Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis

James G. Blight and Janet M. Lang have produced a podcast titled "The Reexamination of the Cuban Missile Crisis" on the podcast site of the Journal of American History.  It is occasioned by the publication of their book, The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis. (There is a website for the book.)

Blight and Lang are psychologists who began their work on the Cuban Missile Crisis out of interest in the psychology of human decision making in really important decisions such as those that might lead to or avoid nuclear war. Rather than depending primarily on documentary sources and interviews (as historians have tended to do) they chose to hold meetings with people who had actually been involved in the decisions, and indeed to have meetings in which people who had made those decisions from different sides discussing them together (with participating academic experts).  The were able to do so in part because of the cooperation of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Missile Crisis.

Before they started their studies of the Cuban Missile Crisis, hawks dominated the discussion suggesting that Kennedy, if he had taken a harder line, might have not only gotten the missiles withdrawn from Cuba but have gravely weakened the Castro government and strengthened the United States in the Cold War. In the early discussions sponsored by Blight and Lang someone pointed out that a limited war might have destroyed a city like Atlanta with a population of hundreds of thousands of people. Think about the feeling of responsibility of an American president thinking that his decisions could easily cost the lives of as many Americans as died in the Civil War! Decision making in the White House is in a climate of stress that is all but impossible to understand, much less duplicate.

Amazing facts came out of Blight and Lang's research.

  • Dean Rusk, Secretary of State during the crisis, disclosed for the first time that he had been instructed by President Kennedy to tell the Secretary General of the United Nations that he might be called upon to approach Nikita Khrushchev and tell him that a proposal to both withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey; Kennedy did not think missiles in Cuba were sufficient cause for war with the Soviet Union.
  • There were tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and they could have been used to destroy any American invading force, had an invasion taking place.
  • The Americans were making decisions in ignorance of the existence of the tactical nuclear weapons.
Had America invaded and had tactical nuclear weapons been used there would have been a very high probability of a generalized world nuclear war.

After a quarter century of research, there are now no hawks on the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, historians generally agree that the world very narrowly escaped nuclear war.

The story should lead us to a great deal of caution. Decisions of this magnitude are almost always made in partial ignorance. With all of the people and money spent on intelligence by the U.S. government, our decision makers were uninformed about Cuba during the missile crisis, about Viet Nam during the war there, about Iraq and its weapons in the Iraq war and about Afghanistan during the current war. Sometimes what you don't know can come up and bite you!

I am impressed by the utility of the Blight and Lang method. Getting top leaders from the different sides of a major decision can  be done 10, 20 or 25 years after the decision. With detailed preparation, such a meeting can bring out new facts before the academic community and the public. It needs cooperation from leaders willing to suffer bad publicity in order to improve future decision making and save the public from bad decisions. Lets hope that more leaders will have the courage in retirement shown by McNamara!

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