Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis
The Cuban Missile Crisis
Cold War and Counter-revolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy
The Kennedy Doctrine
The Limits of Coercive Diplomacy
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.