The case-study which I have chosen to analyse in terms of problem solving and decision making processes is the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Cuban missile crisis is an excellent example of successful strategic decision making at the level of the nation state under inflexible constraints, and in the presence of awesome potential consequences. A brief resume of the situation is presented in the following section, there then follows a discussion of the decision making process and finally some conclusions are drawn.
* The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Perspective
The Cuban missile crisis marks the closest the world has come to nuclear destruction. For six days in 1962, from the time President John F. Kennedy informed the nation of the Soviet missile build up in Cuba until Nikita Khrushchev agreed to pull back, the American people lived under the threat of disaster.1 It had been known since 1960 the Soviets were supplying Castro with conventional armaments. It is generally thought that sometime during the spring of 1962 they had decided to deploy long-range nuclear missiles. The Soviets plan was for a major military deployment providing a nuclear strike capability that would threaten every major city in the United States.
Even though the motive for the Soviet decision was strategic in the broad sense, it included political advantages as well because a general improvement in the Soviet military position offered enticing prospects for specific gains in foreign policy. For example, if the move in Cuba was successful and the overall Soviet position strengthened, Soviet leverage in Berlin would be improved. Moreover, NATO would perhaps be affected, and the chances that the United States would successfully create a multilateral nuclear force would be reduced. Added to this was the potential that other Castros could be ‘created’ or at least encouraged. At the very least, American power would be less impressive and American protection less sought, and some Latin American countries might move in the Soviet direction even if their governments were not overthrown. Finally, a successful move in Cuba might strengthen the Soviet claim vis-ï¿½-vis the Chinese Communists for world leadership of the Communist movement.
As already stated the Soviets began placing offensive missile sites in Cuba during the spring of 1962, when their presence was revealed a few months later, on October 14, 1962, they were nearly operational. During this period, however, the Kennedy administration was generally aware of Soviet intentions in Cuba, so that when aerial reconnaissance photographs and other sources of intelligence confirmed what was already suspected, the response was rapid and to the point. In fact, it was only two weeks from discovery of the missile sites on October 14, 1962, until October 28, 1962, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that the Soviets would execute a complete military withdrawal from Cuba. A few weeks later Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet aircraft and personnel, and within a few months aerial reconnaissance, and other means deployed by the United States, confirmed that there was a complete Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. The Cuban missile crisis was effectively over.
* The Decision Making Process
The course of action the decision makers (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council and President Kennedy) settled on was to impose a blockade on Cuba. This was obviously not a straight forward, easy or rash decision to come to, and indeed there was a very studied process which led to this action. What the decision makers did to reach their choice (or to make their decision) was to use the open decision model. Wilson and Alexis describe the structure of the open decision model as follows:
1. The decision maker starts out with an idealized goal structure. He defines one or more action goals as a ‘first approximation’ of the ‘ideal goal’ in the structure. The action goal(s) may be considered as representative of the decision maker’s aspiration level.
2. The decision maker engages in search activity and defines a limited number of outcomes and alternatives. His analysis proceeds from loosely defined rules of approximation. The limited alternatives defined establish a starting point for further search toward a solution.
3. Search among the limited alternatives is undertaken to find a ‘satisfactory’, as contrasted with an ‘optimal’, solution. ‘Satisfactory’ is defined in terms of the aspiration level or action goals.2
Therefore the first step, and indeed the most logical one, was to define the action goals, or objectives, from an American perspective. The first and foremost American objective was to have the Soviet missiles removed from Cuba. However, there were also other purposes that had to be served in the process of removing the missiles. It was essential, for example, that the world power balance remain in favour of the United States. Moreover, while the defence of the Western Hemisphere had to be preserved, it was also necessary not to alienate neutral nations who might be inclined to move into the Communist camp. In addition the politics of the moment dictated that the Kennedy administration respond in a way that would retain the favour of public opinion in the United States. Finally, the American response had to be made in a way that would not strengthen the relationship between the Soviets and the Communist Chinese. The task at hand clearly was how to decide how best to accomplish these aims.
The next step taken by the decision makers, and following from the open decision model, was to produce a list of possible options or alternatives. The search for alternatives in the Cuban missile crisis took place within a context of bounded rationality. Simon has advanced a formal principle of bounded rationality as follows: ‘The capacity of the human mind for formulating and solving complex problems is very small compared with the size of the problems whose solution is required for objectively rational behaviour in the real world – or even for a reasonable approximation of such objective rationality.’3 There were many limitations and constraints imposed upon the Executive Committee, but eventually six alternatives were considered. The complex set of inter-relationships among nations, international organisations, and domestic politics created an extremely sensitive situation. Added to this complexity was the high degree of uncertainty accompanying the selection of a particular alternative. Fundamentally the Executive Committee was constrained by limited information. It was known that offensive missiles were being placed in Cuba, but the full extent of the Soviet plan and the timetable were unknown. Perhaps the biggest constraint however was time. Every day the Soviets were permitted to complete the missile sites was a day closer to their capture of a strategic advantage in the western Hemisphere, with a threat of nuclear destruction.
The Executive Committee was thorough, creative and more or less exhaustive when deciding on a list of alternatives. The six alternatives they considered were: do nothing, apply diplomatic pressures (for example appeal to the United Nations or withdraw their own missiles from Turkey), approach Castro (and ask him to split from the Soviet Union), invade Cuba, carry out air strikes (on the Soviet missile sites in Cuba), or carry out a blockade. A decision matrix was then created in which the alternatives were related to the objectives.4 A point value system was then introduced into the matrix whereby each alternative was given a value (between 0 and 10) based on perceived advantage to the United States. The alternative with the highest score would seem to be the most favourable or satisfactory. Based on this analysis, the decision made by President Kennedy and the Executive Committee, was to impose a blockade on Cuba. In spite of the several disadvantages presented by a blockade, it offered several very desirable benefits to the United States under the extreme constraints of the moment. A blockade was a middle course between inaction and attack. It was aggressive enough to signify firmness of intention but not so precipitous as an air strike and on balance, was the best choice among the available alternatives.
Clearly in view of the objectives underlying the decision, as well as the un-quantifiable but excruciating constraints of the moment and obviously with the outcome that was achieved, a blockade was the best and correct choice made by President Kennedy and the Executive Committee. The process used to make the decision was clearly appropriate as there was little time to develop quantitative models or employ sophisticated statistical techniques. On the other hand however this could be seen as a weakness of the method, that there was no formal mathematical techniques employed. However, this is perhaps why the process used is particularly attractive as it engages both subjective thought (the list of alternatives) and some mathematical rationale (the decision matrix), without involving too much complexity.
The behaviour of the decision makers was very rational in that they never lost sight of the objectives. The choice was made in the face of vast environmental pressures and very limited, incomplete information. With these factors taken into account and the outcome now known, it can be said that the decision making process was hugely effective.