The Unknown Unknowns: Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

In October 1962 the President of the United States John Kennedy received this photograph that showed the installation of medium range, nuclear capable ballistic missiles in Cuba.

Take a look at it:

What is the obvious question this photo raises? In terms of our Conflict Model, how can we get real about what this tells us about the conflict we may face?

Well we will come back to that.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, on seeing this photo had one immediate recommendation: bomb and invade Cuba! They didn’t need to ask any more questions, gather any more data, consider any other options. But the President forced them to develop and consider other options, including the eventually decided option: impose a blockade on Cuba. When this worked, the Joint Chiefs led by Air Force Chief Curtis Le May declared, in effect, that the avoidance of nuclear war and removal of the missiles from Cuba was a defeat. Duh!

Under the stress in conflict we tend to suffer tunnel vision. We focus on what is in front of us. We cling to our beliefs rigidly and deny uncomfortable realities. We work back from conclusions to selective supporting evidence. And we don’t look for contradictory evidence: especially what would it take to make you change our mind. Let alone formally consider different perspectives.
To overcome this, we need a more objective environmental scanner that asks:
• What is it we know we know? What evidence do we have?
• What is it we know we don’t know? And how might we find out?
• What is it we don’t know we know? What is relevant to conflict that we haven’t noticed?
•What is it we don’t know we don’t know? What are our real blind spots?
• And at each stage we need to see what lenses limit our view of the world or distort our data collection and perception
So applying this approach to the situation of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and slightly simplifying as clearly there were many players involved with different takes and this is what might be called the dominant take, not the only one.)
What the US knew:
• There were missiles in Cuba
• The US military wanted to invade Cuba in response to the missile being installed
What the US knew it didn’t know:
• Unclear, they didn’t seem to want to know anything more
What the US didn’t know it knew:
• It was unlikely the missiles (long and hard to conceal) came before the warheads (small and easily concealed): the ‘FedEx’ perspective.
What the US didn’t know it didn’t know:
• They didn’t ask this question, but in retrospect we could conclude:
• Whether the nuclear warheads were already there and
What was the local authority to use them: which was in fact: use them if Cuba is invaded
So because the military/CIA wanted to invade Cuba they had to assume that the warheads were not ready!! And as they couldn’t know that, they had to not ask the question.
So the obvious question the photo above raises seems to me: where are the nuclear warheads? And until I answered that question I would not feel very comfortable deciding what to do, given the stakes were several hundred million dead. This is why unknown unknowns are so important.
This is Curtis Le May: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was profoundly ignorant of unknown unknowns. You get that impression from his photo? This man nearly got a lot of us killed and never had the wisdom or grace to admit it.

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Unknown Unknowns: Cuban Missile Crisis 1962


  2. Kathy says:

    John almost stood up in the theater and yelled at Bombs Away Le May when we first saw “Thirteen Days.” :):)

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