1985), 79.

  • “Treat a lesser power as an equal and pay attention to its fears.”

Lesson: When in crises, give each participant an equal voice.

James Blight and Janet Lang, “How Castro Held the World Hostage” (NYT, 10/25)

  •  “Already we are beginning to see the inexorable process by which historical events when they recede far enough into the past, take on an antiquarian quality and gradually lose their visceral potency. Consider the American Civil War…with every passing year we look upon the Civil War with greater and greater detachment…So it will be with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Already the number of people with clear personal memories of the event is dwindling… every year it gets harder and harder to explain to people who have no living memory of the Cold War how it was that the United States and the Soviet Union could maneuver themselves into a position where they almost destroyed the world in order to preserve the essential conditions of nuclear deterrence on whose threat of mutual destruction they believed the very safety of the world depended.” ( 401-402)
  • “Every young driver should have a brush with disaster soon after acquiring his or her driver’s license, for this is the surest cure for recklessness and exuberance behind the wheel. Those fortunate enough to have had a near miss will know how much their driving improved as a result of it—for a while, at least. As the memory fades, though, so does the effect. And if there is no memory—if the experience was someone else’s merely related in speech—the beneficial effect is likely to be mild and fleeting…” (p. 403)

Lesson: As time passes and memory fades, people look at the Cuban Missile Crisis with greater detachment, losing sight of how dangerous the crisis was. Be wary that many will forget its lessons.

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  • “The Cuban Missile Crisis was a spectacular near miss with enduring, even timeless relevance. Its central lessons—of dangers of political and cultural myopia; of failing to communicate; of misperception, misjudgment, and inadvertence; of failing to make an effort to see the world as one’s adversaries see it; of putting too much faith in the efficacy of threat; of assuming that one’s own motives are transparently benign—are as germane today as they were in 1962…” (p. 403)

Lessons: Be wary of the dangers of political and cultural myopia, of failure to communicate, misperception, failure to put yourself in your opponents’ shoes, of putting faith in efficacy of military threats, and of assuming that one’s motives are benign.

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  • “President Kennedy, of course, had already come to realize at the climax of the crisis that he did not know, and could not control, all of the actions of his own military…it was largely a matter of great good fortune that things did not get out of hand. Particularly dangerous, in our view, was the combination of misperceptions and misjudgments at the highest levels of the civilian leadership in both the United States and the Soviet Union, the sheer complexity of the military systems they sought to control, and the tensions in both countries between civilian leaders who sought primarily to keep matters from spinning out of control, and military leaders who advocated playing hardball.” (406-407)

Lesson: Luck prevented things from getting out of hand; civilian leaders must have control over the military's actions.

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  • “…if the United States and the Soviet Union—two countries favored technologically, unfettered by resource constraints, and fortunate to enjoy a long and stable tradition of civilian control over a professional military establishment—could stumble to the brink of disaster not in spite of having nuclear weapons, but because of nuclear weapons, the implication for countries less advantaged in these respects was clear: nuclear weapons are a problem, not a solution. The nuclear genie is better left in the bottle.” (407)

Lesson: Aspiring nuclear states should know that nuclear weapons are a problem, not a solution.
James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).

  •  “It is remarkable how little the basic parameters of the dispute about the lessons of the Missile Crisis have changed over the past quarter-century: either there are many lessons, chiefly emphasizing the need for flexibility, managerial precision and caution in the face of great danger; or there are no lessons, because the nuclear danger of 1962 was almost surely imaginary, a function of a failure to comprehend the pivotal significance of a favorable military balance for the United States. Part of the reason for this standoff, we believe, is due to a too-easy characterization of “hawks” and “doves”—a distinction that originated during the Missile Crisis itself and continues to the present… A third group can be characterized as “owlish”… The distinguishing feature of the owlish group, which included Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and George Ball, was the weight they assigned to the risks of desperate, irrational Soviet action or to inadvertent escalation… These people recognized the glaring American strategic nuclear superiority, but saw in it as much danger as leverage…The naval quarantine represented an owlish attempt to reconcile the partial truths contained in the options favored by hawks and doves.”

Lesson: Naval quarantine, favored by the “owls”, was a way to reconcile the views of the “hawks” and “doves” – a too-easy categorization that has shaped the debate about the lessons of the crisis.

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  • Understanding one’s adversary is crucial to managing a conflict, as every stage of the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates… Perhaps the most important dimension of knowing one’s enemy is knowing his view of a crisis and what is at stake, for this largely determines which strategies are appropriate and effective, and which are not… The quarantine option, and the owlish approach to the Cuban Missile Crisis in general, was successful largely because it provided the flexibility that enabled the Administration to “learn” about its adversary as the crisis progressed.”

Lesson: It is important to understand your adversary’s view of, and desired outcome in, crises.

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  • “In short, the most important lesson of the Missile Crisis a quarter-century later may be to be wary of reading from it simple lessons on crisis management.”

Lesson: Be wary of drawing simple lessons of crisis management from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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  • “The second lesson concerns the importance of the views of the top leaders who are elected and appointed… While the episode illustrates the extent to which some decision-makers are able to learn new information quickly, it equally clearly illustrates the importance and the dangers of rigidly preconceived world views and the effect they can have on the processing of new information.”

Lesson: Decision-makers’ preconceived world views affect how information is processed.

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  • “A third lesson is closely related to the second: rational models of deterrence are not enough. Deterrence is not a game played by two players seated at a chess or poker table. It is played by small groups of people embedded in enormous complex organizations whose outlines they barely discern and whose detailed operations they scarcely control… what I’ll call “McNamara’s Law,” which states: “It is impossible to predict with a high degree of confidence what the effects of the use of military force will be because of the risks of accident, miscalculation, misperception and inadvertence.” In my opinion, this law ought to be inscribed above all the doorways in the White House and the Pentagon, and it is the overwhelming lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Lesson: Rational actors can choose nuclear war: there are high risks of accident, miscalculation, or misperception that can cause it.

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  • “It is critical for high-level officials to prepare themselves to deal with crises ahead of time… We need to find ways through briefings and simulations to ensure that top officials have a better grasp of the complexity of the nuclear systems they direct before a crisis occurs. On-the-job learning during a crisis is unacceptably risky.”

Lesson: It is critical to prepare top officials to deal with crises before they occur.

James G. Blight, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and David A. Welch, “The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited”, Foreign Affairs, Fall 1987.

  • “The superpowers share one overriding interest: the prevention of catastrophic nuclear war….Thus, the superpowers have a powerful interest in communicating their interests clearly, understanding their respective needs, clarifying the norms and principles governing their behavior in the international arena, and doing their best to ensure that potential conflicts are identified and defused well in advance.” (p. 318)

Lesson: One must effectively communicate with one’s adversary before a crisis. This will expedite identification and mitigation of potential sources of tension.

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  • In 1962, the superpowers had not yet worked out the rules of the road governing such novelties as a Marxist regime in the Western Hemisphere or overseas Soviet military bases. Nor had the two countries yet appreciated the significance of crisis stability; the importance of fast, direct communications between Washington and Moscow; the decreasing utility of force as an instrument of policy. (319)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis reveals the importance of crisis stability and of direct communication. Furthermore, the crisis revealed how threats of military force lost its potency during the nuclear are.

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  • “If there is one major theme common to all three parts of our journey, therefore, it is the significance of the burden of responsibility. That the policymakers at Hawk’s Cay felt this burden so powerfully, while the scholars there felt it not at all, primarily accounted for the gulf between their understandings of the event. It was also the burden of responsibility…that primarily account for the many differences between the hawks’ and the doves’ approaches to the crisis. And it was the burden of responsibility, shared by Kennedy and Khrushchev, which more than anything else enabled the two…to bring the most dangerous confrontation of the nuclear age to a successful, peaceful resolution.” (p. 319-320)

Lesson: The shared burden of responsibility of the two leaders facilitated the resolution of the crisis.

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  • “First, recognizing the positive role of the burden of responsibility in crisis management underscores Robert Kennedy’s observation in Thirteen Days – that the wisdom of the President’s decision was vitally dependent upon the amount of time he had to formulate a response to the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba – though time may not have been vital in the way most of us assumed.” (p. 320)

Lesson: In a crisis, it is important for the president to take time to deliberate on all possible courses of action, not to rush to a quick decision.

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  • Effective crisis management requires taking time to formulate one’s own responses, giving the adversary time to find the cooperative and peaceful way out, and, as Sun Tzu stressed in the Art of War, building golden bridges behind the enemy.” (p. 321)

Lesson: It is important to take time to deliberate in a crisis, as well as to give your adversary time.

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  • “Don’t push your luck; and don’t be too slow.” (332)

Lesson: The President should not hesitate to act for too long.

James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

  •  “Figure out what’s at stake! It’s remarkable how little agreement there was on this here this weekend. And second, don’t have a process that creates a crisis unless you want one. The crisis was caused by the United States because of the way it reacted to the missiles in Cuba. The fact there was a time deadline…was entirely self-generated.” (p. 104)

Lesson: Figure out what’s at stake and don’t start a process that creates crisis.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

  • “Don’t believe the early, first draft of history, which is often written by the victors, channeled through uncritical journalists.”
  • “The real risk of nuclear war in October 1962 arose from miscommunication and miscalculation.”

 Michael Dobbs, “The ‘eyeball to eyeball’ moment that never was” (Foreign Policy, 10/24/12)

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Most important lesson Kennedy drew from reading The Guns of August: ‘mistakes and misunderstandings can unleash an unpredictable chain of events, causing governments to go to war with little understanding of the consequences.’”

Lesson: Biggest source of crisis instability: miscommunication, mistakes, and misunderstandings.

Michael Dobbs, “The Price of a 50-Year Myth” (New York Times, 10/15/12)

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  • “The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates the sometimes pivotal role of personality in politics. Character counts. Had someone else been president in October 1962, the outcome could have been very different.” (p. 351)

Lesson: The role of personality in politics is important during crises.

  • “Acheson attributed the peaceful outcome of the crisis to “plain dumb luck”. This is unfair. The story of the Missile Crisis is replete with misunderstandings and miscalculations. But something more than “dumb luck” was involved in sidestepping a nuclear apocalypse. The real good fortune is that men as sane and level-headed as John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev occupied the White House and the Kremlin in October 1962.” (353)

Lesson: This crisis was not prevented by pure luck. Good leaders are important to navigating a crisis.

  • “There were many intelligence failures…Reviewing this record, one is struck, above all, by the corrosive effects of conventional wisdom. The problem was not so much with the collection of intelligence as with its interpretation and analysis. Eyewitness reports of giant tubes being unloaded from Soviet ships were dismissed because they were at variance with the official CIA estimate…The analysts dismissed the [Bejucal] site from serious consideration because it was protected by a single security fence, in contrast to the multiple fences and guard posts visible at similar installations in the Soviet Union.” (p. 352)

Lesson: Be wary of “conventional wisdom” when conducting intelligence work. Sometimes, the unconventional explanation may explain a shocking truth.

  • “The most enduring lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is that, in a world with nuclear weapons, a classic military victory is an illusion.” (p. 350)

Lesson: Nuclear weapons changed warfare completely: they made classic military victory impossible.

Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008).

  • “The real lesson of the Cuban missile crisis for getting out of Afghanistan or negotiating with Iran is that we have to look for compromises consistent with our national interests.”

Leslie H. Gelb, “Lessons From the Cuban Missile Crisis” (CFR, 10/22)

  •  “Don’t exploit your advantages to force the other side into a choice between a serious defeat and the use of force.” (p. 106)

Lesson: Don’t force your adversary into a corner: let them have a way out for retreat.

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  • “The problem in a crisis is to devise a strategy which will allow you to achieve your objectives without a military confrontation….If we are going to be able to manage crises successfully in the future, we need to build a repertoire of strategies to choose from.” (p. 106)

Lesson: To manage future crises, we much devise strategies to achieve our objectives without the use of force.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • “In previous crises when horizontal escalation seemed possible, such as the Cuban missile crisis, the superpowers have drawn back from the brink.  There is no guarantee that they would exercise such restraint in the future.

Lesson: Though the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully, there are no guarantees future crises will be.

Fen Osler Hampson, “Escalation in Europe,” in Allison, Graham T., Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye, ed. Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War (New York: Norton, 1985), 86

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  •  “A new era in relations among the great powers would imply, as a lesson of the crisis, the acknowledgement of the sovereign interests of small countries and submission to the standards of international law.” (174)

Lesson: Missile Crisis illustrates the need for better international laws and institutions to defend small-state sovereignty.

Cited in Allyn, Bruce J., James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, eds. Back to the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27–28, 1989. (Lanham: University Press of America, 1992).

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  • “As a result of the crisis, one lesson for Cuba was that, in the future, Cuba would have to be able to defend itself by its own means, on its own territory. Therefore, the consolidation of its own defensive capacity would thenceforth be the principal means of deterring the external threat.” (181)

Lesson: Missile Crisis illustrates Cuba’s need to provide for its own defense; it could not rely solely on the Soviet Union.

Cited in Blight, James G., David Lewis and David A. Welch, eds. Cuba Between the Superpowers: The Antigua Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Providence, RI: Center for Foreign Policy Development, 1991).

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  • The impact of the Cuban Crisis on the decision-making process in the United States was rather profound. One of the first things that Kennedy did was to convene a special group of eighteen advisers later dubbed the Executive Committee of the National Security Council…After the crisis had passed, it has been reported that Robert McNamara said that there was no longer bureaucratic decision-making but “crisis management”… Sorensen said that “Procedures do, of course, affect decisions. They especially affect which issues reach the top and which options are presented, and this may, in the last analysis, matter more than the final act of decision itself”.” (p. 13)

Lesson: The decision-making process affects the decision itself.


David L. Larson, The “Cuban Crisis” of 1962: Selected Documents, Chronology and Bibliography, 2nd edn. (University Press of America, 1963/1986).

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  •  “A bewildering array of hypotheses has attempted to explain Soviet policy in the Cuban Missile
    Crisis. Remarkably, practically all of these explanations start with the premise that Khruschev behaved rationally… the assumption of rationality… simply cannot be reconciled with Khrushchev’s policy… an alternative explanation should show why and how Khrushchev convinced himself in the face of all the indications to the contrary that he could successfully put Soviet missiles into Cuba… [“Brinkmanship”] crises could most readily be traced to grave foreign and domestic threats that leaders believed could only be overcome through an aggressive foreign policy. The most important external threat was the expectation of a dramatic shift in the balance of power… a multiplicity of motives on the part of the initiator… Graham Allison has suggested that the missiles could have been perceived as the solution to a number of different problems confronted by influential groups within the Soviet hierarchy. ”

Lesson: Assumption of rationality cannot be reconciled with Khrushchev’s policy. There were various motives for his “brinkmanship”: the deployment of missiles was seen as a solution to different problems by Soviet elites.

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  • “One of the first serious analyses of the Cuban Missile Crisis was Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter’s Controlling the Risks in Cuba, published in 1965…The real problem, the Wohlstetters insisted, was that “each side in short tended to project its own psychology or certain stereotypes about the behavior of the other.” The review of the literature here suggests that this is even truer of the analysts; their interpretations of the crisis tell us at least as much about themselves as they do about Khrushchev and Kennedy. The Cuban Missile Crisis might be likened to a Rorschach test: the ink blots that constitute the few facts reveal little that is conclusive about Soviet policymaking, but the responses of political scientists to them say a lot about their anxiety concerning nuclear war. Unfortunately, the attempt by the analysts to deny the strong strain of irrationality that runs through even the most momentous policy decisions will not make such a war any less likely.”

Lesson: Each side projected its own psychology and stereotypes about the behavior of the other and analysts did the same. Analysts of the Missile Crisis have tried to deny the strong strain of irrationality in decision making.

Richard Ned Lebow, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Reading the Lessons Correctly”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 98, no. 3 (1983): 431-458.

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  •  “As far as the outcome is concerned, I agree in retrospect that we were lucky and the Missile Crisis lowered the long-run risks of nuclear war. But its damaging effects included Vietnam, where wrongly applied lessons had a disastrous outcome, as well as a long and sustained Soviet buildup.” (p. 106)

Lesson: The crisis lowered the long-run risks of nuclear war, but its lessons were wrongly applied in Vietnam.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “One of the important and very difficult lessons from the crisis is that it took time for people to work out the possibilities, to see options that they didn’t see, even for President Kennedy to cool down, because he was prepared in the initial sessions to resort to an immediate attack. And that’s a difficult lesson because there is almost no chance that any president of the United States will have that leisure to deal with a crisis in the future…Presidents just must not allow themselves to be hustled by the media into premature decisions.”

Lesson: During crisis, necessary to have deliberate and thoughtful discussions on possible solutions.

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  • “One of the important and very difficult lessons from the crisis is that it did take time. It took time for people to work out the possibilities, to see options that they didn’t see – even for President Kennedy to cool down, because he was prepared in the initial sessions to resort to immediate attack. I say it’s a difficult lesson because there is almost no chance any president of the United States will have that leisure to deal with a crisis in the future; and the importance of presidents and their advisors internalizing the lesson from this crisis that David Gergen was articulating to some students a couple nights ago that presidents just must not allow themselves to be hussled by the media into premature decisions. To say, ‘I’ve got to think about this.’”

Lesson: Decision makers must have time to develop and consider many options for dealing with international crises, and must not allow themselves to be pushed into premature decisions.

“Thirteen Days and the Cuban Missile Crisis” (presentation, JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, MA, February 20, 2001).

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  • Major policymaking episodes repay the closest possible examination. Only such examination can reconstruct key judgments within the little worlds in which they are made. Only be penetrating these worlds can we truly understand and evaluate that extraordinary human faculty that we label ‘judgment.’ And only by doing that can we learn to do better.” (449–50)

Lesson: The best way to understand and assess the judgments made by policymakers of the past is to consider those judgments in light of the most detailed and seemingly insignificant historical information available.

Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, concise edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002).

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  • Leaders might also lie to cover up a controversial policy that they believe is strategically sound, but that they want to hide from their own public and possibly other countries as well. . . . President John F. Kennedy’s efforts to bring the Cuban Missile Crisis to a peaceful conclusion provide a good example of a leader lying to cover up a controversial policy. To end that crisis before it escalated into a war between the superpowers, Kennedy agreed to the Soviet demand that the United States pull its nuclear-armed Jupiter missiles out of Turkey in return for the Soviets pulling their missiles out of Cuba. The president understood that this concession would not play well with the American public, especially with the political right, and would also damage Washington’s relations with its NATO allies, especially Turkey. So he told the Soviets that they could not speak openly about the deal, or else he would deny it and ultimately renege on it. Still, there were suspicions in the West that such a deal had been cut, and the Kennedy administration was queried on the matter. The president and his principal advisors lied and denied that there had been an agreement to take the Jupiters out of Turkey. In retrospect, it appears to have been a noble lie, since it helped defuse an extremely dangerous confrontation between two states armed with nuclear weapons.” (66–67)

Lesson: Sometimes leaders lie to the public and to other governments in order to resolve international crises. The lies the helped end the Cuban Missile Crises can be viewed nobly because they helped defuse a dangerous nuclear confrontation.

John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics (New York: Oxford, 2011).

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  •  “The President…is very isolated in the thinking he has to do and the concerns he has to take under consideration, even in the presence of a group like the ExComm. (p. 107)

Lessons: In crises, realize that the ultimate decisions rest with the person in charge.

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  • “ExComm didn’t advise the President on the politics of the event. Somebody should have been able to do that.” (p. 107)

Lesson: The president should be advised on the domestic and political ramifications of a crisis.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • “From the Cuban missile crisis, both sides seem to have drawn an abiding mutual interest in the avoidance of destruction by mutual miscalculation. Since then they also may have been discovering a shared distaste for the political risks of nuclear proliferation in a multipolar world.” (25)

Lesson: The crisis led the U.S. and Soviet to take fewer risks, given their newfound fears of destruction by mutual miscalculation.

Richard E. Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership with Reflections on Johnson and Nixon (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976).

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  • Thirteen Days affords us many clues as to why modern Presidents have shied away from Congress in making decisions about war. One clue is secrecy. . . . A second clue is flexibility. . . . Third, flexibility is compounded by uncertainty. . . . Taken together, these factors—above all, time—limit the number of men with whom the constitutional Commander in Chief can engage in meaningful consultation. . . .Time made the presidential mind the only source available from which to draw politically legitimated judgments on what, broadly speaking, can be termed the political feasibilities of contemplated action vis-à-vis our world antagonists: judgments on where history was tending, what opponents could stand, what friends would take, what officials would enforce, what men in the street would tolerate—judgments on the balance of support, opposition, and indifference, at home and abroad.” (141–42)

Lesson: Presidents often make decisions about war apart from Congress and even their advisors because of the need for secrecy, flexibility, uncertainy, and the need to act quickly.

Richard E. Neustadt and Graham T. Allison, afterword to Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days (New York: W.W. Norton, 1971).

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  • The uses made of history appear to have contributed, demonstrably, to the high quality of analysis and management apparent during the missile crisis. Right or wrong, Kennedy had the wherewithal for reasoned and prudent choice, and resort to history helped produce it.”  (16)

Lesson: Kennedy and his advisors used historical examples to help understand the crisis, which increased the quality of their analysis and decisions.

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  • “In employment of government power, particulars matter. Regardless of all else, had Kennedy responded with an airstrike at the outset, it would have killed Cubans and Russians. . . . That may be historically insignificant except to them, but it matters at least to them. Possibly it matters to a great deal many million others. . . . Marginal improvement is worth seeking. Putting off the killing of those people for at least a week probably reduced the risk of nuclear exchange by mutual miscalculation. . . . [M]arginal improvement, as we mean it, could consist of even less and still be worth the effort. For marginally better thinking about an issue can lead to much more than marginally better results—as, for example, in a case where the choice is nuclear war: yes or no. . . . A little thought can help. When JFK learned of the missiles in Cuba, his first impulse was to do something. Only second did he think of whether to do anything, in what sequence, keeping open what options. Reagan’s case is comparable. Second-thoughts were helpful. Much of the thought was historical. Let others emulate.” (31–32)

Lesson: When high government officials make big decisions, details matter, seeking marginally better outcomes is worth the effort, and examining second thoughts can be helpful.

Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986).

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  •  “There are five areas which are seen as preventing us from drawing useful lessons. Why is it that some of these lessons [from 13 Days] still hold and others do not?...Because some things don’t change all that much. One of these is human psychology; people still react to stress, fear, and fatigue the way they did in the 1960s. Another is the dynamics of small-group politics; the way in which personalities and organization interests interact doesn’t change much over time. A third is the wisdom of classical diplomacy; building golden bridges behind your enemy is as valuable and as important in the nuclear age as it was in the age of the great Chinese dynasties. A fourth is the awareness of nuclear risks and the importance of the crystal-ball effect. If the Kaiser, the Czar, and the other leaders of Europe had been able to see in 1914 what the world was going to be like in 1918, there would have been no World War I; nuclear weapons provide a powerful crystalball. They did in 1962, and they do all the more in 1987.” (p. 95)

Lesson: Many of Cuban Missile Crisis’ lessons still hold because of universal conditions. What stays consistent: human psychology, small-group politics, wisdom of classical diplomacy, and “crystal-ball,” predictive effect of nuclear devastation.

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  • “This suggests that that nuclear war is not likely to come from rational action, but from loss of control-and this is the central claim made by what we call “owls” in our earlier book.” (p. 95)

Lesson: Rational action won’t cause nuclear war; loss of control will.

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  • “Among the lessons that owls would draw from the Cuban Missile Crisis are these: First, beware of the danger of misperceptions. Bob McNamara referred to the quarantine earlier as a signal to the Soviets. We know that it was only one among a very great number, several of which the ExComm didn’t even know about, such as the DefCon 2 order going out over an open channel Second, organizational procedures are not full controllable by small groups of men. We heard a great deal about the problems of micromanaging complex military operations such as a quarantine, ASW activities, and reconnaissance. Third, be sensitive to the risks of accident, as illustrated by the stray U-2 over Siberia. Fourth, be sensitive to the effects of stress and fatigue.” (p. 95-96)

Lesson 1: Beware of misperceptions.

Lesson 2: Organization procedures are not fully controllable by small groups of men e.g. military operations.

Lesson 3: Beware of accidents.

Lesson 4: Beware of the toll caused by stress and fatigue.

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  • “Beware of being too clever by half-the uncertainties surrounding any crisis make it both impossible and unwise to craft and pursue a delicately nuanced strategy that relies heavily on your own virtuosity for success. Also, nuclear crises are different…This means that the First World War or Guns of August analogy is only valid up to a point, largely because of the crystal ball effect of nuclear weapons. Finally, a little nuclear deterrence goes a long way. The United States was deterred from taking certain actions by the prospect of just a few Soviet nuclear weapons striking the U.S., despite an overwhelming nuclear superiority….Is this effect symmetrical? In other words, if the balance had been the other way around, would th Soviets have likewise been deterred?...One last observation: the Cuban Missile Crisis does not tell us how much nuclear deterrence is enough, or what form a deterrent should take; but it does make us think twice about relying on purely conventional deterrents, because these have readily broken down in the past.” (96)

Lesson 1: Do not create overly complex plans in crises: avoid being too clever for the situation.

Lesson 2: Nuclear crises provide strong predictive power.

Lesson 3: A little nuclear deterrence can create a big effect on policy.

Lesson 4: Purely conventional deterrents are not as powerful as nuclear weapons.

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  • “It suggests that both hawks and doves had a similar view about the likelihood that nuclear war would come about through rational choice, but differed in their assessments of the risks of inadvertence.” (p. 100)

Lesson: Understand sources of disagreement within one’s own camp during crises.

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  • “Small actions can be misperceived in important ways, with disproportionate consequences.” (p. 250)

Lesson: Beware of even the smallest misperceptions.

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  • “The more secret the plan, the more you cut yourself off from your expertise.” (p. 252)

Lesson: While conducting secret deliberations or actions during a crisis, be aware of those you may be shutting out.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • “I would say Kennedy was a pioneer in terms of using smart power. He was able to use both hard and soft power and combine them very effectively on the world stage. You need to remember that Kennedy was in office in the throes of the Cold War, at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up nuclear arms and fighting proxy wars in far corners of the globe. Hard power was very much on display on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but I do think that Kennedy understood that hard power alone was insufficient.”

Lesson: Leaders cannot rely on use of force alone in foreign policy decision-making.

Molly Lanzarotta, interview with Joseph Nye Jr., “Joseph Nye on JFK’s Legacy and Foreign Policy,” 2/17/11, http://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/publications/insight/jfk50/nye.

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  • Nuclear deterrence is far more complex than the models in the minds of most academic policy analysts. According to the prevailing models, the American advantage of seventeen to one, and the vulnerability of the Soviet forces, should have deterred Khrushchev from placing missiles in Cuba and encouraged Kennedy to take larger risks than he did. Only by looking at the psychology of real leaders in crises can we understand such anomalies.” (p. xiii-xiv)

Lesson: Models cannot fully explain decision-making: one must also account for the psychology of leaders in a given situation.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., foreword to James G. Blight, The Shattered Crystal Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990).

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  • “Human interactions are more like loaded dice. The odds change, and the outcome of one set of events may greatly change the odds for the next event. In fact, frightening events like the Berlin or Cuban missile crisis may drive the odds of war down in their immediate aftermath.” (p. 66)

Lesson: Harrowing events like CMC leave a lasting impact on future national security decisions.

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  • “President Kennedy may have believed the chances of some type of war were between one in three and one in two at the depth of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Given the American strategic advantage at that time and the prospects of limiting damage to the United States by preemptively striking Soviet nuclear forces, some strategists might conclude that Kennedy must not have believed those probabilities would lead to a nuclear exchange, or else he acted irrationally in not launching the first strike that an expected value calculation would suggest. But Kennedy may have felt that such odds were still too low to justify a preemptive strike because he still had a significant chance of avoiding any nuclear war.” (p. 75)

Lesson: Nuclear war not likely enough to justify preemptive military action.

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  • “Was it worth raising the risks of nuclear war so high just to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba?...Had Kennedy allowed Khrushchev to deceive us in Cuba, might Khrushchev subsequently have miscalculated American reactions somewhere else like Berlin, and would that not have increased the probability of nuclear war? All risks must be weighed in light of alternative outcomes.” (p. 76)

Lesson: Consider risks relative to consequences of inaction or different circumstances.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Nuclear Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1986).

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  •  “In cases that involve vital survival interests, we should not rule out unilateral action, though when possible we should seek international support for these actions. The starkest case in the last half century was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. American leaders felt obliged to consider unilateral use of force, though it is important to note that President Kennedy also sought the legitimacy of opinion expressed in multilateral forums such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States.” (p. 159-60)

Lesson: Seek multilateral support whenever possible.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Paradox of American Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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  • “In familiar situations, the problem may be primarily one of coordination and action…But in a novel situation, effective leadership may require greater diversity in the group that shapes decisions…In the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, John F. Kennedy followed standard bureaucratic procedures and received a predictable framework of advice. He learned from this lesson, however, and in his successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, he created a more diverse group and set of procedures to inform his decisions.” (p. 101-02)

Lesson: Unique situations require broader range of perspectives and options.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Powers to Lead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

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  • “As the Cuban Missile Crisis showed, the costs of using military means to remove Castro were potentially enormous, including the risks of nuclear war. At the same time, given the bipolar Cold War, doing nothing could have been costly for America’s political competition with the Soviet Union. Although it is true that sanctions were not effective in removing Castro, they were an efficient means of imposing costs and containing Castro. Military action might (or might not—witness the Bay of Pigs failure) have removed Castro, but given the potential military costs, sanctions might have been the most efficient policy choice available.” (p. 73)

Lesson: Military action may be most effective option to crisis, but risks require policymakers to consider alternatives.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011).

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  • [Cuban Missile Crisis]: “a goodie bag from which politicians and policy-makers grab whatever lesson they need at the moment.”

Lesson: Avoid cherry-picking lessons just in order to justify current policy decisions.

Michael Peck, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: What Would JFK Say About Obama, Romney?” (Forbes, 10/25/12)

  • Understand your enemy’s real views, especially on nuclear weapons.

Walter Pincus, “Cuban missile crisis still a teachable moment” (WP, 10/22/12)

  • “There are many historical examples which demonstrate military evasion of civilian control over military operations. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Navy ran its blockade according to its traditional methods, disregarding President Kennedy’s instruction… American civilian policymakers may have the least influence over the most escalatory operations.” (32)

Lesson: Be wary in international crises: civilian policymakers may lack full control over the military.

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  • Inadvertent escalation may occur because offensive and defensive actions are frequently indistinguishable. The defensive needs of attack submarines, for example, may cause them to destroy Soviet strategic submarines – acts likely to be interpreted by the Soviet Union as very offensive. In more general terms, measures that one state takes to defend itself may seem offensive to the adversary against whom they are directed. The defender may have no choice but to take such actions, even if he understands that they threaten assets that the adversary values highly. Even more dangerous, however, is that the defender frequently does not understand how threatening his behavior, though defensively motivated, may seem to the other side. Thus, when the adversary reacts in a violent or escalatory fashion, the defender is surprised, and may respond even more extremely. This is one way that escalation spirals start.”

Lesson: Ambiguities of offensive and defensive actions could lead to inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.

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  • Inadvertent escalation may also result from the extreme difficulty of gathering and understanding the most relevant information about a war in progress and using it to control and orchestrate the war… The disarray of command, control, communications, and intelligence, often called the “fog of war” would assume global proportions in an East-West war… During the Cuban Missile Crisis, orders to cease U2 flights near the Soviet border were either not received or were ignored; Soviet detection of these flights hindered the negotiations to end the crisis… In the nuclear age, the likelihood of inadvertent escalation might be increased because misperceptions, misunderstandings, poor communications, and unauthorized or unrestrained offensive operations could reduce civilian control of the war and may precipitate unexpected but powerful escalatory pressures.”

Lesson: Difficulties raised by the “fog of war” can result in inadvertent escalation to nuclear war.

Barry R. Posen, “Inadvertent Nuclear War?: Escalation and NATO's Northern Flank”, International Security, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 28-54.

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  • “Miscalculations, mistakes and unknowns, combined with nuclear weapons that made the Missile Crisis so dangerous, can happen today. The world has changed, but our nuclear weapons practices have not caught up.”

Lesson 1: Missile Crisis illustrates the likelihood that something could go wrong during a crisis. Lesson 2: Despite end of Cold War, Missile Crisis reminds us that our current nuclear weapon SOPs have not changed.

Joan Rohlfing, “NTI Twitter Q&A TODAY,” Twitter, October 24, 2012.

  • Why do people have the strategic cultures or traditions that they do? Their cultures emerge from the intense emotional experiences through which they have passed, experiences that created vivid and enduring memories that readily spring to mind. Munich, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, and the war in Vietnam were such experiences. When future, or even present, conditions are difficult to discern, people make decisions based on what they see, and what they see is influenced by their memories of what has happened in the past. Sometimes these are personal memories; sometimes they are organizational or national memories. For example, when confronted with Ho Chi Minh, about whose ultimate intentions there was some doubt, Americans tended to observe that he was an ideological dictator.”

Lesson: Intense emotional experiences like the Cuban missile crisis end up determining people's strategic cultures and traditions.

Stephen Peter Rosen, “Strategic Traditions for the Asia-Pacific Region” Naval War College Review (Winter 2001): Vol. 54, Issue 1.

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  • A person who had caused a negative emotional reaction in the decisionmaker in the past would be a stimulus that would tend to trigger the same emotional response in the target and a policy choice the opposite of what had earlier caused the negative experience. This emotional response would predispose the decisionmaker toward certain broad courses of action such as trust/distrust, cooperate/fight. After that, the serial evaluation of options would occur in order to specify a course of action consistent with the broad emotional response. This does seem to be what happened as Kennedy and Khrushchev interacted in the period beginning in 1961 and up through the Cuban missile crisis...What is striking is that the process in the Cuban missile crisis, which was a success, and the process in the case of Vietnam have notable similarities. In both cases, a close examination clearly shows that the basic decision was made very early in the process, before it was necessary to decide, and quite clearly before all the relevant information had been received. In both cases, the decision was not changed, or even reconsidered, when important information or analysis was received that was not consistent with the decision. And, in both cases, it is possible to argue that the president acted to avoid domestic political punishment, but only if one is willing to assume that the president would try to stay in office by involving the country in a major war, accepting the possibility of thousands or millions of casualties, and did not care about the domestic political punishment associated with those costs.” (63, 68)

Lesson: Leaders do not use fully rational decision-making processes, including taking into account new information, to determine what course of action to take.

Stephen Peter Rosen, War and Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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  • “Most of the time [the Soviet Union and the United States] are competing.  Examples are the 1962 Cuban crisis and the 1973 Arab-Israeli episode.  In the former, the threat of nuclear escalation was explicit, in the latter implicit.  In each case, the two parties were in direct communication with each other, maneuvering for advantage in terms of the local stakes.  These examples illustrate an important defect in much of the recent discussion about crisis management.  There is a tendency to assume that the overriding interest of the parties is to defuse the crisis.  Their objectives are usually more complex.  Considerations may include the immediate outcome (for example, the removal – or not – of Soviet missiles in Cuba or the survival of the trapped Egyptian army); the longer-term regional stakes (for example, the preservation of Castro’s power and his ties to the Soviet Union); the possibility of Great Power conflict and escalation to nuclear war; and the impact on the overall balance of power, what the Soviets call the “correlation of forces.” The balancing of these factors continually shifts during a crisis.  “Crisis management” means more than avoiding nuclear weapons use.  But that goal would certainly be given progressively more weight as a crisis intensified.…Experience shows that states with nuclear weapons behave cautiously toward one another.  This record supports a prediction that as more states acquire nuclear weapons, the probability of their getting involved in conflicts will god own.  However, this factor is not decisive, as the Cuban missile crisis, the Sino-Soviet border clashes, and the U.S.-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East illustrates.

Lesson: Crises between nuclear-armed states can happen, and when they do, participants want to fulfill their interests in the crisis, not just avoid war. This makes crises all the more dangerous.

Henry S. Rowen, “Catalytic Nuclear War,” in Allison, Graham T., Albert Carnesale, and Joseph S. Nye, ed. Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War (New York: Norton, 1985), 161-163.

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  • “Members of Congress should learn from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our commander in chief needs political space to do what’s necessary to prevent a new war in the Middle East.

Lesson: In foreign policy crises, often President and decision-making team will need time and space to deliberate over decisions before pursuing one course of action.

Joel Rubin, “What the Cuban Missile Crisis Teaches Us About Iran”, (Huffington Post, 10/19/12)

  • “First… it appears that the U.S. nuclear command system was not so tightly coupled so as to prevent recovery from the serious nuclear weapons incidents that did develop during the crisis… The false warnings that did occur did not immediately or automatically produce a reaction that could not be terminated prior to war… The nuclear command system was designed to be more tightly coupled than it turned out to be. For example, the Strategic Air Command was supposed to launch the bombers, under failsafe procedures, before nuclear weapons were predicted to detonate on U.S. soil. SAC, however, failed to do this during the October 28 “test tape” warning incident. There was clearly some slack in this system; but a large part of it was not there by design.” (p. 154)

Lesson: The nuclear command system’s alert system was designed to be more tightly coupled to nuclear alerts than it turned out to be.

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  • “There was an element of good luck involved in avoiding accidental war in October 1962… It would be going too far to argue that the successful outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis was, to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase, “a homage to plain dumb luck.” It is nonetheless frightening to recognize fully the degree of caprice upon which nuclear safety insecurely stood in October 1962.” (154-155)

Lesson: There is an element of luck involved in avoiding accidental war.

Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

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  • “The military machine is so complex that no EXCOMM can know and handle everything at once.” (p. 107)

Lesson: In crises, realize the limits of control that even competent individuals can have.

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  • “We should avoid crises where we can; but that’s not always our choice.” (p. 107)

Lesson: The best way to solve crises is to avoid them.

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  • “[In regard to Robert McNamara’s clash with the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations over the conduct of the blockade of Cuba], It is extraordinarily important that we do something to institutionalize what Bob McNamara did with the admirals.” (p. 107)

Lesson: Ensure civilian control over the military.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis(New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • Armenian and Azeri leaders should review their militaries’ routines to weed out those contingency SOPs that may lead to escalation of a crisis into a war against their orders.
  • Keep in mind that escalation can acquire its own logic.
  • Establish a hotline between Yerevan and Baku.
  • Don’t harbor hopes that the opponent will back down.
  • Avoid cornering the opponent.
  • Factor in reaction of key stakeholders on both sides of the conflict.
  • Azeri and Armenian leaders should avoid adventurist moves.

Simon Saradzhyan and Artur Saradzhyan, “7 Lessons of Cuban Crisis for Karabakh Conflict” (Huffington Post, 10/25/12)

  • “The Cuban Missile Crisis was the best thing to happen to us since the Second World War. It helped us avoid further confrontation with the Soviets; it resolved the Berlin issue; and it established a new basic understandings about U.S.-Soviet interaction. Sometimes the gambles you take pay off.” (p. 104)

Lesson: The Cuban Missile Crisis gamble paid off: it helped the U.S. avoid further confrontation with the Soviet Union.

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  • “If I took the risks of nuclear war to be McNamara’s one in fifty, I’d conclude that the risks were worth taking if the risks were greater than one in fifty with things going on as they were in Berlin and elsewhere. The answer to Al’s question “Do we want the crisis?” is yes. Now, that doesn’t make me a hawk; I worry enough about nuclear war that I am willing to take a one-shot risk to reduce the risks over the long run.” (p. 104)

Lesson: High risk actions are sometimes justified to reduce long-term risks.

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  • “The stress of responsibility may simply make a very great deal of difference.” (p. 105)

Lesson: Be aware of the effects of stress on participants in the crisis.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  •  “I’d like to stress again the importance of what I see as Khrushchev’s uniqueness. As I pointed out earlier, his singular character and approached are central to explaining both why he placed missiles in Cuba so recklessly and why he took them out again so ready.” (p. 106)

Lesson: Know your adversary. Their actions in crises are highly contingent on their personality.

Cited in James G. Blight and David Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989).

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  • “…a nuclear war was possible because events could have a momentum of their own, quite apart from the conscious intent of statesmen.” (141)

Lesson: Uncontrollable elements, such as accidents and miscalculations, may drive states to nuclear war.

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  • “…the highest officials in the American government clearly recognized that a confrontation with the Soviet Union would entail a certain risk of nuclear war. But they felt that this was a risk that simply had to be accepted… fear of escalation did not drive the threshold of acceptable risk down to zero.” (142, 156)

Lesson: One must be willing to accept a certain risk of escalation in order to prevent nuclear war.

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  • “…the specter of nuclear war was deliberately manipulated to support American objectives in the crisis… McNamara’s assumption was that nuclear preparations would serve to deter Soviet responses in general; that is, the implied nuclear threat was not directed simply at the possibility that the U.S.S.R. might consider using its nuclear forces… the risk of nuclear war did play a role. Indeed, this risk was overtly and deliberately exploited. But this was a deadly game, played reluctantly…” (142-143, 158)

Lesson: Nuclear weapons can be used for political purposes. The risk of nuclear war was consciously manipulated in order to affect Soviet options in the crisis and support American objectives.

Marc Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis”, International Security, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Summer, 1985), pp. 137-163.

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  • “With nuclear weapons, political leaders worry not about what may happen in the first phase of fighting but about what may happen in the end. As Clausewitz wrote, if war should ever approach the absolute, it would become “imperative ... not to take the first step without considering what may be the last” (1976, 584). Since war now approaches the absolute, it is hardly surprising that President Kennedy echoed Clausewitz’ words during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. “It isn’t the first step that concerns me,” he said, “but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step - and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so” (R. Kennedy 1969, 98). In conventional crises, leaders may sensibly seek one advantage or another. They may bluff by threatening escalatory steps they are in fact unwilling to take…A conventional country enjoying military superiority is tempted to use it before other countries right the military balance. A nuclear country enjoying superiority is reluctant to use it because no one can promise the full success of a disarming strike.” (734)

Lesson: (1) In a nuclear confrontation, no country can take a first step without considering the last. (2) Nuclear deterrence works; due to the fear of nuclear retaliation, states are more cautious and will not risk escalation.

Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), pp. 731-745.

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  • “Security strategy and international law are inseparably entwined…perceived strategic necessities eventually may compel military action even without clear-cut legal authority... but law is itself a factor in that strategic calculus.”

Lesson: In any international crisis, pay attention to international law. It can make or break your decision.

Matthew Waxman, “What the Cuban Missile Crisis Teaches Us about Iran” (CNN, 10/24)

  • “Don’t provoke animosity.”
  • “Cultivate empathy.”
  • “The ultimate lesson of the Cuban missile crisis…was that rather than starting a battle that might be impossible to contain, two adversaries reached a peaceful resolution through threats of military action together with diplomacy.”

David Welch, “Interview with Janet Thomson: Cuban missile crisis has crucial lessons for modern leaders” (CBC News, 10/18/12)

Lesson 1: No one can “win” a nuclear war.

The first lesson is the most important one. Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the politicomilitary leadership of the Soviet Union and the United States had believed it would be possible to use nuclear weapons to win in a war against each other. Indeed, that belief was even articulated in their respective military doctrines. Having found themselves on the edge of nuclear abyss during the CMC, Soviet and American leaders realized that there could be no winners in a nuclear war. They realized that after the opponent is defeated, a war cannot be considered victorious if it involves the death of an estimated total of 80–100 million people of your own people. Moreover, no one could guarantee against the deaths of millions more as a result of the subsequent environmental catastrophe caused by nuclear war.

This realization led to the creation in 1963 of a direct communications link between the Kremlin and the White House so that the leaders of the U.S.S.R. and the United States could quickly resolve any crisis before it could escalate to a military confrontation. Further on, the countries signed the Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics in 1971 and the Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics on Prevention of Nuclear War in 1973. These agreements are open-ended and they continue to contribute to maintenance of strategic stability and international security to date.

Lesson 2: In a nuclear confrontation, both sides must compromise in order to find a mutually acceptable solution. There is no other rational way out of the crisis.

The U.S. and U.S.S.R. only found a way out of the CMC when both sides expressed a willingness to compromise and make mutual concessions. This created a window of opportunity to find mutually acceptable solutions rather than corner the opposing party with ultimatums.

There is simply no other rational way out of situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear missile confrontations and ultimatums are not compatible.

Both countries benefited from learning this lesson. The two countries have not encountered such crisis situations in the course of the 50 years since the CMC. The bilateral relationship has had its ups and downs: one need only look at the tense situation around Able Archer in Fall 1983. Yet the superpowers never again came so perilously close to the danger of fullscale nuclear war as they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both sides gradually formed views on how to ensure strategic stability and that was reflected in a number of official Soviet-U.S. and then Russian-U.S. documents.

Lesson 3: Prepare to make decisions thoroughly. Make sure there is clear and timely communication between you and your adversary during a crisis.

The Cuban Missile Crisis illustrated the need to prepare thoroughly and professionally to make any and all decisions in a crisis. It also illustrated the need for timely communication of those decisions to an opposing side. A number of setbacks occurred in decision making process of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. that made resolution of the CMC far much more difficult. Those failures brought both sides to the edge of a nuclear abyss. For example, Kennedy received through the U.S. embassy in Moscow a private letter from Khrushchev on the evening of October 26, 1962, in which the Soviet leader stated that the U.S.S.R agreed to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba if the United States would guarantee that it would not invade Cuba. The American president and his entourage began to draft a reply to Khrushchev, in which they agreed to offer a guarantee of non-aggression to Cuba in exchange for withdrawal of Soviet nuclear missiles. However, Kennedy then received another letter from Khrushchev on the morning of October 27. In that letter the Soviet leader put forward another condition for resolution of the crisis: withdrawal of America’s Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey. This message, which Americans believed to be a follow-on to the letter he received on October 26, changed the whole atmosphere of the negotiations. The Americans began to think that either there had been a coup in the Kremlin or that Khrushchev had come under such strong pressure from Kremlin hawks that he had to abandon his conciliatory position.

In reality, the ‘second’ message that Kennedy received on October 27 was supposed to have been first. It was only due to the sluggishness of employees of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs—who delayed sending Khrushchev’s original letter—that Kennedy read the conciliatory follow-on letter first and heard the aggressive, original message second.

The confusion over the sequence of Khrushchev’s messages could have led to disastrous consequences if were not for Robert Kennedy, brother of the American president and U.S. Attorney General. On the evening of October 27, Robert Kennedy met with Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the United States. That meeting cleared up the misunderstandings and soon thereafter President Kennedy sent to Chairman Khrushchev a message that enabled the Soviet leader to accept the conditions for resolution of the crisis proposed by the American side: guarantee of non-aggression against Cuba in return for withdrawal of the Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba.

Lesson 4: Do not rely purely on intelligence agencies for information.

The actions undertaken by the militaries of the nations involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated that decisions should not be based solely on information collected through intelligence. Both the U.S. and Soviet intelligence agencies made mistakes when drawing conclusions from their analysis of the situation during the crisis.

Erroneous intelligence analysis led to erroneous decisions that increased the chances for the outbreak of hostilities. For example, General Thomas Power, head of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, issued an order on October 24, 1962 to put subordinate units on full alert, even though the situation did not require this. On October 27, 1962, General Stepan Grechko, who at that time served as deputy commander of the Soviet forces in Cuba with responsibility for air defense, gave the order to open fire at an American U-2 spy plane. Two missiles launched from the Dvina air defense system (NATO reporting name: SA-2 Guideline) hit the reconnaissance plane, killing the pilot. This incident almost pushed the crisis to the breaking point.

This study is intended neither to be exhaustively comprehensive nor to represent the ultimate truth. It is the result of the author’s purely personal reflections, inspired not only by his memories as a direct participant in the menacing events of 1962, but also by the information on these events that has become available to him in recent years.

  • “The crisis was driven by the side that had the strategic initiative. To have the strategic initiative is to set the time, place and manner of engagement.

Philip Zelikow, “Learn the Cuba lesson and seize initiative”, (Financial Times, 10/18/12)

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