There were no doubt many reasons that the United States under the leadership and decision making of President Kennedy was able to avoid nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There is evidence in the transcripts of the meetings Kennedy had with his advisers of clear, cool and lucid logic, based upon intelligent analysis of the facts.
However, there may have been many reasons why the Soviet Union’s Premier Khrushchev didn’t respond to the American actions with escalated force that led to catastrophe for the world. It may have had nothing to do with the decision making prowess of Kennedy.
The problem is that, unlike the record left by President Kennedy and his advisers that allows us to analyse and learn from his decision making, there is little evidence of Khrushchev’s thought processes. We don’t really know why he did certain things and historians can only speculate. He was described as an ‘insecure and impulsive risk taker’. Maybe it was because of this recklessness that he didn’t pull the nuclear trigger and had he been as logical, well-advised and cool as Kennedy, he would have been the one to stare down the Americans. No-one, least of all his senior officials, could know.
So it should never be assumed that good decision making will always trump confused, emotional chance-taking in terms of outcomes. There are too many other variables in play to draw simplistic conclusions such as that the better decision-maker won.
The point is that at least a good decision maker makes their work visible. They show their working out so that others can point out any errors. They leave a clear map for their followers and for the rest of us to follow - or not - to measure ourselves against and to learn from and to become better at our own decision making.
Thanks to the transcripts of his meetings, we have a fairly good idea of why President Kennedy behaved the way that he did, and the consequences of it. As the authors of The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis point out in their Conclusion:
‘These tapes and transcripts form an almost inexhaustible resource for analyzing not only the mechanics but also the psychology of decision-making.’