The View from Washington and the View from Nowhere: Cuban Missile Crisis Historiography and the Epistemology of Decision Making

  • Laurence Chang


In the three decades that have passed since the last Soviet freighters left Cuba in November 1962 carrying nuclear missiles back to the USSR, the Cuban missile crisis has emerged as perhaps the premier case study of U.S. national security decision making and crisis management. Hundreds of articles, books, and essays have been written on the missile crisis to date, and the attention given to the crisis by scholars in recent years has, if anything, increased rather than abated.1


Military Action Ballistic Missile Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet Troop Epistemological Limitation 
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  1. 2.
    Eliot A. Cohen, “Why We Should Stop Studying the Cuban Missile Crisis,” National Interest (Winter 1986): 6.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p. 23. At the same conference, Theodore Sorensen concurred with Dillon, saying, “We need to be very careful about making easy judgments about the present and the future based on a very different past”Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Some factors in the missile crisis, such as the dynamics of small-group decision making, remain relevant today. See James G. Blight, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and David A. Welch, “The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited,” Foreign Affairs 66, no. 1 (Fall 1987):171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 11.
    Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969), p. 95.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Barton Bernstein, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey?” Political Science Quarterly 95, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 97–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 14.
    See the collection of Soviet commentaries in Ronald R. Pope, ed., Soviet Views on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Myth and Reality in Foreign Policy Analysis (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1982). Khrushchev’s memoirs were published in the West in two volumes in 1970 and 1974, with a third volume, containing previously withheld material, published in 1990.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Information on the Soviet side of the crisis has been furnished by several Soviet officials, including former Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin; Sergei Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev’s son; Sergo Mikoyan, the son of Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan; Aleksandr Alekseev, the Soviet ambassador to Cuba in 1962; Fyodor Burlatsky, a speechwriter and aide to Khrushchev, and General Dimitri Volkogonov, the head of the Soviet Ministry of Defense Institute of Military History. For a listing of recently published Soviet accounts on the crisis, see Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, and David A. Welch, “Essence of Revision: Moscow, Havana, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security 14, no. 3 (Winter 1989/1990): 136–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 16.
    Some historians have called into question the value of these Soviet testimonials. For example, historian Marc Trachtenberg, in a 1990 article commenting on a published interview with Sergo Mikoyan, the son of former Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, argued that nearly all significant new historical information has come from American documentation and that “Soviet sources, even in this era of glasnost, have not provided us with much hard evidence” about the crisis. However, Trachtenberg’s article was written before the 1989 Moscow conference and the subsequent publication of Soviet and U.S. articles which draw on more knowledgeable Soviet sources. See Marc Trachtenberg, “Commentary: New Light on the Cuban Missile Crisis?” Diplomatic History 14, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 18.
    Graham Allison’s analysis of possible Soviet motivations suggests that the ExComm considered the possibility of Cuban defense in the first ExComm session, but meeting transcripts do not appear to bear this out. Cf. Graham T. Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), pp. 42, 47–50 and “Off-the-Record Meeting on Cuba, October 16, 1962, 11:50 A.M.–12:57 P.M.” (document 00622).Google Scholar
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  11. 22.
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    Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, trans, and ed. Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1970), p. 494.Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd edition, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1989), p. 13.Google Scholar
  14. 36.
    Soviet military weakness was underscored in a meeting between Paul Nitze and Soviet Ambassador Mikhail Menshikov and possibly in a talk between President Kennedy and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 6, 1961. See Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1982), pp. 104–105. For Gilpatric’s speech, see, “Address by Roswell Gilpatric,” October 21, 1961 (document no. 00115).Google Scholar
  15. 38.
    Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980), p. 135. See also “Recommended Long Range Nuclear Delivery Forces,” September 23, 1961, (document no. 00109), pp. 2, 11. Besides the Minuteman, the continued production of Atlas and Titan ICBMs was also authorized.Google Scholar
  16. 41.
    Letter from Nikita Khrushchev to John Kennedy, October 23, 1962 (document no. 00896). See also Thomas G. Paterson, “Commentary: The Defense-of-Cuba Theme and the Missile Crisis,” Diplomatic History 14, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 254–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 46.
    See for example the thesis presented by James Hershberg, “Before ‘The Missiles of October’: Did Kennedy Plan a Military Strike against Cuba?” Diplomatic History 14, no. 12 (Spring 1990): 163–199 and this collection.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 51.
    Elie Abel, The Missile Crisis (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966), p. 183.Google Scholar
  19. 61.
    Barton J. Bernstein, “Commentary: Reconsidering Khrushchev’s Gambit—Defending the Soviet Union and Cuba,” Diplomatic History 14, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 69.
    See Raymond L. Garthoff, “Cuban Missile Crisis: The Soviet Story,” Foreign Policy 72 (Fall 1988): 67.Google Scholar
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    Allison, Essence of Decision, p. 105. The 22, 000 figure was a retroactive estimate arrived at in early 1963. See Raymond L. Garthoff, “Cuban Missile Crisis: The Soviet Story,” Foreign Policy 72 (Fall 1988): 67.Google Scholar
  22. 77.
    This group included President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Theodore Sorensen, Dean Rusk, and Llewellyn Thompson. See McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 342.Google Scholar
  23. 84.
    See Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, trans, and ed. Jerrold L. Schecter with Vyacheslav V. Luchov (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990), pp. 176–177, 182–183; and Jean Edern-Hallier, “The Castro-Khrushchev Letters,” San Jose Mercury News, December 2, 1990.Google Scholar

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© James A. Nathan 1992

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  • Laurence Chang

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