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How the World Was Saved

Published on 15th March 2019


Perceiving the men at the helm of America as weak, Soviet leader Khrushchev unleashed the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. El País journalist Santiago Pérez Díaz lays out the realities behind the political thriller 13 Days from 2000, starring Kevin Costner in a boosted version of the role that presidential advisor Kenneth O’Donnell played during the crisis that threatened to blow up the world.

The Spanish journalist describes a game of chicken in testosterone politics. Red Russia had little to boast of: Their amount of nuclear heads and launch ramps was a tenth of America’s, but after the US nuclear show-off in Japan at the end of World War II they felt the need to show the world that they too had nuclear capacity. That is, the capacity to destroy or distort all life, as antinuclear campaigner Niels Arley decried in his lifelong attempt to atone for his own unwitting contribution to the Bomb as prominent part of the group of nuclear physicists around the famed Dane Niels Bohr.

After the American response in the form of a naval ”quarantaine”, manly Khrushchev came out the real winner as meaker Robert Kennedy bent over backwards and traded an official promise never to invade Cuba, and an unofficial withdrawal of the American missiles in Turkey, for rolling back the Soviet initiative. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro saw it otherwise: He believed his side had been humiliated in the cockfight and was sorry to see the potent missiles go. And one could argue that the inexperienced Kennedys did indeed win by avoiding a nuclear threat in their frontyard. We all won in the sense that a looming all-out war was averted in the nick of time.

In search of the right response

But perhaps it was all not so much to do with strategic goals and presidential personalities. In an article from 1971, political scientist Graham Allison proposes that the idea of all actions in international relations being taken by a unitary rational actor must be supplemented by two other models of organizational processes and bureaucratic politics respectively. The powers that be are neither individual nor monolithic actors.

13 Days takes some account for that insight by dramatizing the internal struggle over the right response to the Soviet provokation (as it was seen). The sheer volume of the cast bears testimony to the multiple forces involved in the outcome. However, the docudrama presents the actual actions taken as rational and ultimately one man’s decisions cutting through the haze. An example of this is the scene where John F. Kennedy makes it quite clear that he does not have to take the Chiefs of Staff advise to invade Cuba immediately.

The Russians sent the Americans mixed messages, and the Americans took their chances reacting only to the one they believed to be from Krushchev personally, while ignoring the following harsher one believed to be from the Politburo. The two messages could simply not be understood as the rational output of a unitary actor.

Likewise, advisor O’Donnels meddling in favour of peace, giving the American pilots spying over Cuba orders not to report it if they come under attack, is an example of how the whole administration apparatus impacted on the final outcome, in this case avoiding the obligation of a retaliation that would have brought Hell to pay.

A looming apocalypse

We perceive phenomena as actions, when they are perhaps just ”things that happen”, argues Allison. He explains that ”innumerable and often conflicting smaller actions” based on a whole range of ”national, organizational, and political goals” result in the ”large acts” that are visible to the naked eye. Organization theory sees these as ”outputs”. A third way of understanding the moves made in international politics is to see the whole shebang as a ”bargaining game” where ”perceptions, motivations, positions, power, and maneuvers” have specific political ”resultants”.

And at any rate, Allison points out, everything we believe to know is based on inferences. The importance of the choice of analytical model lies in whether its assumptions lead us to make the right inferences. In Allison’s words: ”We should ask not what goals account for a nation’s choice of action, but rather what factors determined an outcome.”

Both the Soviet deployment of missiles and the American response may be seen as rational actions pursuing strategic goals. However, insists Allison, decisions on both sides derived from ”organizational routines rather than central choice”. And so, the conclusions from the missile crisis differ wildly, depending on whether the analysis presumes I) rational, II) organizational, or III) bureaucratic behaviour.

Model I has faith in no nation committing suicide by unleashing nuclear armageddon. Models II and III are not so sure that this could not happen through a series of events coming together to gang up on the future of mankind. The theory of nuclear deterrence leaks water, and if we are to believe Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defense at the time and at the center of the documentary Fog of War, the world was saved by sheer "luck".

Niels Arley was Sara Høyrup’s grandfather. He was ostrasized by his scientific community over his unrelenting criticism of nuclear power. He and his wife ended their days in a sorry state of isolation and half-madness.