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Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis*

  • Graham T. Allison (a1)

The Cuban missile crisis is a seminal event. For thirteen days of October 1962, there was a higher probability that more human lives would end suddenly than ever before in history. Had the worst occurred, the death of 100 million Americans, over 100 million Russians, and millions of Europeans as well would make previous natural calamities and inhumanities appear insignificant. Given the probability of disaster—which President Kennedy estimated as “between 1 out of 3 and even”—our escape seems awesome. This event symbolizes a central, if only partially thinkable, fact about our existence. That such consequences could follow from the choices and actions of national governments obliges students of government as well as participants in governance to think hard about these problems.

Improved understanding of this crisis depends in part on more information and more probing analyses of available evidence. To contribute to these efforts is part of the purpose of this study. But here the missile crisis serves primarily as grist for a more general investigation. This study proceeds from the premise that marked improvement in our understanding of such events depends critically on more self-consciousness about what observers bring to the analysis. What each analyst sees and judges to be important is a function not only of the evidence about what happened but also of the “conceptual lenses” through which he looks at the evidence. The principal purpose of this essay is to explore some of the fundamental assumptions and categories employed by analysts in thinking about problems of governmental behavior, especially in foreign and military affairs.

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A longer version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September, 1968 (reproduced by the Rand Corporation, P-3919). The paper is part of a larger study, scheduled for publication in 1969 under the title Bureaucracy and Policy: Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For support in various stages of this work I am indebted to the Institute of Politics in the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Center for International Affairs, both at Harvard University, the Rand Corporation, and the Council on Foreign Relations. For critical stimulation and advice I am especially grateful to Richard E. Neustadt, Thomas C. Schelling, Andrew W. Marshall, and Elisabeth K. Allison.

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1 Sorensen Theodore, Kennedy (New York, 1965), p. 705.

2 In attempting to understand problems of foreign affairs, analysts engage in a number of related, but logically separable enterprises: (a) description, (b) explanation, (c) prediction, (d) evaluation, and (e) recommendation. This essay focuses primarily on explanation (and by implication, prediction).

3 In arguing that explanations proceed in terms of implicit conceptual models, this essay makes no claim that foreign policy analysts have developed any satisfactory, empirically tested theory. In this essay, the use of the term “model” without qualifiers should be read “conceptual scheme.”

4 For the purpose of this argument we shall accept Carl G. Hempel's characterization of the logic of explanation: an explanation “answers the question, ‘Why did the explanadum-phenomenon occur?’ by showing that the phenomenon resulted from particular circumstances, specified in C1, C2, … Ck, in accordance with laws L1, L2, … Lr. By pointing this out, the argument shows that, given the particular circumstances and the laws in question, the occurrence of the phenomenon was to be expected; and it is in this sense that the explanation enables us to understand why the phenomenon occurred.” Aspects of Scientific Explanation (New York, 1965), p. 337. While various patterns of explanation can be distinguished, viz., Nagel Ernest, The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation, New York, 1961), satisfactory scientific explanations exhibit this basic logic. Consequently prediction is the converse of explanation.

5 Earlier drafts of this argument have aroused heated arguments concerning proper names for these models. To choose names from ordinary language is to court confusion, as well as familiarity. Perhaps it is best to think of these models as I, II, and III.

6 In strict terms, the “outcomes” which these three models attempt to explain are essentially actions of national governments, i.e., the sum of activities of all individuals employed by a government relevant to an issue. These models focus not on a state of affairs, i.e., a full description of the world, but upon national decision and implementation. This distinction is stated clearly by Harold and Sprout Margaret, “Environmental Factors on the Study of International Politics,” in Rosenau James (ed.), International Politics and Foreign Policy (Glencoe, Illinois, 1961), p. 116. This restriction excludes explanations offered principally in terms of international systems theories. Nevertheless, this restriction is not severe, since few interesting explanations of occurrences in foreign policy have been produced at that level of analysis. According to David Singer, “The nation state —our primary actor in international relations … is clearly the traditional focus among Western students and is the one which dominates all of the texts employed in English-speaking colleges and universities.” Singer David, “The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations,” Knorr Klaus and Verba Sidney (eds.), The International System (Princeton, 1961). Similarly, Richard Brody's review of contemporary trends in the study of international relations finds that “scholars have come increasingly to focus on acts of nations. That is, they all focus on the behavior of nations in some respect. Having an interest in accounting for the behavior of nations in common, the prospects for a common frame of reference are enhanced.”

7 For further development and support of these arguments see the author's larger study, Bureaucracy and Policy: Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis (forthcoming). In its abbreviated form, the argument must, at some points, appear overly stark. The limits of space have forced the omission of many reservations and refinements.

8 Each of the three “case snapshots” displays the work of a conceptual model as it is applied to explain the US. blockade of Cuba. But these three cuts are primarily exercises in hypothesis generation rather than hypothesis testing. Especially when separated from the larger study, these accounts may be misleading. The sources for these accounts include the full public record plus a large number of interviews with participants in the crisis.

9 New York Times, February 18, 1967.

11 Horelick Arnold and Rush Myron, Strategic Power and Soviet Foreign Policy (Chicago, 1965) Based on Horelick A., “The Cuban Missile Crisis: An Analysis of Soviet Calculations and Behavior,” World Politics (April, 1964).

12 Horelick and Rush, Strategic Power and Soviet Foreign Policy, p. 154.

13 Morgenthau Hans, Politics Among Nations (3rd ed.; New York, 1960), p. 191.

14 Ibid., p. 192.

15 Ibid., p. 5.

16 Ibid., pp. 5–6.

17 Hoffmann Stanley, Daedalus (Fall, 1962); reprinted in The State of War (New York, 1965).

18 Ibid., p. 171.

19 Ibid., p. 189.

20 Following Robert MacIver; see Hoffmann Stanley, Contemporary Theory in International Relations (Englewood Cliffs, 1960), pp. 178179.

21 Schelling Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict, (New York, 1960), p. 232. This proposition was formulated earlier by Wohlstetter A., “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs (January, 1959).

22 Schelling, op. cit., p. 4.

23 See Morgenthau, op. cit., p. 5; Hoffmann, Contemporary Theory, pp. 178179; Hoffmann, “Roulette in the Cellar,” The State of War; Schelling, op. cit.

24 The larger study examines several exceptions to this generalization. Sidney Verba's excellent essay “Assumptions of Rationality and Non-Rationality in Models of the International System” is less an exception than it is an approach to a somewhat different problem. Verba focuses upon models of rationality and irrationality of individual statesmen: in Knorr and Verba, The International System.

25 Merton Robert K., Social Theory and Social Structures (Revised and Enlarged Edition; New York, 1957), pp. 1216. Considerably weaker than a satisfactory theoretical model, paradigms nevertheless represent a short step in that direction from looser, implicit conceptual models. Neither the concepts nor the relations among the variables are sufficiently specified to yield propositions deductively. “Paradigmatic Analysis” nevertheless has considerable promise for clarifying and codifying styles of analysis in political science. Each of the paradigms stated here can be represented rigorously in mathematical terms. For example, Model I lends itself to mathematical formulation along the lines of Simon's Herbert “Behavioral Theory of Rationality,” Models of Man (New York, 1957). But this does not solve the most difficult problem of “measurement and estimation.”

26 Though a variant of this model could easily be stochastic, this paradigm is stated in non-probabilistic terms. In contemporary strategy, a stochastic version of this model is sometimes used for predictions; but it is almost impossible to find an explanation of an occurrence in foreign affairs that is consistently probabilistic.

Analogies between Model I and the concept of explanation developed by R. G. Collingwood, William Dray, and other “revisionists” among philosophers concerned with the critical philosophy of history are not accidental. For a summary of the “revisionist position” see Mandelbaum Maurice, “Historical Explanation: The Problem of Covering Laws,” History and Theory (1960).

27 This model is an analogue of the theory of the rational entrepreneur which has been developed extensively in economic theories of the firm and the consumer. These two propositions specify the “substitution effect.” Refinement of this model and specification of additional general propositions by translating from the economic theory is straightforward.

28 New York Times, March 22, 1969.

29 See Leites Nathan, A Study of Bolshevism (Glencoe, Illinois, 1953).

30 As stated in the introduction, this “case snapshot” presents, without editorial commentary, a Model I analyst's explanation of the U.S. blockade. The purpose is to illustrate a strong, characteristic rational policy model account. This account is (roughly) consistent with prevailing explanations of these events.

31 Theodore Sorensen, op. cit., p. 675.

32 Ibid., p. 679.

33 Ibid., p. 679.

34 Abel Elie, The Missile Crisis (New York, 1966), p. 144.

35 Ibid., p. 102.

36 Sorensen, op. cit., p. 684.

37 Ibid., p. 685. Though this was the formulation of the argument, the facts are not strictly accurate. Our tradition against surprise attack was rather younger than 175 years. For example President Theodore Roosevelt applauded Japan's attack on Russia in 1904.

38 New York Times, June, 1963.

39 The influence of organizational studies upon the present literature of foreign affairs is minimal. Specialists in international politics are not students of organization theory. Organization theory has only recently begun to study organizations as decisionmakers and has not yet produced behavioral studies of national security organizations from a decision-making perspective. It seems unlikely, however, that these gaps will remain unfilled much longer. Considerable progress has been made in the study of the business firm as an organization. Scholars have begun applying these insights to government organizations, and interest in an organizational perspective is spreading among institutions and individuals concerned with actual government operations. The “decisionmaking” approach represented by Snyder Richard, Bruck R., and Sapin B., Foreign Policy Decision-Making (Glencoe, Illinois, 1962), incorporates a number of insights from organization theory.

40 The formulation of this paradigm is indebted both to the orientation and insights of Herbert Simon and to the behavioral model of the firm stated by Cyert Richard and March James, A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (Englewood Cliffs, 1963). Here, however, one is forced to grapple with the less routine, less quantified functions of the less differentiated elements in government organizations.

41 Sorensen Theodore, “You Get to Walk to Work,” New York Times Magazine, March 19, 1967.

42 Organizations are not monolithic. The proper level of disaggregation depends upon the objectives of a piece of analysis. This paradigm is formulated with reference to the major organizations that constitute the U.S. government. Generalization to the major components of each department and agency should be relatively straightforward.

43 The stability of these constraints is dependent on such factors as rules for promotion and reward, budgeting and accounting procedures, and mundane operating procedures.

44 Eccles Marriner, Beckoning Frontiers (New York, 1951), p. 336.

45 Schlesinger Arthur, A Thousand Days (Boston, 1965), p. 406.

46 U.S. Department of State, Bulletin, XLVII, pp. 715720.

47 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 803.

48 Sorensen Theodore, Kennedy, p. 675.

49 See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Preparedness Investigation Subcommittee, Interim Report on Cuban Military Build-up, 88th Congress, 1st Session, 1963, p. 2; Baldwin Hanson, “Growing Risks of Bureaucratic Intelligence,” The Reporter (August 15, 1963), 4850; Wohlstetter Roberta, “Cuba and Pearl Harbor,” Foreign Affairs (July, 1965), 706.

50 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Department of Defense Appropriations, Hearings, 88th Congress, 1st Session, 1963, 25 ff.

51 Hilsman R., To Move a Nation (New York, 1967), pp. 172173.

52 Department of Defense Appropriations, Hearings, p. 67.

53 Ibid., pp. 66–67.

54 For (1) Hilsman, op. cit., p. 186; (2) Abel, op. cit., p. 24; (3) Department of Defense Appropriations, Hearings, p. 64; Abel, op. cit., p. 24; (4) Department of Defense Appropriations, Hearings, pp. 130.

55 The facts here are not entirely clear. This assertion is based on information from (1) “Department of Defense Briefing by the Honorable R. S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, State Department Auditorium, 5:00 p.m., February 6, 1963.” A verbatim transcript of a presentation actually made by General Carroll's assistant, John Hughes; and (2) Hilsman's statement, op. cit., p. 186. But see Wohlstetter's R. interpretation, “Cuba and Pearl Harbor,” 700.

56 See Hilsman, op. cit., pp. 172–174.

57 Abel, op. cit., pp. 26 ff; Weintal and Bartlett, Facing the Brink (New York, 1967), pp. 62 ff; Cuban Military Build-up; Daniel J. and Hubbell J., Strike in the West (New York, 1963), pp. 15 ff.

58 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 804.

59 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 684.

60 Ibid., pp. 684 ff.

61 Ibid., pp. 694–697.

62 Ibid., p. 697; Abel. op. cit., pp. 100–101.

63 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 669.

64 Hilsman, op. cit., p. 204.

65 See Abel, op. cit., pp. 97 ff.

66 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 818.

68 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 710.

69 New York Times, October 27, 1962.

70 Abel. op. cit., p. 171.

71 For the location of the original arc see Abel, op. cit., p. 141.

72 Facts on File, Vol. XXII. 1962, p. 376, published by Facts on File, Inc., New York, yearly.

73 This hypothesis would account for the mystery surrounding Kennedy's explosion at the leak of the stopping of the Bucharest. See Hilsman, op. cit., p. 45.

74 Abel, op. cit., p. 153.

75 See ibid., pp. 154 ff.

76 Ibid., p. 156.

78 This paradigm relies upon the small group of analysts who have begun to fill the gap. My primary source is the model implicit in the work of Richard E. Neustadt, though his concentration on presidential action has been generalized to a concern with policy as the outcome of political bargaining among a number of independent players, the President amounting to no more than a “superpower” among many lesser but considerable powers. As Warner Schilling argues, the substantive problems are of such inordinate difficulty that uncertainties and differences with regard to goals, alternatives, and consequences are inevitable. This necessitates what Roger Hilsman describes as the process of conflict and consensus building. The techniques employed in this process often resemble those used in legislative assemblies, though Samuel Huntington's characterization of the process as “legislative” overemphasizes the equality of participants as opposed to the hierarchy which structures the game. Moreover, whereas for Huntington, foreign policy (in contrast to military policy) is set by the executive, this paradigm maintains that the activities which he describes as legislative are characteristic of the process by which foreign policy is made.

79 The theatrical metaphor of stage, roles, and actors is more common than this metaphor of games, positions, and players. Nevertheless, the rigidity connotated by the concept of “role” both in the theatrical sense of actors reciting fixed lines and in the sociological sense of fixed responses to specified social situations makes the concept of games, positions, and players more useful for this analysis of active participants in the determination of national policy. Objections to the terminology on the grounds that “game” connotes non-serious play overlook the concept's application to most serious problems both in Wittgenstein's philosophy and in contemporary game theory. Game theory typically treats more precisely structured games, but Wittgenstein's examination of the “language game” wherein men use words to communicate is quite analogous to this analysis of the less specified game of bureaucratic politics. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, and Thomas Schelling, “What is Game Theory?” in James Charlesworth, Contemporary Political Analysis.

80 Inclusion of the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs in the tier of “Chiefs” rather than among the “Staffers” involves a debatable choice. In fact he is both super-staffer and near-chief. His position has no statutory authority. He is especially dependent upon good relations with the President and the Secretaries of Defense and State. Nevertheless, he stands astride a genuine action-channel. The decision to include this position among the Chiefs reflects my judgment that the Bundy function is becoming institutionalized.

81 Richard E. Neustadt, Testimony, United States Senate, Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on National Security Staffing, Administration of National Security, March 26, 1963, pp. 82–83.

82 This aphorism was stated first, I think, by Don K. Price.

83 Hammond Paul Y., “Super Carriers and B-36 Bombers,” in Stein Harold (ed.), American Civil-Mililary Decisions (Birmingham, 1963).

84 Wohlstctter Roberta, Pearl Harbor (Stanford 1962), p. 350.

85 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 670ff.

87 Ibid., pp. 670ff.

88 New York Times, August, September, 1962.

89 New York Times, August 20, 1962.

90 New York Times, September 5, 1962.

91 New York Times, September 14, 1962.

92 New York Times, October 14, 1962.

93 Cited by Abel, op. cit., p. 13.

94 New York Times, September 5, 1962.

95 New York Times, September 14, 1962.

96 Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Senate Armed Services Committee; House Committee on Appropriation; House Select Committee on Export Control.

97 Abel, op. cit., pp. 17–18. According to McCone, he told Kennedy, “The only construction I can put on the material going into Cuba is that the Russians are preparing to introduce offensive missiles.” See also Weintal and Bartlett, op. cit., pp. 60–61.

98 Abel, op. cit., p. 23.

99 New York Times, September 10, 1962.

100 See Abel, op. cit., pp. 25–26; and Hilsman, op. cit., p. 174.

101 Department of Defense Appropriation, Hearings, 69.

102 A basic, but somewhat contradictory, account of parts of this story emerges in the Department of Defense Addrodriations. Hearings, 170.

103 Department of Defense Appropriations, Hearings, 71.

104 The details of the 10 days between the October 4 decision and the October 14 flight must be held in abeyance.

105 Abel, op. cit., p. 44.

106 Ibid., pp. 44ff.

107 See Neustadt Richard, “Afterword,” Presidential Power (New York, 1964).

108 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 676; Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 801.

109 Hilsman, op. cit., p. 195.

110 Ibid.

111 Weintal and Bartlett, op. cit., p. 67; Abel, op. cit., p. 53.

112 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 803.

113 Ibid., p. 831.

114 Abel, op. cit., p. 186.

115 Ibid., p 49.

116 Interview, quoted by Steel Ronald, New York Review of Books, March 13, 1969, p. 22.

117 Sorensen, Kennedy, p. 686.

118 Ibid., p.691.

119 Ibid., pp. 691–692.

120 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 296.

121 Space will not permit an account of the path from this coalition to the formal government decision on Saturday and action on Monday.

122 Bureaucracy and Policy (forthcoming, 1969).

123 Thus my position is quite distinct from both poles in the recent “great debate” about international relations. While many “traditionalists” of the sort Kaplan attacks adopt the first posture and many “scientists” of the sort attacked by Bull adopt the second, this third posture is relatively neutral with respect to whatever is in substantive dispute. See Bull Hedly, “International Theory: The Case for a Classical Approach,” World Politics (April, 1966); and Kaplan Morton, “The New Great Debate: Traditionalism vs. Science in International Relations,” World Politics (October, 1966).

124 A number of problems are now being examined in these terms both in the Bureaucracy Study Group on Bureaucracy and Policy of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and at the Rand Corporation.

125 In response to several readers' recommendations, what follows is reproduced verbatim from the paper delivered at the September, 1968 Association meetings (Rand P-3919). The discussion is heavily indebted to Ernest R. May.

126 Snyder Richard, Deterrence and Defense (Princeton, 1961), p. 11. For a more general presentation of this position see Kecskemeti Paul, Strategic Surrender (New York, 1964).

* A longer version of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September, 1968 (reproduced by the Rand Corporation, P-3919). The paper is part of a larger study, scheduled for publication in 1969 under the title Bureaucracy and Policy: Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For support in various stages of this work I am indebted to the Institute of Politics in the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Center for International Affairs, both at Harvard University, the Rand Corporation, and the Council on Foreign Relations. For critical stimulation and advice I am especially grateful to Richard E. Neustadt, Thomas C. Schelling, Andrew W. Marshall, and Elisabeth K. Allison.

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