• Valentina Koumoulou

Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Book Review

“The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself…. There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process – mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.”

J. F. Kennedy



Imagine a crisis situation in which you are the person to decide what to do next. How would you react? This book puts you in precisely that situation, and guides you through the risky world of decision making. Along the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, political scientists Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow introduce the reader into the intricacies of governmental decision-making. The book was originally published in 1971 but was edited again after a series of declassified information were uncovered, shining light to the time where nearly a nuclear Armageddon might have happened.


Introducing the Reader to the World of Politics


Imagine a bartender at the American Press Association, just serving drinks to the busy journalist. Unsuspiciously serving the thirsty throats of world press, who might have thought that this guy knew more than they thought. In fact, he did know more, serving as a Soviet spy ready to hear anything that mattered to be reported while mixing cocktails. This little incident reveals, that governmental decision-making is highly complex, full of decisive details. This becomes obvious especially when being forced to decide in a situation of crisis. Sometimes decision making depends on luck and coincidence, knowing how to gamble with crisis.

In order to understand the essence of decision making, people need to understand that governments act according to a well-informed leader’s aspiration. In times of crisis, the President, along with a board of his choice consisting of trusted advisors, are the people responsible for every move. This is similar to what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However, Graham and Zelikow offer different modes of explanation that consider other factors apart from a good leader.


What the book offers


“Governments’ attitude is efficiently explained when compared with the aspirations of individuals.”

Graham Allison


The first thing that comes to mind when reading through the book is the accumulation of information from the inside of a crisis that almost destroyed the world. Alongside that, important knowledge is presented about the ways that crisis control and handling really happens within governments. The main message delivered by this reading emphasizes that there are many factors that play a significant role in decision making. Crisis management does not happen by one person, but a carefully chosen team, which is necessary. Graham revolves his work around the decisions of the American and Russian team of advisors as well as the communication between the two heads of state.


The book addresses different scenarios according to different types of decisions taken at different levels of the crisis game. Some scenarios envisaged would be taking military action, air raids to Cuba which would trigger a crisis in Berlin, or even murdering Castro. Moreover, it prepares the reader with an overview of main theories surrounding the field of international relations, making it more accessible to people who might not have previous knowledge of the political implications of the crisis. Last but not least, philosophical questions linger throughout the book given that the nature of crisis management requires a knowledge thy self-first in order to handle such a stressful situation. Those aspects are reflected in the following models. In fact, there are personal factors, organizational factors, and issues regarding the international environment actors. Those factors are discussed in various models such as the Rational Actors Model, the Organizational Behaviour Model, and the Government Procedures Model. Each of them will briefly be introduced.

Rational Actor Model


This model suggests that during decision making, logic plays a major role in the outcome, as in a crisis where mutual assured destruction is a choice, if the opponents are not rational, the world ends. The main characteristic of this model is that leaders should state clearly what their goals are when solving a crisis. Moreover, logic suggests that there should be alternatives to plans because of the complicated nature of a crisis. A significant part of the model is the consequences that need to be considered in order to decide which would be the rational choice.

For example, in the Cuban Missile Crisis Kennedy needed to avoid a crisis in Berlin, and Castro had to avoid being killed, while Khrushchev had to save his reputation and political career within his country. All of them are based on the leaders being rational and deciding which choice would be better for their own good. Considering that their reputation as well as peace were at stake, they were significantly pressured to find the solution that would work in their security dilemma. Evidently, everything in a crisis depends on the people making the right decision. This model constitutes a basis when explaining international incidents. Usually, the decision is made by a specific person who chooses between different alternatives in pursuit of a rational goal.


Diplomatic pressure


Two kinds of diplomatic pressure were held upon the Soviet leader. The first was the secret ultimatum that Kennedy had sent him giving him the opportunity to retract the missiles without making public confrontation or military action. The second was a proposal from Adlai Stevenson which suggested that the UN or the Organization of American States could perform an inspection in Cuba, followed by negotiations that would lead to a summit meeting. An alternative to the abovementioned is a secret approach to Fidel Castro where the US government would offer him the choice to either separate from the Soviet Union, or fall. All in all, this model contributes to a better understanding of diplomatic pressure. Suddenly, actors become aware of the political impact their strategic approaches might have.

Moving to a more subtle model of pressure that does not go as far as the above would be the Organizational Behaviour model.

Organizational Behaviour Model


Remember the bartender agent? He acted without orders from his agency but from fear of a nuclear war. This model is my favorite because it considers that responsibility does not fall only to the head of a government or even to the government, but there are many semi-autonomous Agencies, who are not necessarily working together, responsible for analyzing crises. The coordination of big groups of people is needed for this model to be successful. The creation of these Agencies or organizations is significant in forming a specific culture of goal setting and accomplishing. However, it is possible that political decisions made from government actors alter the activity of such an organization towards a specific direction. Nevertheless, this window of opportunity provides a rare occasion given that usually the orders do not come from the government.

The next model is not that different from the above. However, the distinction happens in the head of management.

Government Procedures Model

This model suggests that the head of government has all the moves and takes all the important decisions. However, there is the other side of the equation where the leader of a country is considered himself as an employee. This is supported by the fact that there are many factors that need to be thought out carefully and many different areas of expertise towards reaching such a delicate goal during a crisis. Nevertheless, most of the time a “political handler” is needed in order to control and guide the different members of the team.

The most common suggestions in ending a crisis are the use of force and military intervention, both as catastrophic as they might sound. However, these should be seen as a last resort given the level of destruction they create. What is significant to bear in mind is that an attack on Cuba would have created a need for retaliation from the Soviets in Berlin and such a domino would not have ended well. This “tit for tat” tactic does not have a place in the world of nuclear powers.

One last drink


Concluding this review, we are back at the bar of the American Press Association, the bartender still might be serving drinks in celebration of the diplomatic resolution of this crisis. Relieved, we are sipping a Martini, reflecting on what has just happened. The Cuba Crisis was resolved peacefully. On the showdowns of the Cold War turning into a hot crisis, reasonable decision-making prevented the worst from happening. However, things could have turned out differently. This book gives an overview of decisions that could have been, such as military action, air attacks, a newly drawn Berlin crisis, as well as a nuclear armageddon.

The abovementioned models and their analysts all agreed that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thousands of people acted in ways that could have very important consequences. Thus, no matter the point of view, it is certain that many things could have gone sideways, but at the last minute someone would save the day even with the smallest change of mind. In the end, it was the organizational and political factors that delayed an immediate attack against Cuba without which war would be far more possible.

Finishing the “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” it became clear how decisions are made during crisis mode at the political level and that there cannot be only one person responsible for leading the way out of it. It would be interesting for people who are drawn to the facts of a crisis that almost ended the world, but also for those who want to gain a more theoretical knowledge of the field. The chilling details of how close we really were to a nuclear Armageddon between the two superpowers of the Cold War makes the reader appreciate the crisis management area a tad more.


“The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad; it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.”

Andy Gilman

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