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Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis is an analysis, by political scientist Graham T. Allison, of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Allison used the crisis as a case study for future studies into governmental decision-making. The book became the founding study of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and in doing so revolutionized the field of international relations.

Allison originally published the book in 1971. In 1999, because of new materials available (including tape recordings of the U.S. government’s proceedings), he rewrote the book with Philip Zelikow.

The title is based on a speech by John F. Kennedy, in which he said, “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.

The “Rational Actor” Model

The origin of Allison’s first model is explained above. Basically, under this theory:

  • Governments are treated as the primary actor.
  • The government examines a set of goals, evaluates them according to their utility, then picks the one that has the highest “payoff.”

Under this theory, Allison explains the crisis like this:

  1. John F. Kennedy, in 1961, revealed that the Soviet Union, despite rhetoric, had far fewer ICBMs than it claimed. In response,Nikita Khrushchev ordered nuclear missiles with shorter ranges installed in Cuba. In one move, the Soviets bridged the “missile gap” while scoring points in the Cold War. Based on Kennedy’s failure to back up the Bay of Pigs Invasion, they believed the U.S. wouldn’t respond harshly.
  2. Kennedy and his advisors (EXCOMM) evaluated a number of options, ranging from doing nothing to a full invasion of Cuba. A blockade of Cuba was chosen because it wouldn’t necessarily escalate into war, and because it forced the Soviets to make the next move.
  3. Because of mutually assured destruction by a nuclear war, the Soviets had no choice but to bow to U.S. demands and remove the weapons

The Organizational Process Model

Allison noted there were many facts that the rational model had to ignore, such as why the Soviets failed to camouflage the nuclear sites during construction, but did so only after U-2 flights pinpointed their locations.

He cited work by James G. March and Herbert A. Simon, which argue that existing governmental bureaucracy places limits on a nation’s actions, and often dictates the final outcome. He then proposed the following “organizational process” model propositions:

  • When faced with a crisis, government leaders don’t look at it as a whole, but break it down and assign it according to pre-established organizational lines.
  • Because of time and resource limitations, rather than evaluating all possible courses of action to see which one is most likely to work, leaders settle on the first proposal that adequately addresses the issue, which Simon termed “satisficing.”
  • Leaders gravitate towards solutions that limit short-term uncertainty (emphasis on “short-term”).
  • Organizations follow set “repertoires” and procedures when taking actions.
  • Because of the large resources and time required to fully plan and mobilize actions within a large organization (or government), leaders are effectively limited to pre-existing plans.

Under this theory, the crisis is explained thus:

  1. Because the Soviets never established nuclear missile bases outside of their country at the time, they assigned the tasks to established departments, which in turn followed their own set procedures. However, their procedures were not adapted to Cuban conditions, and as a result, mistakes were made that allowed the U.S. to quite easily learn of the program’s existence. Such mistakes included such gaffes as supposedly undercover Soviet troops decorating their barracks with Red Army Stars viewable from above.
  2. Kennedy and his advisors never really considered any other options besides a blockade or air strikes, and initially, were almost unanimously in favor of the air strikes. However, such attacks created massive uncertainty because the U.S. Air Force couldn’t guarantee it would disable all the nuclear missiles. Additionally, although Kennedy wanted a “surgical” air strike that would destroy the missiles without inflicting extensive damage, the existing Air Force plan required extensive bombing that would have created more collateral damage than Kennedy desired. Because the U.S. Navy already had considerable strength in the field, because there was a pre-existing plan in place for a blockade, and because Kennedy was able to communicate directly with the fleet’s captains, members fell back on the blockade as the only safe option.
  3. The Soviets simply did not have a plan to follow if the U.S. took decisive action against their missiles. Khrushchev’s communications indicated a high degree of desperation. Without any back-up plan, the Soviets had to withdraw

The “Governmental Politics” Model

After reading works by Richard Neustadt and Samuel P. Huntington, among others, Allison proposed a third model, which takes account of court politics (or “palace politics“). While statesmen don’t like to admit they play politics to get things done, especially in high-stakes situations such as the Cuban missile crisis, they nonetheless do.

Allison proposed the following propositions for this model:

  • A nation’s actions are best understood as the result of politicking and negotiation by its top leaders.
  • Even if they share a goal, leaders differ in how to achieve it because of such factors as personal interests and background.
  • Even if a leader holds absolute power (i.e., the President of the United States is technically the commander-in-chief), the leader must gain a consensus with his underlings or risk having his order misunderstood or, in some cases, ignored.
  • Related to the above proposition, the make-up of a leader’s entourage will have a large effect on the final decision (i.e., an entourage of “yes men” will create a different outcome than a group of advisors who are willing to voice disagreement).
  • Leaders have different levels of power based on charisma, personality, skills of persuasion, and personal ties to decision-makers.
  • If a leader is certain enough, they will not seek input from their advisors, but rather, approval. Likewise, if a leader has already implicitly decided on a particular course of action, an advisor wishing to have influence must work within the framework of the decision the leader has already made.
  • If a leader fails to reach a consensus with his inner circle (or, at least, the appearance of a consensus), opponents may take advantage of these disagreements. Therefore, effective leaders must create a consensus.
  • Because of the possibilities of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and downright disagreements, different leaders may take actions that the group as a whole would not approve of.

Allison had to admit that, because the Soviets were not as open with their internal affairs as the Americans, he simply didn’t have enough data to fully interpret the crisis with this model. Nonetheless, he made the following attempt:

  1. Khrushchev came under increasing fire from the Presidium because of Kennedy’s revelation of the Soviet lack of ICBMs, as well as American successes in the Berlin Airlift. Also, the Soviet economy was being stretched, and military leaders were unhappy with Khrushchev’s decision to cut the size of the Red Army. Placing missiles in Cuba was a cheap and quick way for him to secure his political base.
  2. Because of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Republicans in the Congress made Cuban policy into a major issue for the upcoming congressional elections later in 1962. Therefore, Kennedy immediately decided on a strong response rather than a diplomatic one. Although a majority of EXCOMM initially favored air strikes, those closest to the president – such as his brother and Attorney GeneralRobert Kennedy, and special counsel Theodore Sorensen – favored the blockade. At the same time, Kennedy got into arguments with proponents of the air strikes, such as Air Force General Curtis LeMay. After the Bay of Pigs Invasion fiasco, Kennedy also distrusted the CIA and its advice. This combination of push and pull led to the implication of a blockade.
  3. With his plans thwarted, Khrushchev tried to save face by pointing to American missiles in Turkey, a position similar to the Cuban missiles. While Kennedy refused to move these missiles “under duress,” he allowed Robert Kennedy to reach a deal with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, in which the Turkish missiles would be quietly removed several months later. Publicly, Kennedy also agreed never to invade Cuba.

Red more: Essence of decision – Wikipedia