In the Conclusion to the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authors state:
‘Perhaps, above all, we observe in this record - more clearly than in any other documents we have seen - the contrary pulls of detail on the one hand and belief (or conviction or ideology) on the other.’
These battles between evidence and bias, and the micro and the macro, are critical ones to recognise and win for any decision maker.
The authors note that histories of decisions - whether insignificant or that such as faced by Kennedy; the destruction of the world- rarely see or even know the subtle flow of details and therefore underestimate their pushing and pulling on the mind of a decision maker.
This effect of detail on the ‘conscious and unconscious minds of decision makers, who see facts and form presumptions within frameworks of understanding shaped both by their personal interests and by their accumulated experience’ is further exaggerated when there are multiple contributors towards a decision. Each has their biases and personal frameworks and agendas and projects their advice on a decision accordingly.
Kennedy was under constant pressure from the military to use overwhelming force to solve the crisis, which was a seductively simple response, yet with potentially catastrophic consequences. Fortunately for the world, the President had learned a bitter lesson about accepting the generals’ advice after the Bay of Pigs debacle early in his Presidency. He even resists the taunt of General Curtis Le May that Kennedy’s cautious response to the Soviet aggression is ‘almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.’ The President has the self-confidence and mental strength to not be influenced by Le May’s highly emotional ‘argument’ against the quarantine.
There are many lessons for decision makers and their advisers in the way in which President Kennedy behaved during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The need to reconcile the incessant tension between realities and beliefs is one of them.