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Smithson: Decision-making on the brink

For those who are interested in organizational dynamics, and decision-making in particular, there could be no better real-life example than the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Perhaps at no other time in recorded history have the fortunes of so many rested in the deliberations of so few.

Just over 50 years ago, the crisis erupted when American U-2 surveillance flights over Cuba revealed what was believed to be the construction of missile sites capable of firing medium and intermediate range missiles and the assembly of bomber planes.

It was believed the missiles were being installed courtesy of the Soviet Union and, thus, possessed nuclear capability.

The crisis has been detailed in many books over the years but recently has been revisited in light of the publication of secret White House recordings of executive meetings in that crucial period.

Sheldon Stern’s 2012 book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths Versus Reality, exposes much of the accepted history of this time as fiction.

For buffs of factual examples of organizational dynamics in action, there probably is (thanks to the existence of the tape recordings) no other instance in which the absolute truth of the workings of such a momentous decision can be known.

For that reason, this period of American politics provides an invaluable study in human behavior, both individually and in groups.

The decision of how to respond to the revelation of the Soviet missile sites in Cuba rested, ultimately, in the hands of then U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

But JFK was not alone —far from it—as he assembled an executive committee team comprising over a dozen senior governmental officials and met with them several times daily during the weeks in which the drama unfolded.

JFK had present his vice-president (Lyndon Johnson), secretary of defense (Robert McNamara), secretary of state (Dean Rusk), chairman of the joint chiefs of staff (Maxwell Taylor), special assistant for national security (McGeorge Bundy), attorney general (Robert F. Kennedy), ambassador to the United Nations (Adlai Stevenson), CIA director (John McCone), a former ambassador to the Soviet Union (Llewellyn Thompson) and a half-dozen or more other advisors present for ongoing strategy sessions.

At times, it appeared JFK was the lone voice advocating a diplomatic solution rather than an aggressive, military one.

Virtually every other member of the executive committee preferred, at one point or another, a military strike against Cuba (whether in the form of air strikes targeted at the nuclear and surface-to-air missile sites or by way of a full scale sea to land invasion).

The dynamic of JFK’s executive committee meetings appears, based on the verbatim record of the tapes, to have been one of wide open discussion.

Every man present had to varying degrees  their input as the two weeks progressed and the tension ratcheted higher and higher.

Stern’s book, based on the verbatim record of the meetings, demonstrates that Robert Kennedy was, in these meetings, far from the “dove” he later portrayed himself to have been in his own book,  Thirteen Days.

Robert Kennedy seems to have consistently advocated an aggressive military response and any attempt he made after JFK’s death to share credit for the defusing of the crisis now has to be considered disingenuous at best.

Reading Stern’s book, one gets the feeling that JFK must have felt, in the executive committee meetings, as if he was the target in a shooting gallery. Time and time again, the group—individually and collectively—took runs at his preferred course, which was to initiate a blockade  to turn away incoming military shipments and to engineer a trade with the Soviets (the removal of the missiles and sites from Cuba in exchange for the Americans’ removal of Jupiter missiles located in Turkey).

JFK did seem to waver in his certainty of the correct course at times, but then who wouldn’t in those circumstances? JFK and his team were faced with a covert plan by the Soviets to deploy the weapons in Cuba, were reliant on military assessments of high-level photography of the missile sites, were interpreting highly contradictory messages from various Soviet sources about their motivations, could only speculate about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s true intentions, and dealt with a situation which was changing moment by moment.

While JFK tightly held the reins on the final decision, as the executive committee was not an exercise in democracy, the meetings were by no means a one man show. It seems accurate, though, that JFK was the only person present in the executive committee meetings who truly grasped and appreciated that nuclear war—or even the risk of it—would never be (as Stern put it in his book) “a viable or rational choice.”

Personally, I’ve never held the “management by committee” concept in high regard. My belief is that you choose the horse you’re going to ride and you ride it until it gives you a reason to find a new horse.

Had JFK allowed a majority, or even near-unanimity, to determine America’s course in the face of Soviet aggression in Cuba, it is entirely possible the confrontation would have boiled over into direct military action between the two nuclear superpowers.

We can’t be certain whether either side would have pushed the button on its nuclear arsenal in that event, and we’re likely far better off for not knowing.

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