Why We Should Still Study the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published: 
June 1, 2008
By: 
Michael Dobbs

Few events have been as studied and analyzed as the Cuban missile crisis. Drawing on previously undiscovered archival materials and interviews with Soviet and American veterans of the crisis, Michael Dobbs has taken a fresh look at the history of those fateful thirteen days.

Summary

  • Some scholars have questioned the utility of studying the Cuban missile crisis as a model for executive decision making during times of crisis, arguing that it offers little guidance for policymakers today.
  • Many accounts of the missile crisis are incomplete, inaccurate, and too narrowly focused on the “rational actors” at the center of the drama while overlooking the “irrational actors.”
  • Nonetheless, the Cuban missile crisis remains the best-documented study of presidential decision making at a time of supreme national danger. It offers policymakers and students of history unique insights into the interplay between the debates in the Oval Office and fast-moving events in the rest of the world.
  • For decades, the Cuban missile crisis has been studied and analyzed as a case study in presidential power and crisis management. It is better understood as an example of the limits of presidential power and the haphazard returns of crisis management.
  • The missile crisis illustrates the sometimes pivotal role of personality in politics. Had someone else been president in October 1962, the outcome could have been very different.

About the Report

Few events have been as studied and analyzed as the Cuban missile crisis. Drawing on previously undiscovered archival materials and interviews with Soviet and American veterans of the crisis, Michael Dobbs has taken a fresh look at the history of those fateful thirteen days. In his book, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, Dobbs argues that the real danger of war arose not from the actions and wishes of Kennedy and Khrushchev, but unpredictable events that neither leader was fully able to control. As a USIP senior fellow in 2006–07, Dobbs researched the Cuban missile crisis at the National Archives, the Naval Historical Center, and the Library of Congress; concluded research in Russia and Cuba; and wrote the book. In this Special Report, Dobbs distills the key findings of his book, including ten lessons for a modern-day president.

Michael Dobbs was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post for nearly fifteen years, representing the newspaper in Belgrade, Warsaw, Paris, and Moscow. He subsequently served as the newspaper’s diplomatic reporter and a reporter on the national desk. He has held fellowships or visiting scholarships at Harvard, Princeton, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. His previous books include Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth Century Odyssey, and Saboteurs: The Nazi Raid on America.

June 1, 2008