JFK, crisis manager

Image from Infibeam.com

Image from Infibeam.com

For a good lesson in crisis management, as well as a fascinating account of perhaps the most critical two weeks in the history of the planet, take my advice and read The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (Belknap/Harvard, 1997).

The book contains the full transcripts of audio recordings made by President John F. Kennedy during meetings of his advisers from Oct. 16 through Oct 29, 1962. The subject: what to do about the Soviet Union’s program — then under way and only recently discovered — to secretly install offensive nuclear weapons in nearby Cuba. Kennedy and his teams of diplomats, military leaders and others in government discussed the various actions available to them, ever mindful of the effect of each option on other world hot spots; the balance of power between the freedom-loving west and the communist east; and, most important, the unthinkable: nuclear war.

Of the men gathered in the White House Cabinet Room or Oval Office, only the president (and possibly his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy) knew of the taping. Which means, 47 years later, the reader learns what each really thought, without posturing. It gave me, who was just an infant when this occurred, a real sense of just what was at stake during the Cold War’s defining moment. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were “eyeball to eyeball”; now I understand what that really meant.

Beyond the history lesson, The Kennedy Tapes provides a real study in crisis management and high-level decision making. In their concluding essay, the book’s editors — Harvard professors Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow — analyze the decisions of both Kennedy and Khrushchev and how they were derived. The latter was impulsive, solitary and erratic, and relied on questionable intelligence information. The former was extremely deliberative and collaborative, at first mostly listening but as more information became available steadily shaping the discussions and thinking ahead.

In the end, the Russian blinked, and the American, for the most part, triumphed. Of perhaps the most critical day of the fortnight, May and Zelikow said: “Saturday, October 27, may well have been the finest hours of John F. Kennedy’s public life.”

Their book has much to recommend it, both to the history buff and to the business leader eager for an example of how to manage a crisis — not be managed by it.


One response to this post.

  1. […] true, that differs from President John F. Kennedy’s two weeks of deliberations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the subject of my other blog post. Like Obama, Kennedy sought a wide range of opinions from diplomats, intelligence officials, […]


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