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ESSENCE OF DECISION: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis” by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow

This report is based on the book Essense of Decision Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis written by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow in 1971. This book is published by Pearson, an imprint of Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Introduction of the Authors

Graham T. Allison is famous for his book Remaking Foreign Policy: The Organizational Connection”. He is a professor of political science at Harvard, John F. Kennedy School of Government and has been a lead analyst of national security and defense policy, and interest in nuclear programs.

Phillip David Zelikow is an American author,  researcher, and a History professor at the University of Virginia. His famous book is “Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft.” His areas of expertise are history and public policy, and nuclear program studies.


In this book, there are three frames of reference which help the reader to dig deeply into the analysis of foreign policy. The beauty of this book lies in the concept that it encourages the reader to decide himself and provide his analysis on critical issues of decision making. There are three theories on the crisis, the Rational Actor, Organizational behavior and Government Politics and how they relate to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Alison and Zelikow explain that full analysis of the crisis is still unexplained, however, by the use of three different theories they try to explain possible reasons behind the crisis and justify the steps taken as solutions by governments.

This book helps us understand the government policies from foreign to domestic level. Looking to government decisions as a rational, organizational or political decisions is necessary to understand the decisions made by Kennedy and Khrushchev entirely. This book justifies that even while making a collective decision the leader’s thoughts and the way they have made that decision are contradictory, because of personal factors like background and interests, and it comprehends how and why foreign policies are made. It also justifies why rational choices sometimes are inevitable in making critical judgments. The organizational and government policy model, when applied to the foreign policy, gives us a hint to what problems miscommunication, personal disagreement because of interest, and slight misunderstanding can create. Overall the book has dramatically helped us collect information and proofs in support of Allison and Zelikow’s three models, and gives us a lot of evidence on why the United States opted blockade as an option.

There are three explanatory models presented in the book that explains the possible approach used by American and Russian presidents related to Cuban Missile Crisis, and we will discuss all these models one by one. The first explanatory model is named “The Rational Actor Model” (RAM), which is an explanation of political decisions taken by states in response to the crisis. The RAM analysis explains that the actions taken were intended and these actions were reasonable according to the present conditions. The second model is the Organizational model of the foreign policy. In this model it is suggested that governments do not have a unique identity, they are a part of a big union that has their governance (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 143). This model explains the actions made by US governance are the activities of organizations like the CIA. The third model is the Government politics model or Bureaucratic model, which describes that the actions taken by state officials are a blend of their thoughts, ideas, and opinions which may conflict with each other but collectively decides the course of action of government policies (Allison & Zelikow, 1999, p. 257). In this case, a group of people who belong to different organizations mutually involved in in the process of decision making which finally becomes the decision of the state. Those people who are in charge of state responsibilities like Secretary of Defense or the Foreign minister make arguments based on their previous experience.


In this research, we will take into account analysis made by authors and will try to conclude the possible causes of Cuban missile crisis. Several reasons are suggested to be a cause of Cuban missile crisis. According to Stephan J. Cimbala, it is possible that Russia wanted to balance the nuclear sovereignty gap between USA and Russia, for this reason, it may be possible that Russia wanted to install missiles in Cuba (Cimbala, p.199), and wanted to restrict America in further sending troops to Cuba. This reason has also been given by Bruce J. Allen and James G. Blight, that Russia wanted to increase Cuban nuclear stability by installing missiles in Cuba to stop the USA in proceeding further in Cuba (Allyn et al., p.138). Khrushchev also believed that installing missiles in Cuba will protect Cuba’s nuclear stability.

In response, the USA installed his missile program in Turkey pointed at Russia to a send a message to Khrushchev because of his missile program in Cuba. Khrushev’s exact intention’s about his missile program cannot be judged but it has been a claim of many authors that it was just a race of power with the USA, and his motive was to boost national prestige that if the USA can deploy missiles in Turkey, they can also deploy missiles in Cuba. There is an indication that President Khrushev could have other reasons for his missile deployment.

Bernstein and Barton have claimed that Kennedy had already decided to remove his missiles from Turkey and it is possible that Khrushchev wanted to test America’s reaction in case of war. The University of Westminister professor, Peter Catterall describes that Kennedy was planning to remove his missiles from Turkey, but as Russia started his Missile program in Cuba, He ordered to National Security Council to solve this matter by either negotiation, trade or war. The NSC took the third option and restarted the nuclear programs in Turkey. President Khrushchev had already decided to withdraw his weapons from Cuba, but with reaction from America and ExComm, he tried to cover up his decision by suggesting a weapon withdrawal from both sides. (Catteral, pp.11).

After a continuous exchange of threats and warning the issues finaly settled when Kennedy sent the letter to Khrushchev that if he withdraws weapons from Cuba, America will not attack Cuba and will revoke his weapons from Turkey. Khrushchev accepted the offer of peace, and it finally ended the crisis after severe tension from both sides. This agreement was possible because of Kennedy’s intelligent decision of peace with Russia, and choosing the option of withdrawal of weapons from Turkey (Cimbala, Vol 9). Kennedy thought of long term relations with Russia and began to look at the decision in favor of both countries. However, the nuclear tension still existed between both countries for two decades and both countries continued their competition by developing new strategies.

Works Cited

Allyn, Bruce J., James G. Blight, and David A. Welch. “Essence of revision: Moscow, Havana, and the Cuban missile crisis.” International Security 14.3 (1989): 136-172.

Bernstein, Barton J. “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Trading the Jupiters in Turkey?.” Political Science Quarterly 95.1 (1980): 97-125.

Blight, James G., Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Catterall, Peter. “Prime Minister and President: Harold Macmillan’s accounts of the Cuban missile crisis.” (2015): 75-101.

Cimbala, Stephen J. Military persuasion: Deterrence and provocation in crisis and war. Penn State Press, 2010.

Deterrence In A Multipolar World: Prompt Attacks, Regional Challenges, And US-Russian Deterrence – Proquest.

Graham, Allison, and Zelikow Philip. “Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban missile crisis.” Boston: Little, Brown, and Company (1971).




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