In the Conclusion of ‘The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis’, the authors assess the decision-making of the Soviet and American leadership that is revealed almost word-for-word in the nearly seven hundred pages of taped crisis meetings in the book.
Khrushchev made his decisions alone and without seeking advice or analysis. He ‘acted more from instinct than from calculation’, was an ‘impulsive risk taker’ and was described by aides as ‘reckless’. Khrushchev had little experience or knowledge of foreign affairs and his understanding of the world was framed in simplistic Marxism-Leninism. He made assumptions about Kennedy based purely on the President’s youth and family wealth, and saw his ‘flexibility’ as a weakness. Khrushchev also suffered from an inflated sense of his influence on world affairs as a result of his mis-reading of the motivations for America’s responses to his previous decisions.
In short, Khrushchev’s decision-making was driven by emotion more than reason. If this made it difficult for the Americans to read and anticipate his actions, it must have been equally so for his generals and ministers.
In comparison, President Kennedy ‘did not make any impulsive decisions during the crisis’. He ‘opened up much of his reasoning….and likely consequences of his choices before he made them. He explained his thinking to a range of analyses and critiques from formal and informal advisers and even representatives of the British government.’ He also allows his advisers to ‘reason through the problems’.
At the height of the crisis, the authors argue that Kennedy ‘seems more alive to the possibilities and consequences of each new development than anyone else’, remaining calm and lucid, and clear about his objectives.
While Kennedy kept himself open to the advice of others, and had obviously nurtured a working relationship that meant his advisers felt confident enough to disagree with him, he was firm when he needed to be. He overrode the generals’ planned air strike in retaliation for the shooting down of an American U2 aircraft, even though that was the response that he had initially agreed upon.
The ability to remain uninfluenced by bias is one of the most important qualities of a good decision maker. It makes her thinking visible, her actions predictable and teachable and gives confidence to her team who may have to execute their own decisions that flow from hers.
Kennedy used many tools to keep him focussed on the facts. He verbalised his logic, exposing his thinking even to those outside his circle to avoid ‘groupthink’. He had private venting conversations with his brother, the Attorney-General Robert Kennedy. Most importantly, Kennedy did not surround himself with ‘Yes Men’.
President Kennedy’s willingness to be transparent in his decision making and open in his uncertainties showed courage and were evidence of great leadership.