The Cuban Missile Affair and the American Style of Crisis Management

by Dan Caldwell

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The Cuban missile crisis, more than any other single episode in the history of post-World War II American foreign policy, contributed to the development of an American style of crisis management. This Note, reprinted from Parameters, Vol. XIX, March 1989, identifies seven elements of the American style of crisis management: (1) crises are assumed to be manageable; (2) as soon as crises begin, there is a strong tendency to ignore previous plans and expectations; (3) during crises, presidents convene ad hoc decisionmaking groups with a limited number of members to advise them; (4) during crises, spokesmen with unpopular ideas are often excluded from the group making the important decisions; (5) during crises, presidents assert direct control over the tactical operations of military units; (6) U.S. decisionmaking during crises is characterized by imperfect information and overloaded communication channels; and (7) during certain crises, the United States has increased the alert levels of its nuclear forces as a means of communicating the seriousness of crises. The author concludes that American analysts and policymakers have focused primarily on crisis management and have all but ignored crisis prevention, and that crises are manageable only to a degree and may have dramatic unintended and unforeseen consequences.

The research described in this report was performed under the auspices of the RAND/UCLA Center for the Study of Soviet International Behavior.

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