Sunday, August 14, 2011

A thought on decision making in the Cuban Missile Crisis

There is an interesting lecture by James Hershberg on "the Cuban Missile Crisis", presented on CSPAN Ameriican History. I found the way he framed the discussion interesting. More and more information has become available over the decades since the crisis, including from Cuba and the former Soviet Union, clarifying the day to day evolution of the crisis when the world almost saw a nuclear war between superpowers. However, the crisis was a part of longer term foreign policy development as seen from each country:
  • From the point of view of the Soviet Union, the crisis was primarily about the threat of the United States to board Soviet ships en route to Cuba. The placement of nuclear-weapon capable mid-range missiles in Cuba was in part due to the difficulties that the USSR was having developing intercontinental guided missiles, and in part a response to the U.S. announcement that it was placing nuclear-weapon capable mid-range missiles in Turkey. It was also seen in the context of Soviet plans for expansion of Communism and its competition with China for leadership of the Communist world.
  • From the point of view of Cuba, the crisis was one of a number of crises in the establishment and life of the Castro regime in Cuba, following the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was seen both in terms of the long term relations of Cuba with the Soviet Union and the long term relations of Cuba with the United States.
  • From the point of view of the United States, the crisis was primarily about the threat to the United States of a nuclear attack on American cities. It was also seen in terms of the military expenditures needed for effective prosecution of the Cold War and U.S. leadership of NATO. It was seen in a larger context of containing the expansion of Communism, and especially in the context of denying further Communist intrusion in the Western Hemisphere.
The decision making in the governments can be seen in terms of the chief executives of each nation and their views of each other, in terms of the relations of those chief executives and the small groups of their key advisors on foreign affairs, and in terms of the domestic policies and concerns of each government.

Of course, the crisis must also be seen in terms of the Cold War in general, including the Berlin Blockade and its response, the Suez Crisis, and other key events since and including the Second World War. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were developing policies under a concept of "brinkmanship" in which willingness to go to the brink of war was used as a means to extract a maximum of concessions from competing nations.

The way in which each country responded to the crisis was conditioned by the way it saw the overall course of foreign affairs and the meanings that were attached to the actions of the various parties in previous crises and interactions.

I wonder how well each nation was able to understand and take into account the concepts and processes of the others? Would the crisis have evolved differently had the parties understood each other better?

1 comment:

John Daly said...

Of course, there were deeper histories that affected the decision making. Thus, the poverty in Latin America was related to wide spread political support for social justice, and the history of U.S. intervention in the region and support for Batista's kleptocracy also affected Cuban decision making.

The United States had strong anti-radical and anti-Communist movements during all of Kennedy's life, and his election campaign against Nixon and the Eisenhower administration affected decision making in his administration.

So too, the poverty of Russia, the horrible experience in World War II, the lack of an early second front and early U.S. intervention against Nazi Germany, the domestic turmoil in Russia in prewar years all must have affected Russian decision making.

Again, one wonders how many of the people influencing policy understood the situation in all its full historical complexity, and whether the political and bureaucratic processes influencing the national behavior could possibly deal with this complexity adequately.