Decision Making in the Cuban Missle Crisis



A decision can be defined as the culmination of a thought process analysing a problem. Good decision making is vital for the well being and safety of a man. Many men who have not given it a thought have come to grief because of poor decisions. Naturally we make poor decisions all from time to time, but a man needs to rediscover himself and identify those qualities, which are critical to good decision making.

Historical perspective


After the Second World War, most of the countries in Europe and Latin America became a fertile land for proxy wars between the two superpowers, i.e. USSR and USA. While the Soviet Union campaigned for communism in their areas of influence the USA promoted liberal democratic values and capitalism. The race for world domination was such that both the superpowers escalated the nuclear arms race and always prepared for a nuclear strike in their soil from the opposing camp. Naturally, they wanted to place nuclear missiles in areas that could reach the enemy state in terms of the range of the missiles. The Cuban Missile crisis was an example of such strategies.

American intelligence

The crisis came to surface on 14th October 1962 when the intelligence images provided by American U2 reconnaissance flights showed some spots in Cuba which were installing and moving nuclear missiles.

President Kennedy and principal foreign policy and national defense officials were briefed on the U-2 findings and discussions were held about the course of action to be taken in response to the nuclear threat. Two principal plans were formulated an air strike and invasion, or a naval quarantine with the threat of further military action.

President Kennedy decided to keep the findings confidential from the public eye, so as to avoid the chaos that would follow in response to such as dangerous nuclear threat. As American military units started being deployed in bases in South Eastern US, President Kennedy’s official schedules were maintained while secret discussions were periodically held with advisers to monitor the developments and come up with strategies to diffuse the situation.

During this time, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in a visit to President Kennedy said that the Soviet aid being provided to Cuba were for defensive purposes and would pose no threat to the US. The US president kept the information he had about the nuclear missiles confidential. However, he also mentioned to the Soviet Foreign Minister that any threat to American national security would be dealt with in a harsh manner. Meanwhile, more images of from another U2 flight showed additional sites and the number of missiles were estimated to be between 16 to 32.

American Response plans

After 5 days of deliberations about the response to be taken, it was decided to go ahead with the plan to quarantine Cuba by US Navy ships. A decision to inform the American citizens was also taken.

On the sixth day, President Kennedy was informed by General Walter Sweeney of the Tactical Air Command who tells him that an air strike could not guarantee 100% destruction of the missiles.

To seek the advice of his predecessors former Presidents Hoover, Truman, and Eisenhower were briefed about the situation on the 7th day. The president also established the Executive Committee of the National Security Council to monitor the crisis everyday, and also informed his ally the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of the situation.

A letter was also sent to Soviet leader Khrushchev in which President Kennedy argued about the futile effort of a nuclear confrontation which would result in a catastrophic destruction of all parties concerned as well as the whole world. The president addressed the American citizens about the situation the same day in a televised conference.

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On the 23rd of October, the USA starts diplomatic maneuvers to gather international support against the aggression of the Soviets. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Edwin Martin seeks a resolution of support from the Organization of American States. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson lays the matter before the U.N. Security Council.

In this period, the American ships of the naval quarantine fleet move into place around Cuba. Soviet submarines threaten the quarantine by moving into the Caribbean area. However, Khrushchev orders Soviet ships on their way to Cuba to stop in the Atlantic about 750 miles away. This prevents a confrontation but, the oil tanker Bucharest continues towards Cuba. In the evening Robert Kennedy meets with Ambassador Dobrynin at the Soviet Embassy.

Russian Response and American Counter response

On the 24th of October the Soviet premier sends a letter to President Kennedy. President Khrushchev’s response to the letter sent by US president Kennedy indicated that the Soviets were not willing to take away Missiles and blamed the US for showing aggression by carrying out a naval quarantine. According to the Soviets, the US was trying to intimidate them by threatening to use force against the Soviet ship thereby, endangering international peace.

The next day, Kennedy writes a letter to Khrushchev to urge him to step down. He had been briefed that some of the missiles in Cuba had already become operational. Meanwhile, the U.N. tries to negotiate a settlement by suggesting a short period for cooling down the tension. However, it is rejected by the US because the missiles could be deployed at any time given that it had already become operationally ready. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in a debate at the Security Council shows the photographs of the missiles in presence of the Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin.

The US president also orders his Air Force to increase the number of flights over Cuba from once a day to twice a day, so as to gather more intelligence.Photographic evidence shows accelerated construction of the missile sites and the uncrating of Soviet IL-28 bombers at Cuban airfields.

During this period Cuban president Fidel Castro urges the Soviets to initiate a nuclear first strike, but Khrushchev is not prepared for a nuclear war. So, he sends a letter to Kennedy with an offer to remove the missiles if the Americans agree to lift the quarantine along with a promise that it will not invade Cuba.

American intelligence in this period shows that construction activities of missile sites are progressing at an alarming speed, so the USA starts discussing about invading Cuba to control the missile sites. However, they become concerned that invading Cuba would definitely result in a war that could turn nuclear.

On the 12th day of the crisis another letter from Moscow is received in Washington. This letter demands the removal of American missile from Turkey in exchange for removal of missiles from Cuba. Deliberation in Washington decides to ignore this second letter and respond only to the previous one. At the mean time the American Air force is kept in high alert to be ready for an invasion, if it is decided.

Later that night, Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s confidante meets secretly with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin where it is agreed that the Soviets would remove the missiles under United Nations supervision in exchange for an American pledge not to invade Cuba.

Theories used in crisis decision making

  1. Rational actor model

Rational actor model attempts to describe a state’s behavior as that of a perfectly rational individual, who is normally assumed to have perfect situational knowledge, and who attempts to optimize whatever values/goals are sought in a given situation. (Slantchev, 2005).

The basic assumption of this model is that in a difficult situation nation consider all options and act rationally to maximize their utility.

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Under this model:

  1. Governments are treated as the primary actor.
  2. The government examines a set of goals, evaluates them according to their utility, then picks the one that has the highest “payoff.”
  3. The action is chosen as a calculated solution to a strategic problem
  4. Explanation consists of showing what goal the government was pursuing when it acted and how the action was a reasonable choice given the nation’s objective

The formal way of defining rational actor model is by using four key concepts.In order to determinethe possible cause of actions of nations following criteria must be analyzed. Scrutinize reading of this concept also reveals the process of development of decision by national leader.

(1) The Goals and Objectives of the Nation,

(2) The Alternatives,

(3) The Consequences,

4) The Choice the nation made

  1. Organization process model

An “organizational process” model is one of the decision making model in which there is time and information limitations and Decision makers involved does not seek an optimal solution rather attempts to find a solution which achieves a set (minimum) goal, and minimizes risk of failure.

The organizational model focuses mainly on four concepts

  1. On the type of group and office involved
  2. Type of information
  3. The task being done
  4. The task that the groups are actually capable of doing

This model attempts to forecast thefuture activities of organization based on its present activity. The organizations involved in the decision making were military, Intelligence, White house. The personnel involved were some core group decision makers.

The type of information that the group got was from the CIA efforts of collecting data on Cuba and a standard protocol that planned airreconnaissance in the Cuban air space .The detail information about the presence of missile proved to be important. But there were also criticism that the information provided was not in time

Kennedy chose the option of naval blockade in Cuba. It was made possible by the factthat, A big and strong navy already existed in U.S. and Navy had already prepared and rehearsed a comprehensive operational plan.

The organization process model attempts to define action that is otherwise not described by rational actor model. It explains all the actions during the crisis are not only the result of rational decision making but also the consequence of normal organizational processes.

For example, in Cuban missile crisis, the strategy of Russians was different at different time period. While the ships were being taken to Cuba, the secrecy and camouflage was given the highest priority. But once the ship reached Cuba, there priority shifted on building missile bases.

  1. The government politics model

The third model is recognized as thegovernmental politics model or bureaucratic model and is characterized by the use of various decision makers and committee leadership.(Sexton, 2007) . The Government politics model adopted by the administration of the US president highlights

  1. The personalities of individuals,
  2. Their backgrounds and
  3. Theinterdependent influences among each other in a group.

President Kennedy selected the core group advisors and depended on them for taking decision. The advisors also comprised of his own brother Robert, the nation’s Attorney General at the time and TheodoreSorenson. Governmental Behavior Model

A Governmental Behavior Model focuses on the individuals that took part in the decision making , their background , their personality traits , the level of information they had and their overall influence in overall decision making process. It emphasizes that actions may not be the result of one monolithic entity choosing the most rational action, but rather the integrated and refined effort of many people with different background, objectives, information and estimates of outcomes that were discussed and compromised. For example, Kennedy put together a committee of advisors, including his national security advisor, the head of the state department, the head of the DoD, and other acting government leaders, a former ambassador to Russia, a retired State Department administrator, and others. The Transcripts of tapes of the White House discussions, the book that were made public later clearly shows the debating and decision-making process. It includes how various members of the discussion brought up ideas, changed sides, and fused their ideas together.. (John, 2010)

  1. Small group model

In the Cuban missile crisis, The decision making process reflected the small group model . The decision was solely made by the EXCOMM and the president. This model emphasize on the need for secrecy, decisiveness in policy making, speed and an extraordinary degree of liquidity in the flow of information to and from the White House.(Gopalan, 2014). President Kennedy created the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOM) to advise him on the Cuban Missile Crisis. The EXCOMM was formally established by National Security Action Memorandum 196 on Oct 22, 1962.

Outcome of Cuban missile Crisis

Kennedy certainly came out of the crisis with a reputation greatly enhanced in the west. Khrushchev, for his part, was deemed by his colleagues to have suffered a humiliation, and the crisis was one of the issues that led to his being deposed in October 1964.

They both have showed responsible leadership and a means to find a peaceful resolution. They both have rejected hard-line advices and were careful not to escalate the crisis. Khrushchev might even be said to have shown greater courage in making what was publicly seen as the larger concessions.

In the aftermath of the crisis they both worked to improve relation and prevent a recurrence of such a confrontation. The “hotline” allowing direct communication between both leaders was installed and the Partial Test Ban Treaty of September 1963 signified a 1st step towards arm control. Kennedy’s hope to build on these steps, brutally ended by his assassination in November 1963, further heightened his statesman- like image.

However both men had acted recklessly in bringing the crisis about. Khrushchev and Castro should have realized the danger of secretly introducing nuclear weapons into Cuba. They could not be kept secret, and the US reaction should have been predictable. Conventional forces, perhaps a couple of Soviet armored brigades, should have been enough to deter a US invasion of Cuba, without risking a major confrontation. And Kennedy could have too secretly requested to remove the missile, might have avoided a confrontation.

Finally, the world was fortunate that the greatest crisis of the Cold War era was deescalated. If the technology advances have made missile launch shorter and submarines quitter and when decisions could be made in minutes, the consequences could easily have been catastrophic. After the Cuban Missile Crisis both sides were careful to avoid such circumstances. One Missile Crisis was enough.


Allison, G. P. (1999). Essence of Decision. New York: Longman.

Cuban Missile crisis. (2014). Retrieved April 18, 2014, from HISTORY:

Cuban Missile Crisis. (2014). Retrieved April 23, 2014, from John of Keneddy Presidential Library and Museum.:

Elite theory. (2014, 25 April). Retrieved April 30, 2014, from Wikipedia:

Essence of Decision. (2014, May 03). Retrieved May 03, 2014, from Wikipedia:

Gopalan, K. (2014). Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Retrieved April 24, 2014, from FOREIGN POLICY JOURNAL :

John, M. (2010, January 12). Essense of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Retrieved april 23, 2014, from Essense of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis:

L.Slantchev. (n.d.). Chapter 13. Decision Making in Politics. . Retrieved April 24, 2014, from The Challenge of politics , the introduction of political science:


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