First came the orthodox, who said that everything having to do with the cold war was the fault of the communists who forced us from our self-indulgent isolationism into acceptance of our world “responsibilities.” Then came the revisionists, who argued that the cold war was largely our fault, and that American interventions against communism were not defensive at all, but rather key elements of our global imperialism. While arriving at opposite conclusions, both the orthodox and the revisionists share the belief that the United States acted deliberately, rationally, and in pursuit of what it believed to be its self-interest. Indeed, both assume there is such a thing as an American government which analyzes a situation, makes a decision, and carries it through.

Now come the postrevisionists, who question whether anyone is responsible for anything, and who tell us that the important thing is not what decisions are made, but how they are made. The argument between left and right about political ends goes on over their heads and to their complete indifference. They are interested in means, not ends. To ask them the basic question that turns on orthodox and revisionist historians: Who started the cold war? is to pose a non sequitur. There is no single cause, they argue, but only a process, and to find out what happened we have to look at the real source of decision-making: the bureaucracy. Thus the study of diplomacy becomes nothing less than an analysis of bureaucratic politics. Exit the historian, enter the computer-punching social scientist.

For many this is an appealing approach. The old polemics are becoming tired and predictable, ideology is suspect, and the emphasis, even among radicals, is on marshaling skills and “reordering priorities” rather than looking for first causes. What happened in history is now considered by many political scientists a less interesting question than why it happened. It is also a question without messy side effects. In concentrating on process at the expense of substance, it avoids value judgments. In the most up-to-date social scientific language, it tells us there are no longer individual responsibilities, but only “decision-making processes.” People make decisions, but only organizations go through processes, and they are what really count. For a growing number of political scientists this is the higher realism. On closer inspection, however, it looks suspiciously like a high-level cop-out.

One of the brightest luminaries in the bureaucratic approach to foreign policy is Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard, whose recent study of the Cuban missile crisis, Essence of Decision, is required reading in political science courses across the country. His book comes with the most respectable credentials, written, we are told, “under the auspices of the Faculty Seminar on Bureaucracy, Politics, and Policy of the Institute of Politics, John Fitzgerald Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.”

While the weary reader may wonder whether we need yet another postmortem of the missile crisis, Allison’s book offers something more. It is a blueprint for examining evidence, using the missile crisis as a test case. It posits three different approaches, or “conceptual lenses,” as Allison calls them, to demonstrate how “alternative conceptual lenses lead one to see, emphasize, and worry about quite different aspects of events like the missile crisis.” Each of these perspectives is a “model,” to use the social science jargon, which is then applied against the information. Allison’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that what you see depends on how you look at it.

This book, we are told, is for the “entire community of foreign policy observers…both ‘artists’ and ‘scientists.’ ” The community is then subdivided, with the mania for categorization that is the bane of the social scientist, into five different classes of readers: the colleague, the bright student, the layman who reads foreign policy articles in The New York Times, the journalist, and, finally, “the wife [why not the husband?] of one of my colleagues, an intelligent person not especially interested in foreign affairs, and thus a good stand-in for ‘general readers.’ ” Why anyone not especially interested in foreign affairs would want to subject themselves to an all but impenetrable dissection of the missile crisis is a mystery which is left unexplained.

There are good reasons for choosing the missile crisis for this kind of autopsy. Because it was so brief and the decisions were made by such a small group, it offers a manageable laboratory specimen that can be examined from a variety of angles. It also has the virtue of being almost the only foreign policy “success” of the Kennedy Administration—if that is the proper word to apply to an action that nearly incinerated the world, that induced the Soviets to build up their nuclear and naval forces so that they would never again be subject to atomic blackmail, and that produced a euphoria of power that contributed to the intervention in Vietnam.


But at the time it was certainly deemed a success, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., expressed a commonly held view when he described it as a “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that dazzled the world.” If it seems less dazzling today, and considerably less matchlessly calibrated, it is because we have discovered how near we came to the nuclear brink and how unnecessary that trip really was. Even Allison, in spite of his evident sympathy for Kennedy, details what a close call Cuba was and how less clear-cut the issues were than many of the actors in the drama imagined.

Others have been considerably more critical. In the useful compilation The Cuban Missile Crisis, edited and with an informative introduction by Robert Divine, Kennedy’s handling of the crisis is subject to a full-scale examination, ranging from praise by his aides and associates to harsh attacks by critics on the left and right. In spite of the variety of opinions, there is little left intact of the view that the missile crisis was a diplomatic triumph or that it can still be considered, in Allison’s phrase, “one of the finest examples of diplomatic prudence and perhaps the finest hour of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.”

The Kennedy image of peacemaker and master diplomat is subject to further attack in two recent studies of his foreign policy. In Cold War and Counter-revolution, a title that perfectly expresses the author’s jaundiced view of Kennedy diplomacy, Richard Walton assesses him as “the great counter-revolutionary of the post-war world” and as for the missile crisis declares:

I believe that his decision to go to the brink of nuclear war was irresponsible and reckless to a supreme degree, that it risked the kind of terrible miscalculation that Kennedy was always warning Khrushchev about, that it was unnecessary, and that, if one assumes minimum competence, the Kennedy administration knew it was not necessary.

A similar judgment emerges from Louise Fitzsimon’s The Kennedy Doctrine, which is her term for his effort to contain communism and control social change by a policy of intervention and counterrevolution. In her chapter on the Cuban missiles she concludes that it was an unnecessary crisis, and charges that politics played at least as big a role as strategy. “Considerations of strategy—political if not military—convinced the President that the Russian withdrawal would have to be complete; considerations of prestige convinced him that it would have to be unilateral; and considerations of partisan politics convinced him that the withdrawal would have to be brought about by the end of October.” Although both Walton and Fitzsimons tend to approach Kennedy with the chagrin of a disappointed lover, their criticisms are serious, well-argued, and thoroughly researched. They have made significant, if sometimes polemical, contributions to the necessary demystification of a legend.

Most analysts of the missile crisis agree that Kennedy and his advisers considered the military threat far less important than the political one. We know that McNamara discounted the strategic element, arguing that “it makes no difference whether you are killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.” But from the start Kennedy posed the issue as one of prestige (his, and by extension the nation’s) and decided that anything less than a Soviet capitulation would be intolerable. This is why he confronted the Kremlin with an ultimatum on television, rather than seeking a quiet withdrawal through secret diplomacy, which would not have humiliated Khrushchev. Later he explained that any compromise on the part of the US “would have politically changed the balance of power. It would have appeared to, and appearances contribute to reality.”

In his essay on the missile crisis in a compilation entitled The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy, the Stanford political scientist Alexander George agrees that “the president and his military advisers were swayed not by the military threat but largely by the important political-diplomatic advantages they saw accruing to Khrushchev if the missiles remained in Cuba.” The unanswered question, of course, is whether such advantages would in fact have accrued, and even if they did, whether the method Kennedy chose to seek the withdrawal of the missiles was worth the risk of nuclear war.

While George does not argue this point, preferring instead to analyze “the conflicting requirements of crisis control and coercive diplomacy,” he takes the conventional point of view that Khrushchev did in fact try to embarrass Kennedy. “Of those several aspects of Khrushchev’s bold move that reflect bad judgment and miscalculation,” he writes, “his willingness to inflict personal and political humiliation upon Kennedy is by far the most irresponsible.” But is that what Khrushchev intended? Certainly Kennedy thought so. Yet in retrospect there is little to substantiate the charge. As Allison has pointed out,


The available evidence does not exclude the possibility that the advocates of the Soviet decision argued solely in terms of objectives like Cuban defense or the build-up of Soviet strategic capabilities and that no one in the Soviet government had any intention whatsoever of probing American commitments or of posing a personal challenge to the President.

The fact that Kennedy interpreted the Russian missiles as a personal challenge is a reflection of his own perceptions and insecurities. These need to be explored, and it is a pity that George, whose biography Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, written with his wife, Juliette George, is a landmark of interpretative analysis, should not have devoted some of his formidable talents to this task rather than raking over the strategic arguments.

Allison, of course, does not even delve into this dangerous realm of psychohistory, with its emphasis upon the individual and his perception of the world. Instead he concentrates on groups, organizations, and what he calls “bargaining games” among the “players” in a bureaucracy. The purpose of his book is precisely to lead the reader away from the assumption that nations behave like individuals and that it is possible to explain foreign policy as rationally chosen action. To think this way is to take what he calls the Rational Actor approach. Examples of this line of thinking include virtually every aspect of foreign policy analysis: diplomatic history (dismissed with a contemptuous nod), strategic thinking of the kind exemplified by Thomas Schelling and Herman Kahn, the speculations of Sovietologists and Sinologists, foreign policy analysts like the early Henry Kissinger with their emphasis on “rational” strategic doctrines, and political theorists such as Hans Morgenthau and Raymond Aron who see history as the interaction of nations and powerful leaders.

These, Allison argues, are limited ways of thinking and fail to describe the way things really happen. To counter such myopia he suggests two other “conceptual lenses” or models. The first he calls Organizational Process, by which he means that governments are not single cohesive bodies but a collection of groups with interests of their own. “Governmental behavior,” he writes in a sentence typical of the book’s style, “can therefore be understood…less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behavior.”

Setting aside the outputs, he then proposes another way of looking at evidence, which is really the one closest to his heart. This he calls Model III, or Governmental Politics; maneuverings by individuals within the bureaucracy. “The name of the game,” he says in a cliché endemic to his field, “is politics: bargaining along regularized circuits among players positioned hierarchically within the government.” Or in other words, decisions result from infighting among the participants. To use Allison’s own words to distinguish the three “models,” “What moves the chess pieces is not simply the reasons that support a course of action, or the routines of organizations that enact an alternative, but the power and skill of proponents and opponents of the action in question.”

While most of his book is even denser than the preceding sentence, it contains some interesting material on bureaucratic politics, which is, after all, the product Allison is selling. It is not really a new product, having been developed in the 1950s by Gabriel Almond and Charles Lindblom, and blossomed with Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power, which not only caught the attention of John F. Kennedy but launched a whole growth industry in political science. Neustadt, who until recently was head of the Kennedy School, describes his 1970 study of Suez and Skybolt, Alliance Politics, as a “crude first cut” of Allison’s Model III. This approach to political decision-making can also be found in the writings of such scholars as Robert Dahl, Warner Schilling, Roger Hilsman, Samuel Williamson, and Samuel Huntington. A fascination with the internal workings of bureaucracies has not only spawned a whole literature but has virtually supplanted the study of history among students of political science.

The main point of Allison’s argument is that crucial decisions really come from the tug of personalities and groups within the bureaucracy rather than from rational choices made by individuals and translated into national policy. As an example he focuses on the deliberations in the ExCom—the small group of advisers Kennedy assembled to deal with the crisis—over the question of an air strike to destroy the missile bases. Allison cites the disagreements within this group—McNamara favoring a do-nothing approach, McGeorge Bundy originally suggesting a private diplomatic approach to Khrushchev, the Joint Chiefs and the civilian hawks like Acheson and McCone arguing for an immediate attack. He tries to show that there was no consensus and that the compromise decision to impose a blockade emerged from tugging and pulling within the ExCom. One of the major reasons that Kennedy rejected an immediate air strike in favor of a blockade, he suggests, is that his brother, Sorensen, and McNamara strongly urged the more moderate blockade that would “maintain the options,” and that the Air Force could not guarantee that a “surgical” strike would take out all the missile bases.

However, he makes it clear that Kennedy never had the slightest interest in a nonmilitary approach of the kind suggested by McNamara or Bundy: “The record leaves no doubt that from the outset he [Kennedy] was determined to act forcefully.” Why? Because, according to Allison, a failure to do so would undermine confidence among his subordinates, encourage bureaucrats to challenge his policies, imperil the chances of Democrats at the congressional elections only three weeks away, destroy his reputation in Congress, create public distrust of his will, cause foreigners to doubt his courage and commitments, invite a second Bay of Pigs, and feed doubts in his own mind about himself. “The nonforcible paths,” Allison states, “avoiding military measures, resorting instead to diplomacy—could not have been more irrelevant to his problem.”

While this sounds plausible, it actually reveals two flaws in Allison’s reasoning. First, what he has presented are not reasons for Kennedy’s behavior, but explanations. Having chosen to use force, Kennedy used these as justifications for his decision. But he could have chosen not to use force and found equally compelling justifications. To say that the avoidance of military measures was irrelevant to Kennedy’s problem is to skirt the real issue—which is why he perceived the situation in such a way as to preclude a diplomatic solution. Second, if Kennedy was determined to use force from the outset, then all the tugging and pulling within the ExCom did not make a great difference to the outcome. He consistently overruled the Joint Chiefs in military matters—like changing the 800-mile quarantine to 500 miles and not retaliating against the attack on a U-2 from the SAM bases—and the civilian advisers with whom he disagreed. “Arguments in the ExCom for and against military tracks,” Allison observes,

involved different estimates, interpretations, and matters of judgment. Indeed, in retrospect, an analyst weighing all available argument could decide either way. But, as Sorensen’s record of these events reveals, the rapid abandonment of the nonmilitary path resulted less from the balance of argument than from the intra-governmental balance of power. “The President had rejected this course from the outset.”

If that is the case—if the President decided on a forceful confrontation instead of inaction or a diplomatic approach, then the decision to impose a blockade and to postpone an air strike did not result from “organizational processes” or bureaucratic politics. It was Kennedy’s perceptions that determined the key decisions. Thus we end up right back at the Model I Rational Actor explanation.

This is not surprising, since much of what Allison tells us is not so new or so informative as we are led to believe. For example, after a couple of hundred pages of model-building we are still left very much in the dark about the central question of the crisis, which is why the Russians put the missiles in Cuba in the first place. Allison suggests a number of possibilities, but confesses that “it is embarrassingly easy to construct a large number of plausible accounts of this occurrence and extraordinarily difficult to distinguish among them.” This is quite true, but do we need the “conceptual lenses” of bureaucratic politics to show us that? No one expects Allison to know the innermost secrets of the Kremlin. But it hardly seems necessary to go through such an arduous exercise of model-building to confirm that “it is not possible to have high confidence in any single explanation” of what the Soviets were up to—which any Model I analyst could have told him all along.

While it may be true that the Rational Actor approach fails to take into account that “many crucial details of implementation followed from organizational routines rather than from central choice,” it hardly follows that “larger payoffs in the future will come from an intellectual shift of gears” into organizational and bureaucratic politics. Least of all is it persuasive that “we must move to a conception of happenings as events whose determinants are to be investigated according to the canons developed by modern science.”

While modern science may help us with many things, understanding the struggle of nations is not likely to be one of them. Politics is the interplay of human beings in groups, and thus among the most humanistic of studies. It can be analyzed, speculated upon, and dissected, but it is not a science and it is not subject to canons laid down in laboratories. The Rational Actor model, as Allison sets it up, rather in the fashion of a straw man, may fail to provide adequate explanation of the missile crisis, but so do his other two models, and even all three of them taken together.

He is quite right in warning us that those who believed that the steps leading to nuclear war could be precisely controlled, and thus saw the missile crisis as Kennedy’s “finest hour,” were oblivious of the deadly risks they were running. “Only barely,” Allison concludes, “did governmental leaders manage to control organizational programs that might have dragged us over the cliff.” He shows quite clearly that the “interaction of internal games, each as ill-understood as those in the White House and the Kremlin, could indeed yield nuclear war as an outcome.”

But having said this, Allison fails to show how a knowledge of bureaucratic politics is going to help very much in dealing with it. What is crucial, after all, is not bargaining games but the perception and understanding of political events. Allison, of course, disagrees, and believes that he has found a method of inquiry that is going to make all the others outmoded. In asking, “Where do we go from here?” he asserts,

American academic and professional thought about foreign affairs seems to have reached a hiatus. Strategic thought has made little progress…. Sovietology is just “more of the same.” The arms control literature has been coasting on ideas generated by the time of the summer study of 1960. The new wave of revisionist studies of American foreign policy turns traditional interpretations on their head without really increasing our understanding. Diplomatic history shows little life.

The problem with the study of bureaucratic politics that Allison proposes is not only that it tells us little that is new but, in emphasizing game-playing, it reduces political responsibility. Where everyone is responsible for a decision, no one is responsible. If politics is the result of bargaining games among players, neither the President nor the nation can be held responsible for the decisions made. If bureaucracies really run the show, what is the point of elections? What, in fact, is the meaning of politics? The bureaucratic state as conceived here represents the abdication of political responsibility by those empowered to make decisions. It is not surprising that such a theory should be appealing at a time when bureaucracies have infused not only government and business but the universities as well, and when the very concept of individual responsibility is under assault.

It is hard to disagree with the Kennedy quote from which Allison takes his title: “The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer—often, indeed, to the decider himself…. There will always be the dark and tangled stretches in the decision-making process—mysterious even to those who may be most intimately involved.” Tolstoy thought so too. But this does not, as Allison’s study implies, absolve the individual or the nation from responsibility for the decisions that are made. There is much more to politics than looking at a blackbird three different ways and concluding that “different conceptual lenses lead analysts to different judgments about what is relevant and important.” To be sure, they do. But the perceptions that lead to the decisions, as Richard Barnet has shown in his examination of the decision-making bureaucracy, Roots of War, are more pertinent and important than a study of how decisions are made; studies of bureaucracy which do not analyze and weigh such perceptions are little more than intellectual exercises, however “scientific” and interesting they may be.

This is what is disturbing about studies such as Allison’s and the impact they are having on the teaching of political science. It is not that their concern is unserious but rather that it is peripheral to the central question of political responsibility. In avoiding that question—indeed, implying that it does not exist—the architects of the study of bureaucratic politics are not, as Allison maintains, providing a “fundamental change in intellectual style” so much as they are offering a cool way out.

This Issue

October 19, 1972