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Essence of Decision

Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis is an analysis, by political scientist Graham Allison , of the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, Allison uses the crisis as a case study for future studies into governmental decisionmaking, and in doing so revolutionized the field of international relations.

Allison originally published the book in 1971. In 1999, because of new materials available (including tape recordings of the U.S. government's proceedings), he rewrote the book with Phillip Zelikow .

The title is based on a speech by John F. Kennedy, in which he said, "The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer - often, indeed, to the decider himself."



When he first wrote the book, Allison contended that political science and the study of international relations were saturated with rational expectations theories inherited from the field of economics. Under such a view, the actions of states are analyzed by assuming that nations consider all options and act rationally to maximize their utility.

Allison attributes such viewpoints to the dominance of economists such as Milton Friedman, statesmen such as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, disciplines such as game theory, and organizations such as the RAND Corporation. However, as he puts it:

It must be noted, however, that an imaginative analyst can construct an account of value-maximizing choice for any action or set of actions performed by a government.

Or, to put it bluntly, this approach (which Allison terms the "Rational Actor Model") violates the law of falsifiability. Also, Allison notes that "rational" analysts must ignore a lot of facts in order to make their analysis fit their models.

In response, Allison constructed three different ways (or "lenses") through which analysts can examine events: the "Rational Actor" model, the "Organizational Process" model, and the "Governmental Politics" model.

To illustrate the models, Allison poses the following three questions in each section:

  • 1. Why did the Soviet Union decide to place offensive missiles in Cuba?
  • 2. Why did the United States respond to the missile deployment with a blockade?
  • 3. Why did the Soviet Union withdraw the missiles?

The "Rational Actor" Model

The origins of Allison's first model is explained above. Basically, under this theory:

  • Governments are treated as the primary actor.
  • The government examines a set of goals, evaluates them according to their utility, then picks the one that has the highest "payoff."

Under this theory, Allison explains the crisis like this:

  • 1. John F. Kennedy, in 1961, revealed that the Soviet Union, despite rhetoric, had far fewer ICBMs than it claimed. In response, Nikita Khrushchev ordered nuclear missiles with shorter ranges installed in Cuba. In one move, the Soviets bridged the "missile gap" while scoring points in the Cold War. Based on Kennedy's failure to back up the Bay of Pigs invasion, they believed the U.S. wouldn't respond harshly.
  • 2. Kennedy and his advisors (EX-COM) evaluated a number of options, ranging from doing nothing to a full invasion of Cuba. A blockade of Cuba was chosen because it wouldn't necessarily escalate into war, and because it forced the Soviets to make the next move.
  • 3. Because of mutually assured destruction by a nuclear war, the Soviets had no choice but to bow to U.S. demands and remove the weapons.

The "Organizational Process" Model

Allison noted there were many facts that the rational model had to ignore, such as why the Soviets failed to camouflage the nuclear sites during construction, but did so only after U-2 flights pinpointed their locations.

He cited work by James March and Herbert Simon, which argue that existing governmental bureaucracy places limits on a nation's actions, and often dictates the final outcome. He then proposed the following "organizational process" model propositions:

  • When faced with a crisis, government leaders don't look at it as a whole, but break it down and assign it according to pre-established organizational lines.
  • Because of time and resource limitations, rather than evaluating all possible courses of action to see which one is most likely to work, leaders settle on the first proposal that adequately addresses the issue, which Allison termed "satisficing."
  • Leaders gravitate towards solutions that limit short-term uncertainty (emphasis on "short-term").
  • Organizations follow set "repertiores" and procedures when taking actions.

Under this theory, the crisis is explained thus:

  • 1. Because the Soviets never established nuclear missile bases outside of their country at the time, they assigned the tasks to established departments, which in turn followed their own set procedures. However, their procedures were not adapted to Cuban conditions, and as a result, mistakes were made that allowed the U.S. to quite easily learn of the program's existence. Such mistakes included such gaffes as supposedly undercover Soviet troops decorating their barracks with Red Army Stars viewable from above.
  • 2. Kennedy and his advisors never really considered any other options besides a blockade or air strikes, and initially, were almost unanimously in favor of the air strikes. However, such attacks created massive uncertainty because the U.S. Air Force couldn't guarantee it would disable all the nuclear missiles. Because the U.S. Navy already had strong strength in the field, and because Kennedy was able to communicate directly with the fleet's captains, members fell back on the blockade as the only safe option.
  • 3. The Soviets simply did not have a plan to follow if the U.S. took decisive action against their missiles. Khrushchev's communications indicated a high degree of desperation. Without any back-up plan, the Soviets had to withdraw.

The "Governmental Politics" Model

After reading works by Richard Neustadt and Samuel Huntington, among others, Allison proposed a third model, which takes account of court politics (or "palace politics "). While statesmen don't like to admit they play politics to get things done, especially in high-stakes situations such as the Cuban missile crisis, they nonetheless do.

Allison proposed the following propositions for this model:

  • A nation's actions are best understood as the result of politicking and negotiation by its top leaders.
  • Even if they share a goal, leaders differ in how to achieve it because of such factors as personal interests and background.
  • Leaders have different levels of power based on charisma, personality, skills of persuation, and personal ties to decisionmakers.
  • Because of the possibilities of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and downright disagreements, different leaders may take actions that the group as a whole would not approve of.

Allison had to admit that, because the Soviets were not as open with their internal affairs as the Americans, he simply didn't have enough data to fully interpret the crisis with this model. Nonetheless, he made the following attempt:

  • 1. Khrushchev came under increasing fire from the Presidium because of Kennedy's revelation of the Soviet lack of ICBMs, as well as American successes in Berlin. Also, the Soviet economy was being stretched, and military leaders were unhappy with Khrushchev's decision to cut the size of the army. Placing missiles in Cuba was a cheap and quick way for him to secure his political base.
  • 2. Because of the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Republicans in the U.S. Congress made Cuban policy into a major issue for the upcoming congressional elections later in 1962. Therefore, Kennedy immediately decided on a strong response rather than a diplomatic one. Although a majority of EX-COM initially favored air strikes, those closest to the president - such as his brother and Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, and special counsel Theodore Sorensen - favored the blockade. At the same time, Kennedy got into arguments with proponents of the air strikes, such as Air Force General Curtis LeMay. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy also distrusted the CIA and its advice. This combination of push and pull led to the implication of a blockade.
  • 3. With his plans thwarted, Khrushchev tried to save face by pointing to American missiles in Turkey, a position similar to the Cuban missiles. While Kennedy refused to move these missiles "under duress," he allowed Robert Kennedy to reach a deal with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin , in which the Turkish missiles (which Kennedy ordered removed prior to the crisis) would be quietly removed several months later. Publically, Kennedy also agreed never to invade Cuba.


When the book was first published, Allison's primary message was that the concept of mutually assured destruction as a barrier to nuclear war was unfounded. By looking at organizational and political models, such an outcome was quite possible - nations, against what was predicted by the rational viewpoint, could indeed "commit suicide."

He pointed to several incidents in history that seemed to back this assertation. His most salient point: the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor with the full knowledge that they lacked the industrial capacity and military might to win a war against the U.S. Nevertheless, they did so anyway.

He also believed that the organizational model explained otherwise inexplicable gaffes in military history. To return to 1941, he noted that the U.S. intercepted enough evidence to indicate that Japan was about to attack Pearl Harbor, yet the commander did not prepare. The answer, Allison revealed, was that what the intelligence community viewed as a "threat of attack," the commander interpreted as a "threat of sabotage." This miscommunication, due to different viewpoints, allowed the attack to be pulled off.

Likewise, the political process model explained otherwise confusing affairs. Allison pointed to the decision by General Douglas MacArthur to defy his orders during the Korean War and march too far north. The reason was not a "rational" change in U.S. intentions, but rather, MacArthur's disagreements with Harry Truman and other policymakers.

While Allison did not claim that any of his additional two models could fully explain anything, he noted that policymakers and analysts alike would benefit from stepping away from the traditional model and exploring alternate viewpoints.

Last updated: 10-11-2005 20:48:30
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