A lot of people misunderstand the moral of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many have looked at what transpired and drew the conclusion that leaders could manage a nuclear crisis. As long as everyone behaved rationally, they said – as long as everyone was logical and behaved in a manner that brought them closer to their goals – things would work out in the end. This ignores Robert McNamara’s forceful belief that “It was luck that prevented nuclear war.” McNamara’s second lesson is that rationality will not save us.
For rationality to save us, two things must be present. First, no parties can have zero-sum goals. Multiple nations can be as logical as they wish, but if one nation’s goal comes at the expense of another, even unintentionally, conflict is bound to follow. For example, Castro, Kennedy, and Khrushchev all sought security for their respective nations. Unfortunately, security for Cuba was seen as a threat to American security. All three leaders behaved rationally, yet nearly led the world into nuclear war.
We must also have complete and perfectly accurate information, two things no one ever possesses. Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay advocated bombing Cuba. They believed that war between America and the Soviet Union was inevitable. Therefore, if we were going to confront them, we should do it when we had an advantage in nuclear missiles – rational thinking at its finest.
What everyone in the White House Cabinet Room didn’t know was that the Cuban missiles were active. They were fully constructed and ready for launch. Furthermore, Castro had asked Khrushchev for permission to use the missiles if America attacked. If Kennedy had followed Taylor and LeMay’s advice, he would have ignited nuclear war.
This is why the worst response to Kim Jong-un’s saber-rattling would have been to attack, as several suggested. We could have launched a preemptive strike against North Korea. However, if we had faulty information on one North Korean missile – just one missile – Seoul or Tokyo could have been wiped out. Our mistake would have destroyed nations. President Obama’s patient, forbearing, multilateral approach acknowledged the limits of rationality.
Human beings are rational creatures, but rationality won’t save us from making mistakes. Knowing this, it is imperative to stay out of situations where control can be lost. If a situation can escalate, stay out of that situation. If one person can make mistakes due to bias or bad information, than perhaps one person shouldn’t have total discretion over our nuclear stockpiles. There will be no learning period with nuclear weapons.
Jump to a lesson:
Lesson 1: Empathize with Your Enemy
Lesson 2: Rationality Will Not Save Us
Lesson 3: There’s Something Beyond One’s Self
Lesson 4: Maximize Efficiency
Lesson 5: Proportionality Should Be a Guideline in War
Lesson 6: Get the Data
Lesson 7: Belief and Seeing Are Often Both Wrong
Lesson 8: Be Prepared to Re-examine Your Reasoning
Lesson 9: In Order To Do Good, You May Have To Engage in Evil
Lesson 10: Never Say Never
Lesson 11: You Can’t Change Human Nature