Friday, September 18, 2009

Missiles and Judgment

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I suppose it's timely that President Obama has today made a bold and both criticized and supported decision about missiles.  Quite coincidentally, I started watching last night a 1974 made-for-TV docudrama - "The Missiles of October" - which I first saw in May, 1975, as I recall, on the night after the last final of my junior year in college, and with a big steak and a beer in front of me.  Compared to "Thirteen Days" in which the focus was on Kevin Costner's Kenny O'Donnell, this one is primarily about the Kennedy brothers and Khrushchev, with a young William Devane making a very believable John Kennedy (compared to Bruce Greenwood's milktoast of a JFK in Thirteen Days), and a very young Martin Sheen (who, with this, The American President, and The West Wing, seems to hang out in the White House a lot) as Robert Kennedy.

Assessing judgment (as, say, in connection with what was done or not done in the financial crisis) is difficult because of the absence of the counterfactual.  We don't know how things would have turned out otherwise, so Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the benefit of hindsight appears to be a non-pareil exercise of judgment.  We are all still here.  (I was eight; I remember my mother telling me to be quiet while the President was speaking to TV "because World War III could be about to start.")  On the other hand, the financial bubble burst.  How likely is it that hindsight bias might be at work in both cases?

Nevertheless, watching what seems to be a fairly accurate dramatization (I could be wrong, but I do remember reading Graham Allison's book on this as a sophomore...), several things struck me about the knife-edge of "do I or don't I?" that goes on in these matters (particularly when a possible outcome is a nuclear war).

1.  The big early decision was whether to make a pre-emptive air strike.  The military and John McCone, the CIA director, were in favor.  The first reasons against were moral ones - we were only twenty years removed from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.  In the brainstorming among Kennedy's advisors, somebody offered up the idea of a sea blockade (or "quarantine"), which is also technically an act of war, but obviously less dramatic than bombing.  To put this in terms of a little jargon, the heuristic that ultimately prevailed was path dependence.  That is, the blockade did not foreclose a stronger measure, but bombing foreclosed a weaker measure. 

2.  I have argued that judgment is also a matter of prediction, akin to scientific hypothesizing.  In a meeting with the Joint Chiefs, the air force general (could that really have been Curtis LeMay? - compare LeMay's reputation and his treatment in Thirteen Days, where he's played by a thuggish Kevin Conway) acknowledged forthrightly that he could not guarantee 100% success in taking out all the missiles.  His assessment was that he could guarantee taking out 90%, leaving intact a retaliatory capability still of killing 80 million Americans on the East Coast and in the South.  So the judgment had elements both of predictions of the "is" as well as considerations of the "ought."

3.  Kennedy's own resolve in the face of great uncertainty, as well as significant opposition and debate among his advisors, was on display, but there were neat little tidbits of "do I or don't I" along the way to which we can all relate - that is, do I honor the value of courage or the value of consensus?  In short, when is right to speak one's mind?  After the decision was taken (all of Kennedy's advisers in favor of blockade, except for General Taylor, Admiral Anderson, and John McCone - the military and intelligence people), Adlai Stevenson, who was then the ambassador to the U.N., raised the "what if" question about failure of the blockade, whether the next step would be diplomacy or war, and what the U.S. might trade (obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, or the "non-strategic" base at Guantanamo).  JFK's discussion with RFK about Stevenson's courage in raising the issue (and thus being thought weak or cowardly), and Stevenson's own later insecurities about it are worth the price of admission (Robert was excoriating Stevenson for almost blowing the consensus RFK had achieved with the military, and recommended that JFK replace him immediately with John McCloy) .  Similarly, the air force general (I can't believe I'm saying this if it was Curtis LeMay) was honest about capabilities. 

4.  Kennedy briefed congressional leaders, whose response was "we'll support you for now, but we think you are wrong, and you can expect us to second guess."  Richard Russell was particularly obnoxious, and I didn't realize that William Fulbright also told Kennedy that he thought a pre-emptive airstrike was the right thing to do.  Kennedy's stewing on the way out of the meeting toward his speech was typical of how most of us would react - something like "well, you can take this job and shove it, if that's all the thanks you get for making a hard call."

5. It was interesting to watch Kennedy keep the wheels on by steering away from the extremes.  He used Stevenson's comment about diplomacy to take a hawkish position about the primacy of getting rid of the missiles, no doubt to allay the military people whose support he needed to make the blockade work.  He appeased Bobby by allowing him to add McCloy to Stevenson's mission at the U.N.

Again, it all turned out okay, but you have to have been there to sense just how scary it was, and how open the questions and judgments were.

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