Our emphasis here at Tighter Science is usually on fresh, nubile science. However, today we're waxing nostalgic with a wayback playback from the world of political science: Dr. Graham Allison's "Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis" from 1969. In-a-gadda-da-vida, you guys! So grab your grooviest pair of reading glasses, and avoid the brown acid, as we look at this old-timey Magical Mystery Tour. (You can read it for free on JSTOR, where they put old articles like this one on the giveaway table. Far out, man!)


This article is the most concise distillation of Allison's extensive work on this topic. Before it appeared in The American Political Science Review, "Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis" was presented in a longer format at the 1968 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. Later, it would become a book: 1971's Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. So you're getting a whole book in 30 awesome pages!

What's it about? Well, Allison contends that the traditional approach of explicating governmental decision-making is wrong, and proposes some alternative ways (conceptual models) of examining decisions. As an exciting case study, he uses the United States' decision to set up a naval blockade in response to receiving intelligence that the Soviets were secretly installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Before we can get to all that nuclear intrigue, we should probably look at the conceptual models. I know, I know. Stick with me.

Allison's Conceptual Models

Allison's argument is that:
  1. Researchers look at governmental decision-making through a particular conceptual lens, which he calls the Rational Policy Model. Use of this model strongly colours their analysis.
  2. There are at least two other conceptual models--which he calls the Organizational Process Model and the Bureaucratic Politics Model--that provide better insights and predictions of outcomes.
I realize that this doesn't instantly sound very intriguing, but trust Mother and all will be well. I'm going to define these three models next, and then we'll get to the good part.

What he's saying is, here are three ways of looking at why big decisions are made.

Model 1:
Rational Policy Model
Model 2:
Organizational Process Model
Model 3:
Bureaucratic Politics Model
Governments are purposeful "rational actors" that act in order to realize strategic objectives and goals.Governments are a wacky bunch of "semi-feudal, loosely allied" organizations that act according to pre-determined routines.Government actions reflect "compromise, coalition, competition, and confusion" among government officials.

When you think about it, he's right: Model 1 is quite silly. An individual or a small group might act as described in Model 1, but when was the last time you saw a large institution work to achieve a single, coherent vision, unhampered by red tape or political in-fighting?

So, fine, Model 2 and Model 3 look pretty good then. But would it significantly change our analysis if we used them instead of Model 1 to do some real-world research?

Darn tootin' it would! And that's where Allison goes next, to lay down some conceptual model theory on everyone's favourite Cold War bedtime story, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Cuban Missile Crisis

On being informed of the missiles' presence, John F. Kennedy picked up his presidential batphone and assembled a 15-member Executive Committee (or ExComm) composed of high-ranking men from the National Security Council. The ExComm had a single purpose: To Decide What America Should Do Now.

The good folks of the Executive Committee, puzzling away.

Several options were considered, but pretty much boiled down to these four, on a continuum of inaction to THIS IS SPARTA!:
  1. Do nothing.
  2. Talk about it: Approach either Khrushchev or Castro and apply the old diplomatic squeeze.
  3. Indirect military action: Set up a naval blockade to keep further Soviet supplies out of Cuba.
  4. Direct military action: Send "surgical" airstrikes to knock out missile sites, or a wholesale invasion to destroy the missiles, kill Castro, and feast on his heart's blood.
What happened next? They decided on Option 3. Why?  Let's look through some of Allison's lenses!

Cuban Missile Decision Through the Rational Policy Lens

According to the traditional approach, the ExComm evaluated the above options thusly:
  1. Do nothing: The missiles gave the Soviets a big strategic advantage and, what was more, gave a massive middle finger to the United States. Therefore, doing nothing was not a good option.
  2. Talk about it: Pressuring Khruschev to remove the missiles might be time-consuming and ineffective, and might involve ultimatums that would make no one comfy. Approaching Castro might be useless, as ultimately it would be the Soviets who controlled the missiles. Therefore, talking about it was out too. 
  3. Indirect military action: Problematic logistically and possibly not strong enough a response, but  it put the burden of decision-making in Khruschev's court, positioned the potential conflict out at sea where the mighty American boats were, and didn't involve going to all-out war, like option #4.  Hmm, so, a possibility...
  4. Direct military action: The Air Force's estimates were that a surgical airstrike would not so much be a delicate scalpel stroke as a gory bludgeoning, involving at least 500 sorties. This move or an invasion might touch off World War 3. Yeah, let's just do that blockade thing. 
And so, in a shining example of e pluribus unum, the rational statesmen of the ExComm chose to impose a naval blockade on Cuba, for the benefit of the American people and the glory of strategic decision-making.

Cuban Missile Decision Through the Organizational Process Model Lens

The options presented to the ExComm didn't magically appear out of thin air. With the obvious exception of "Do nothing," they were produced by the people who would potentially carry them out, and were the product of the procedures in place for those organizations.

Had the missiles been discovered earlier (for example, before they had been installed), a diplomatic option might have been a more viable alternative. All the pieces of information that pointed to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba were in American possession as of September 19, 1962. However, the overflight to confirm the missiles' presence was not undertaken until October 14, several weeks later. Why? The answer is: no special reason. The pace of processing and reporting of information proceeded "as a consequence of the established routines and procedures of the organizations which constitute the U.S. intelligence community." The process moved at exactly the same speed that it had done in the past and would do in the future, world without end, forever and ever, Amen.

Thus, the ExComm was realistically left with the two remaining options: indirect military action in the form of a naval blockade, or direct military action in the form of surgical airstrikes. Air Force assessors, using an existing plan for a large-scale US military action against Cuba, produced an estimate of the force necessary to guarantee an American victory, the aforementioned 500 sorties. This estimate was partly the result of the analysts' classification of the missiles as "mobile," which (according to their manuals) meant extensive bombing. 

The missiles were mobile, in the sense that they were being kept in sheds that technically could be disassembled and moved over the course of several days, but not in the sense of actually being mobile at all. And, although the ExComm were super-surprised at the large amount of bombing the Air Force was saying would be needed, no one really questioned the assessment, and the committee members eventually all drifted away from the idea. 

And poof! With no other real options, enthusiasm for the blockade was born!

Whew, that was fun, wasn't it? Instead of the incisive leadership of a unified mind, the United States' decision appears to have been produced by mindless adherence to standard operating procedures. But Allison's not done yet. Let's see it again, this time as a daytime soap opera!

Cuban Missile Decision Through the Bureaucratic Politics Model Lens

On August 22, 1962, U.S. Director of Intelligence John McCone told President Kennedy that he was worried that there might be secret Soviet missiles in Cuba.  McCone had a reputation of being a bit of a warmonger, though, so Kennedy was all, "Pffft." Afterwards, McCone left for a trip to the Riviera, but was still pretty worried about this whole missile thing, so he badgered his deputy, General Marshall Carter, to remind Kennedy about it. But as Kennedy had not been impressed with this story the first time he heard it, Carter was not particularly eager to tell it to him again. So he didn't, and time passed.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to Congressional elections, Kennedy's opponents were trying to score political points by insisting that the Administration wasn't taking an aggressive enough stance against Cuba and the Soviet program of increased arms aid. Responding to these attacks, on September 13, Kennedy himself asserted that there weren't any Soviet missiles in Cuba, and that the United States would act if any missiles were discovered.

So when the President was informed, roughly a month later, that there totally were Soviet missiles in Cuba, it was a bit of a bad scene. Kennedy apparently reacted by saying (referring to Khruschev), "He can't do that to me!" He'd been backed into a corner. His reputation, and that of his administration, was on the line. Doing nothing, or initiating some diplomatic chitchat, was not going to be good enough.

President Kennedy heads out to pick up some more
donut holes, some other guys (possibly General Maxwell
Taylor and Attorney General Robert Kennedy) stand
up to get a better look at their papers. 
When he assembled the ExComm, Kennedy was still fuming, and was all for airstrikes. Some of the more moderate members of the committee would have preferred a diplomatic option, but noticed that their leader had other ideas. 

Partway through ExComm's deliberations, Kennedy had to travel to Connecticut to a campaign event. When he came back, he saw that the moderates, including his brother Robert, were supporting the blockade (which they saw as an alternative that would both appease the President's wounded feelings and not involve a big giant war). Conversely, the hawks of the ExComm, including the aforementioned John McCone, were all rallying around the airstrike option.

Kennedy felt more kinship, both literal and figurative, with the moderates. Robert Kennedy sealed the deal by saying stuff about not wanting his brother to be "another Tojo" and calling the airstrike idea "Pearl Harbour in reverse." 

And so it was that, due to the self-interests, private motivations, and personal relationships of various powerful men, the United States decided on a naval blockade of Cuba.


So cool! Sort of a Rashomon take on a moment of Cold War history. 

It's foolish, Allison says, to believe that the actions of nations reflect a cool, calculated response to a strategic problem. We are not that awesome. The plodding gears of our institutions churn out poorly timed and spurious guidance, while key players plot with and against each other and ignore the larger objective. Then later, the group that happens to be on the winning side gets an entry in the history books that explains their victory in terms of rational choice instead of ass-backwards happenstance.

President Kennedy walks the last few members of the ExComm out of
the White House, congratulating them on some damn fine sitting-around-in-a boardroom.