The Importance of Presidential Decision Making

Broader Lessons Derived from the Cuban Missile Crisis

In commemorating the fifty year anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis last year, Harvard scholar Graham Allison wrote in Foreign Affairs:

“Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was “between 1 in 3 and even,” and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow…The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.”

The peaceful outcome achieved despite the dire consequences involved has led scholars to intensely study the presidential decision making process. President John F. Kennedy’s leadership and his administration’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is an example of high quality presidential decision-making. It provides several lessons that are still applicable to contemporary challenges. First, a president should act in the strategic interests of the country while considering the long-term implications of potential actions. Second, be creative in developing solutions, but recognize that the right inputs can lead to the right outputs and continually reassess circumstances and options as new information becomes available. Third, manage intra-executive branch politics to ensure that the intended outcome is achieved. Current and future presidents would be well served to apply these lessons as they address both emergent and long-standing foreign policy challenges. By so doing they, like Kennedy, will be more likely to avert crisis, restore calm, and further U.S. interests.

Good Strategy

Of first import, President Kennedy considered the long-term implications of decisions and acted in the strategic interests of the country. This meant that he acted consistent with vital national security interests in the realm of power, peace, prosperity, and principles (the “four p’s”). The most significant national security interest was avoiding nuclear war. Kennedy, however, also sought to push back Soviet military presence and offensive weapon capabilities from the Western Hemisphere, while assuring regional and global partners of U.S. resolve.

One of the first images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia)

Kennedy’s leadership to think strategically and evaluate likely political implications in a broad context was one feature that distinguished his bungling of the Bay of Pigs with his strong leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During the former incident Kennedy allowed public opinion and domestic political factors to play too large a factor in his decision calculus. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, Kennedy led his national security team to consider the long term rationale for proposed actions and their implications. He considered political dimensions, but did so within an international context instead of limiting himself to a myopic view dominated by domestic political concerns. Kennedy’s consideration of an invasion’s impact on Soviet action pushed his team to contemplate the big picture and demonstration his concern with the “four p’s.” As a result of his probing questions, it became apparent that escalation from Cuba to Berlin to nuclear salvos could happen all too easily. Finding viable alternatives was crucial.

Good Assumptions; Good Problem Solving

A second reason that the Cuban Missile Crisis provides insight into presidential decision making is that President Kennedy required his national security advisors to be creative in developing solutions. Toward this end Kennedy forced his advisors to continually reassess circumstances and options as new information became available. To facilitate unrestrained thinking and because he recognized that the right inputs can lead to the right outputs, Kennedy formed the Executive Committee (ExCom). ExCom was a tailored committee of the National Security Council with the mandate to develop a feasible option fast. Kennedy placed his brother and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, in charge. The president had the utmost confidence in Robert’s capabilities—and could trust him. Both were critical during a time sensitive crisis situation. ExCom allowed for the structural and analytical dimensions necessary to arrive at the best possible option.

Structurally it brought the right people to bear on the situation in a timely manner. It provided a mechanism through which the relevant actors from across the administration, and occasionally a Congressional leader and a former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, could provide insights. Analytically, ExCom allowed for the right inputs (based on the assembled wisdom, experience, and roles of the participants). It also facilitated the right outputs. Intense deliberations could unfold, while the Kennedy brothers encouraged continual reexamination, dissenting views, and multiple advocacy. This format led to consideration of second and third order effects and better options than those with which they began. The decisions to implement the quarantine, to ignore Khrushchev’s second letter, to use diplomatic back channels, to provide a non-invasion pledge, and to privately assure the Soviets that the U.S. would withdraw its missiles from Turkey in approximately six months, were all positive outcomes of the structural and analytical dimensions of this arrangement.

As demonstrated by these strategies, Kennedy did not confine himself to military instruments of power when developing solutions. He considered military, diplomatic, economic, as well as combination solutions. It was Kennedy’s recognition of the consequence of unfolding events, his refusal to be constrained by the military chiefs’ invasion plans, and his prodding to develop options that allowed for deescalation that were most responsible for ExCom’s development of creative schemes, including the quarantine. The quarantine had the advantage of demonstrating that Kennedy would not allow the Soviets to stage offensive missiles in Cuba uncontested, while also offering Khrushchev a “golden bridge” to back down short of going to war. The other diplomatic aspects of Kennedy’s solution package further enabled this aim. Air attack and ground invasion scenarios recommended by the military chiefs, the first and only options initially provided, did not offer the same level of political flexibility. Likewise, they had implications for further escalation in Berlin and potentially for nuclear exchanges. Therefore, Kennedy’s unconventional methods ultimately proved important ingredients for a peaceful outcome.

Good Execution

Adept management of intra-executive branch politics was a third significant component comprising Kennedy’s leadership. Kennedy faced a difficult situation given the external circumstances posed by the Soviet placement of nuclear armed ballistic missiles in Cuba. But he also faced a challenging situation internally. The administration had botched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba just eighteen months prior. The military chiefs seemed bent on making up for that failure, allegedly had plans in place as early as spring 1962, and saw the Cuban Missile Crisis as an opportunity to do just that. The initial discussions reflected this influence, tilting heavily toward an air strike followed by a ground invasion. As ExCom devised additional options that Kennedy embraced, it became important for him to ensure that his intended outcomes were met. Several events threatened to thwart his intent and unravel the situation beyond Kennedy’s control. A decision to elevate a military unit’s readiness level signaled an escalation that ran contrary to the president’s intent. A test nuclear explosion was particularly inflammatory, painting the U.S. as aggressors. Cuba then shot down one of the U-2 spy planes conducting a reconnaissance flight. Any one of these could have derailed the crisis; that they did not is miraculous and a testimony to “cooler heads prevailing.”

“The Loneliest Job,” a photograph of President John F. Kennedy looking out of the south window of the oval office taken on 10 Feb 1961. (George Tames)

Given these dynamics and the lack of trust Kennedy had in the motivations of some significant players within his administration, he implemented special measures. He sought to safeguard his intent first through redundant communication. He charged his special assistant, Kenny O’Donnell, with communicating directly with the pilots flying reconnaissance missions over Cuba, imploring them not to be shot down and not to advertise to their commanders if they were shot at. Although the situation did not disintegrate when the U-2 went down, the rationale was that such an incident could cause the crisis to further spiral out of control. Kennedy also utilized the adhoc nature of ExCom to exclude Vice President Johnson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor, and Central Intelligence Agency Director McCone from the final policy deliberations. Although not normally a healthy way for an administration to function, it proved useful in ensuring secrecy and that the president’s intent was met.

Each of the three lessons of high quality presidential decision making highlighted in the Cuban Missile Crisis case study hold relevance for other situations. It is always useful to think strategically, question assumptions and plan innovatively, and to have competent execution. These principles remain germane across time, space, administrations, and geopolitical circumstances. They are pertinent in time sensitive crises, and at times when an administration is developing a long term policy to address a challenging bilateral relationship or global phenomenon. They may seem so basic that it should not be necessary to state them and elucidate in depth. Yet it is all too easy for politics and other dynamics—such as the enemy, sanctuary, or third party unreliability—to drive the train in ways that render accomplishment of the political objective infeasible or unlikely. Even among the factors that a president can reasonably control, weighting the wrong criterion, groupthink, and ulterior or parochial agendas make failure easier than victory.

Bad Strategy

The Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and Iraq are tangible examples. Each of these conflicts may have turned out differently (or not happened at all) had these lessons been applied rigorously from start to finish. Counterfactuals are, of course, impossible to prove. A cursory examination of the literature and circumstances surrounding these case studies, however, demonstrates various combinations of failures. First, presidents thought less than strategically by failing to consider the implications of decisions to use and escalate force. With the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy failed to realize that the stated plan may not achieve an easy victory and that it would be impossible to disguise American involvement.

A group of captured U.S.-backed Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, being lined up by Fidel Castro’s soldiers at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), Cuba, following an unsuccessful invasion of the island, April 1961. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When the invasion failed, the U.S. lost more than a noncommunist Cuba. The international community shunned the U.S. as an aggressor state and the invasion pushed Castro to further align with the Soviets. In Vietnam, Johnson ramped up U.S. involvement, thinking that victory there was necessary to arrest the spread of communism internationally and to accomplish his domestic political agenda. His thinking was flawed as he did not save South Vietnam, its fall did not lead to a domino of states falling to communism, and he was still able to implement aspects of his Great Society. With Iraq, Bush’s drive for preventive war led to a lengthy engagement with disputed benefits but clear and significant costs—human, financial, international political capital, and opportunity cost in prosecuting the war on terrorism. In each case, a narrow focus—easy win, domino theory, and preventive war—led to strategic action without proper strategic thought. The result was strategic loss.

Bad Assumptions; Bad Problem Solving

The second mistake in these three case studies was group think—inadequate questioning of critical assumptions—again directly conflicting with the second principle of high quality presidential decision making. In each case, decisions were based on incorrect information and not revisited at appropriate points. With the Bay of Pigs, faulty assumptions included underestimating the Cuban military and overestimating the invasion’s ability to spark guerilla warfare among an anti-Castro Cuban contingent. In Vietnam, bad assumptions again included underestimating the enemy and the force of nationalism, while overestimating South Vietnam’s capacity for organizing and fighting the North. In Iraq, the Bush Administration underestimated the fractural nature of Iraq’s sectarian divisions and the U.S. forces necessary, while overestimating the degree to which Iraqis would view Americans as liberators. In each case, the president and the country would have been better served by multiple advocacy.

Bad Execution

The third mistake common across these case studies was costly mismanagement during the endeavor. During the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s last minute decision to limit the first and eliminate the second wave of the air attack left more of Cuba’s military intact to repel the ground invasion, while the change in invasion sites made the Cuban Brigade’s job more difficult. During the Vietnam War, the main strategy of attrition proved incapable of delivering victory, or even eliciting the necessary support from the South Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the enemy often enjoyed relative sanctuary in the surrounding countries and, at times, in North Vietnam. Furthermore, Johnson regularly approved military targets from the White House, making the generals prosecution of the war inefficient. During the Iraq War, debaathification and disbanding the Iraqi Army were shortsighted decisions that set the U.S. back several years, while implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy and surge came late. In each endeavor, better management of executive branch politics could have facilitated better results.

The bombing of Baghdad during the Second Gulf War in 2003. (AP)


In the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, and the 2003 Iraq invasion, strategic calculation, systematic probing of assumptions combined with multiple advocacy and creative thinking, and skilled implementation may have led to decisions not to commit U.S. power and prestige in the first place, or have led to better outcomes. There is no shortage of need to apply these lessons with discernment as the U.S. faces contemporary challenges including the Iranians’ suspected nuclear weapons program, North Korea’s nuclear program and periodic provocations, the Arab Spring, a rising China, terrorism and transnational crime, climate change, and potential pandemics. It is possible, by chance, to have a good outcome in these and other challenging situations without a good decision-making process, but those chances are not high. A good decision making process, therefore, is effectively a necessary but not sufficient condition to ensure good outcomes. Allies, enemies, non-state actors, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, weather, and other events can all play critical roles in making events unfold in positive or negative ways for the U.S. Hence, it is incumbent upon the president to lead his national security team wisely to stack the odds as best as possible in the U.S.’ favor. Strategic thinking, reassessment of assumptions and creative problem solving with the right inputs, and discerning execution are mission critical to the successful resolution of any international crisis.

Bryan Groves is a U.S. Army strategist and PhD student at Duke University. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: 29 October 1962 Executive Committee of the National Security Council meeting, White House, Cabinet Room. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Wikimedia)