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Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis is an analysis by political scientist Graham T. Allison, of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Allison used the crisis as a case study for future studies into governmental decision-making. The book became the founding study of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and in doing so revolutionized the field of international relations.
Allison originally published the book in 1971. In 1999, because of new materials available (including tape recordings of the U.S. government's proceedings), he rewrote the book with Philip Zelikow.
The title is based on a speech by John F. Kennedy, in which he said, "The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer - often, indeed, to the decider himself."
When he first wrote the book, Allison contended that political science and the study of international relations were saturated with rational expectations theories inherited from the field of economics. Under such a view, the actions of states are analyzed by assuming that nations consider all options and act rationally to maximize their utility.
Allison attributes such viewpoints to the dominance of economists such as Milton Friedman, statesmen such as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, disciplines such as game theory, and organizations such as the RAND Corporation. However, as he puts it:
Or, to put it bluntly, this approach (which Allison terms the "Rational Actor Model") violates the principle of falsifiability. Also, Allison notes that "rational" analysts must ignore a lot of facts in order to make their analysis fit their models.
In response, Allison constructed three different ways (or "lenses") through which analysts can examine events: the "Rational Actor" model, the "Organizational Behavior" model, and the "Governmental Politics" model.
To illustrate the models, Allison poses the following three questions in each section:
The origin of Allison's first model is explained above. Basically, under this theory:
Under this theory, Allison explains the crisis like this:
Allison noted there were many facts that the rational model had to ignore, such as why the Soviets failed to camouflage the nuclear sites during construction, but did so only after U-2 flights pinpointed their locations.
He cited work by James G. March and Herbert A. Simon, which argue that existing governmental bureaucracy places limits on a nation's actions, and often dictates the final outcome. He then proposed the following "organizational process" model propositions:
Under this theory, the crisis is explained thus:
After reading works by Richard Neustadt and Samuel P. Huntington, among others, Allison proposed a third model, which takes account of court politics (or "palace politics"). While statesmen don't like to admit they play politics to get things done, especially in high-stakes situations such as the Cuban missile crisis, they nonetheless do.
Allison proposed the following propositions for this model:
Allison had to admit that, because the Soviets were not as open with their internal affairs as the Americans, he simply didn't have enough data to fully interpret the crisis with this model. Nonetheless, he made the following attempt:
When the book was first published, Allison's primary message was that the concept of mutually assured destruction as a barrier to nuclear war was unfounded. By looking at organizational and political models, such an outcome was quite possible - nations, against what was predicted by the rational viewpoint, could indeed "commit suicide."
He pointed to several incidents in history that seemed to back this assertion. His most salient point: prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese military and civilian leaders, including those responsible for making the decision, were fully aware that they lacked the industrial capacity and military might to win a war against the U.S. They went ahead and attacked anyway.
He also believed that the organizational model explained otherwise inexplicable gaffes in military history. To return to 1941, he noted that the U.S. intercepted enough evidence to indicate that Japan was about to attack Pearl Harbor, yet the commander did not prepare. The answer, Allison revealed, was not some conspiracy, but that what the intelligence community viewed as a "threat of attack," the commander interpreted as a "threat of sabotage." This miscommunication, due to different viewpoints, allowed the attack to be pulled off successfully - as Allison sarcastically noted, having U.S. planes lined up wing-to-wing and surrounded by armed guards was a good plan for preventing sabotage, but not for surviving an aerial attack.
Likewise, the political process model explained otherwise confusing affairs. Allison pointed to the decision by General Douglas MacArthur to defy his orders during the Korean War and march too far north. The reason was not a "rational" change in U.S. intentions, but rather, MacArthur's disagreements with Harry Truman and other policymakers, and how officials allowed MacArthur to make what they considered unwise moves because of concerns over political backlash due to the general's public popularity.
Above all, he described using rational actor models as dangerous. By using such models (and modes of thinking), people made unreliable assumptions about reality, which could have disastrous consequences. Part of what allowed the attack on Pearl Harbor to be pulled off was the assumption that, since Japan would lose such a war, they would never dare attack. The assumption under MAD is that nobody will ever start a nuclear war because of its consequences. However, humans are not inextricably bound to act in a rational manner, which history has proven time and time again.
While Allison did not claim that any of his additional two models could fully explain anything, he noted that policymakers and analysts alike would benefit from stepping away from the traditional model and exploring alternate viewpoints (although this last remark could be viewed as facetious on Allison's part).
The book is part of an ongoing argument between supporters of rational expectations theories and analysts who look for alternative explanations.
Milton Friedman, in particular, countered that, even if rational expectational theories do not describe reality per se, they should be kept since they provide accurate predictions (instrumentalism). Allison countered that Friedman has not provided enough evidence to demonstrate his theories actually predict anything, and criticizes his arguments as unscientific.
Another argument (again, made by Friedman) is that the information needed for Allison's bureaucratic and political models is so large that it is impractical to use in such a crisis. Allison has conceded this is true, but argued that this does not mean a person should automatically revert to the rational actor worldview.
Moreover, Allison pointed out that the "rational actor" model continues to be applied even in long-term analyses (i.e., analyses that take place long after the event or "crisis" is past). In Essence of Decision, Allison suggests that one reason for the popularity of rational actor models is that, compared to other models, they require relatively little data and provide researchers with an "inexpensive approximation" of the situation. Allison also quotes Thomas Schelling's description of rationalistic thinking and vicarious problem solving:
Finally, in Allison's first edition (1971), he was unable to fully explore his theories because much of the information was still classified. As a result, he made a number of assumptions on his own part. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of American recordings of EXCOMM, this new information (included in the revised 1999 edition) sometimes agreed with Allison's assumptions, but sometimes didn't.
For example, in 1971, he guessed that Kennedy must have made an "under the table" agreement concerning the Turkish missiles, probably using his brother as a liaison. The American tapes confirmed this.
However, Allison also guessed, in 1971, that Khrushchev must have formed his own "EXCOMM," or his own committee of advisors, to aid him during the crisis, and even named the Russian leaders he believed were with Khrushchev at the time. However, the Soviet records revealed that these individuals were not present, and Khrushchev was effectively stuck alone in his office during the crisis without the type of support Kennedy had.