New book on Cuban Missile Crisis

By kevin | Decision Making

Jun 22
[amtap book:isbn=1400043581]

I’m a fan of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a study in decision making and leadership. A new book by Michael Dobbs adds some new insight according to a review in the New York Times.

Dobbs, a reporter for The Washington Post, states his central thesis concisely in a description of the state of play on Oct. 25, the 10th day of the crisis: “The initial reactions of both leaders had been bellicose. Kennedy had favored an air strike; Khrushchev thought seriously about giving his commanders in Cuba authority to use nuclear weapons. After much agonizing, both were now determined to find a way out that would not involve armed conflict. The problem was that it was practically impossible for them to communicate frankly with one another. Each knew very little about the intentions and motivations of the other side, and tended to assume the worst. Messages took half a day to deliver. … The question was no longer whether the leaders of the two superpowers wanted war — but whether they had the power to prevent it.”

And in a shot at the current administration . . .

It is hard to read this book without thinking about what would have happened if the current administration had faced such a situation — real weapons of mass destruction only 90 miles from Florida; the Pentagon urging “surgical” air attacks followed by an invasion; threatening letters from the leader of a real superpower and senators calling the president “weak” just weeks before a midterm Congressional election.

Life does not offer us a chance to play out alternative history, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the team that invaded Iraq would have attacked Cuba. And if Dobbs is right, Cuba and the Soviet Union would have fought back, perhaps launching some of the missiles already in place. One can only conclude that our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962. Like all presidents, he made his share of mistakes, but when the stakes were the highest imaginable, he rose to the occasion like no other president in the last 60 years — defining his goal clearly and then, against the demands of hawks within his administration, searching skillfully for a peaceful way to achieve it.

My own sense is that the current administration will go down in history for many things, but decision-craft and thoughtful leadership won’t be among the lauded attributes

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