An Examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of Allison and Zelikow's Conceptual Models

Term Paper, 2018

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


Key Words

The Cold War – An Overview

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Allison and Zelikow’s Conceptual Models

The Rational Model

The Organizational Process Model

The Governmental (Bureaucratic) Politics Model

Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis in Terms of Allison and Zelikow

USSR’s Deployment of Offensive Missiles in Cuba

U.S.’s Decision to Install a Blockade

Soviet Union’s Withdrawal of the Missiles



The Cuban Missile Crisis symbolizes a real showdown between two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Until today, the puzzling events occurred in the crisis prompt numerous questions, particularly in the scientific area. This research paper, therefore, aims the conduction of illustrating the main happenings during the crisis in order to be able to analyze them by using the three Conceptual Models developed by Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow. Allison and Zelikow use these models to give an adequate explanation of how the process of decision-making proceeds, taking the crisis as a case study and answering three main questions: (1) Why did the Soviet Union decide to place offensive missiles in Cuba? (2) Why did the United States respond to the missile deployment with a blockade? (3) Why did the Soviet Union withdraw the missiles? For a better evaluation, this research paper thus, contextualizes firstly the Cuban Missile Crisis by explicating occurrences in the Cold War. Secondly, the suspenseful thirteen days during the Cuban Missile Crisis will be illuminated. Thirdly, in the last chapter, the models are outlined and used to answer the three puzzling questions stated above.

Key Words

Cuban Missile Crisis – Cold War – Missile Sites – Nuclear Weapons – Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement – Conceptual Models – Decision-making – Graham T. Allison – Philip Zelikow

The Cold War – An Overview

World’s suffering in World War II due to Nazi Germany came to an end with the foundation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945. At the side of Great Britain, China, and many others, the United States (U.S.) and the Soviet Union (USSR) also participated in this multilateral organization and overturned successfully Adolf Hitler’s government[1]. This common victory should have been a reason for celebration, however, the end of World War II and, with it, the task of reorganizing Europe called forth a great rivalry between two world superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. Previously,numerous political theorists had expected exactly this outcome, as the reasons for the foundation of the Alliance were evident. On the one hand, they surely had the purpose to defeat Nazi Germany. On the other hand, notwithstanding, all Allies saw this cooperation as a way to consolidate their position of power in the postwar world[2].As a consequence, the capitalist United Statesfelt their power and national security threatened by the Soviet Union’s attempt at communizing Eastern Europe, meaning the spread of their communist ideology[3]. Fearing that the Soviet Union will gain global hegemonic power by winning constantly new communist supporters, the United States established the strategy of containment[4]. Thereby, the United States attempted to prevent the spread of communism to any more nations. Indeed, the Soviet Union’s aim was to maintain their power over Eastern Europe and to scatter communism as far as possible[5]. Thus, the basis for further happenings was established.

Consequently, the United States and the Soviet Union, converse in their policies, did not come to any conclusion considering the balance of power and the Cold War began. However, the parties involved never came to a direct confrontation on a battlefield,but rather discussed issues by intervening economically and politically[6]. Effective propaganda, portraying the Soviet Union’s policy as false and vice versa, was utilized to hinder the other in gaining allies and progressing in realizing their individual aim. Further, the usage of nuclear weapons intensifies first, the Soviet Union’s distrust and later that of the United States. Indeed, the United States had already had developed atomic arms that could have been used against Germany in World War II[7], but were rather availed to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In 1949, however,the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb and hence, brought the American atomic monopoly to an end. Moreover, after the end of World War II,Germany’s allocation was crucially significant for later happenings. In acquiescence,Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union accede that France would end up controlling two thirds of Germany. Because of Moscow’s idea of demonstrating eastern Germany as the ideal way of life so that western Germans might be more willing to choose a leader in favor of communist ideology, Moscow did not complain about this agreement[8]. Unfortunately, the USSR failed in their demonstration of welfare as the Red Army occupied eastern Germany in the most brutal way, ending up with the Berlin blockade in 1948 to prevent rebellion by the Germans and by that, to hinder them to change over to the enemy. Having had established the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and,later that year, the Marshall Plan,containing the intention of Europe’s reconstruction and aid to all European countries, the U.S. felt the duty to aid eastern Germany. Hence, provisions were delivered in the Berlin Airliftto provide necessary sustenance and foremost, to gain not only respect and gratitude from the Germans but also relevant reputation in political global issues. Advancing in the strategy of containment and the attempt at resisting the Soviet’s presence in Europe,the U.S. and its allies, such as for example Great Britain, Canada, and Portugal, signed the NATO treaty (North American Treaty Organization) in Washington in 1949. Given the fact that the U.S. and the USSR achieved to divide the world into two parts, characterized by either a capitalist or a communistic worldview, the Cold War became universalized, institutionalized and militarized[9]. In the following occurrences, such as the Korean War (June, 1950 - July, 1953) and the Vietnam War (1954 - 1975), both superpowers continued in challenging the respectively other by hindering the establishment of its ideology. Having already persuaded the North Korean leader King-Sum II of the communistic ideology, the UN,mainly the U.S., felt the urge to intervene. Thus, millions of people lost their lives during this triennial war[10]. The same conflict between the communist and capitalist parties occurred during the Vietnam War, which unfortunately lasted longer than the Korean War. North Vietnam desired to unite north and south under a communist regime such as formed by the Soviet Union. The South, however, maintained their alliance with the United States and hence, attempted to prevent the establishment of a communist government, causing ultimately war[11]. Summing up, the superpowers frequently fought in order to preserve and propagate their individual policies throughout the world, though a confrontation on a battlefield never did actually happen, since neither the U.S. nor the USSR had ever declared war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 was a real showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, standing on the verge of a nuclear world war because ofthe Soviets’ settlement of missile sites in Cuba.

Having assisted in the Cuban’s war of independence from Spain, the United States maintained their relation with Cuba by means of reciprocal trade agreements and the enforcement to sign the Platt Amendment[12]. Due to these strict accords, it cast doubt whether the Cuban nation was really independent as the U.S. had still great economic and military power over Cuba[13]. In fact, since America maintained its power in trade affairs – especially sugar – meaning the ability to reduce Cuba’s subsidy, Cuba was strictly dependent and felt the urge to act in favor of Washington. Soon, Cuba became victim of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, ruling most terribly and brutally. Fidel Castro, Batista’s opponent, developed plans to overthrow Batista, mainly “through skillful publicity and the division and discrediting of more orthodox politicians”[14] in order to achieve Cuba’s full independence. On January 1, 1959, Castro finallytook over Batista’s leadership andBatistawas obliged to leave his office. Batista himself and his supporters were exiled from Cuba to prevent any further conflicts between the two oppositional policies. From the beginning onward, Fidel Castro demonstrated openly his communist ideology very much to Washington’s concern. Feeling the threat that appeared to be geographically not far from the United States, the American administration soon broke up diplomatic relations with Cuba by imposing economic sanctions in hope of restricting Castro’s influence in Cuba as well as in Latin America. In this way, they also hoped to diminish the threat that seemed too close[15].As a consequence, the American administration under John F. Kennedy developed plans of invading Cuba with the aid of Cuban exiles that had travelled to the United States due to fear of Castro’s communist government[16]. Unfortunately, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was a total failure. Therefore, this invasion is nowadays known under ‘The Bay of Pigs Fiasco’[17]. Notwithstanding, the United States refused to quit its intention of toppling Castro’s government and continued with attempts at assassination and encouragement of insurrection[18]. Fearing his leadership being gradually in danger, Fidel Castro sought help from Moscow ruled by statesman Nikita Khrushchev. In fact, not only Castro, but also Khrushchev believed Cuba to be in the greatest danger from the United States, why this invasion has been seen to be the major cause for the following missile crisis[19].Khrushchev was emotionally committed to Cuba[20] and saw the advantage he could take out of Cuba’s location to challenge the United States, wherefore he immediately offered services to Castro.Making an effort to deter America, Khrushchev commanded to install missile sites in Cuba, as quoted in Gaddis, “The fate of Cuba and the maintenance of Soviet prestige in that part of the world preoccupied me. We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.”[21] In point of fact, there have been several interpretations of his intentions to establish those missile sites in Cuba, which will be visible in the following analysis.By this installation, Khrushchev certainly set the most dangerous provocation of all during the Cold War, culminating in the highest possibility of a nuclear face-off and hence, in a Third World War.

After learning of the intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) through the high-level flight ‘U-2’ on October 14, 1962, the American administration was shocked and realized that this confrontation stands on the abyss of nuclear destruction of the entire world, denoting aneradication of mankind.Hence, in the following thirteen days, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev would decide about the existence of the human race. Certainly, the Cold War was considered as a nuclear arms race, however, the United States’ administration wasabsolutely stunned and surprised about this installation. It was the first time that the USSR “stationed nuclear weapons outside its own territorial borders”[22]. In addition, the Soviet’s statement, that there is no reason for America to be puzzled since the Soviet shipments were only transporting defensive weapons, turned out to be a lie[23]. Consequently, John F. Kennedy met with the Ex-Comm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to debate about possible responses considering the missiles. There were certainly various options that could be considered, some more radical than others, why the term ‘doves and hawks’[24] was coined. In their work, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow[25] display the alternatives that the administration considered:

1. Do nothing: The danger in acting laid in the possibility of overreacting and causing a countermove by the Soviets in Berlin. Moreover, the American government felt the missile’s deployment in Cuba do not make a real difference, as they have already been assailable by the missiles in Russia.

2. Diplomatic pressure: This alternative implied two ways of realization. First, the United States could deliver an ultimatum to Khrushchev to claim the missile’s withdrawal. In response, John F. Kennedy would avoid any public confrontation or military action.

3. A Secret Approach to Castro: The American government suggested offering Castro a similar ultimatum, either he diverged from his communist ideology, concluding in the abolishment of the alliance with the Soviet Union, or he would suffer from the worst consequences. Thereby, the government would attempt to remember Castro of the deadly danger he was putting the whole world.

4. Invasion: This alternative was reckoned to be the most hazardous. Implying the Cold War’s first case of direct combat between both giant powers, this option could end up in a total nuclear disaster. This nuclear face-off could be equivalent to countermoves in Germany, meaning utter destruction of the world.

5. Air Strike: Here, the intention was the removal of the Soviets’ nuclear weapons by a rapid air attack. While airplanes were approaching to its targets, JFK would make a public announcement to describe his reasons and warn Khrushchev of the consequences of retaliation.

6. Blockade: A blockade was considered to be an indirect military action, setting the American navy some miles off from Cuba with the aim to investigate every ship approaching the Cuban coast. By that, the American tended to prevent transportation of any further military material.

In the Ex-Comm meetings, advisors weighed the alternatives for and against each so that the scope of possible options diminished and gave rise to the question, whether an invasion or a blockade would ensure the nation’s safety. Secretary McNamara uttered much in favor of a blockade, arguing that, “it was limited pressure, which could be increased as the circumstances warranted. Further, it was dramatic and forceful pressure, which would be understood yet, most importantly, still leave [the U.S.] in control of events”[26].Moreover, a military attack “would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world”[27]. Finally, this argument provoked JFK’s decision of imposing the blockade and thus, deciding in favor of the ‘doves’. The government decided for a blockade in combination with an ultimatum, demanding the removal of the missiles without any further explicit negotiations. In case of Soviet’s refusal, the U.S. would threaten with further military action, such as an air strike or an invasion[28].

On October 22, John F. Kennedy delivered a televised speech, revealing about the existence of the missiles in Cuba installed by the enemy. He stated,

The characteristics of these new missile sites indicate two distinct types of installation. Several of them include medium range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for a distance of more than 1000 nautical miles. … Additional sites not yet completed appear to be designed for intermediate range ballistic missiles – capable of travelling more than twice as far – and thus capable of striking most of the major cities in the Western Hemisphere, ranging as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far South as Lima, Peru. … This urgent transformation of Cuba into an important strategic base … constitutes an explicit threat to the peace and security of all the Americans. … I have directed the following initial steps be taken immediately: First: To halt this offensive build up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back.[29]

In the following, the American administration, however, secretly agreed on taking all necessary precautions for an invasion to be prepared in case the Russians and Cubans decide for a countermove[30]. Having installed the blockade some miles off from the Cuban coast, thewhole world stared at Cuba, certainly expecting a direct confrontation. This scenario indeed signifiedthe ultimate height during the Cuban Missile Crisis, causing a breath-holding suspense. Would the Soviet Union tempt to breach the blockade to arrive in Cuba and thus, provoke a full-scale nuclear war and the first direct combat between both rivals? On October 24, Russian ships were indeed in sight and the tension grew gradually within the American government. Surprisingly, those ships reverted and prevented the world’s ultimate doom[31]. Still, this crisis did not come to an end yet, since the missile sites were still endangering America’s security. Having ordered further intelligence flights over Cuba, John F. Kennedy and the Ex-Comm finally got the proof of intermediate range ballistic missiles[32], that, as above stated, are capable to destroy the territory reaching from Canada in the north till Peru in the south.In a secret exchange of letters, then, Khrushchev and Kennedy came to an agreement, even if at first discordance. First, in his letter to Kennedy on October 26, Nikita Khrushchev proposed, “we, for our part, will declare that our ships, bound for Cuba, are not carrying any armaments. You would declare that the United States will not invade Cuba with its forces. … Then the necessity for the presence of our military specialists in Cuba would disappear.”[33] On the next day, Khrushchev sent a second letter, displaying much more bellicose features and demands. The Russian premier claimed:

We agree to remove those weapons from Cuba which you regard as offensive weapons. We agree to do this and to state this commitment in the United Nations. Your representatives will make a statement to the effect that the United States, on its part, bearing in mind the anxiety and concern of the Soviet State, will evacuate its analogous weapons from Turkey.[34]

Thus, the United States stood at the verge whether to agree with Khrushchev’s proposal. Indeed, Khrushchev’s demand for withdrawing American missiles in Turkey vexed Kennedy. However, at that time, establishing an Air Strike would cause the Soviet’s countermove by attacking Turkey and hence, all the NATO allies would be in danger[35]. Therefore, the American government decided to ignore the second bellicose letter and respond to the first, saying,

As I read your letter, the key elements of your proposal … are as follows:

1. You would agree to remove these weapons systems from Cuba under appropriate United Nations observation and supervision; and undertake, with suitable safeguards, to halt the further introduction of such weapons systems into Cuba.

2. We, on our part, would agree – upon the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations to ensure the carrying out and continuation of these commitments – (a) to remove promptly the quarantine measures now in effect, and (b) to give assurances against an invasion on Cuba.[36]

On October 28, premier Khrushchev finally declared the withdrawal of the missile sites in Cuba and prevented the outbreak of a thermonuclear war with the consequence of total destruction of mankind.

Ultimately, in August 1963, the Soviet Union as well as the United States reached an agreement on the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, with the intention of ceasing nuclear weapons tests everywhere except underground in order to prevent any worldwide damage. Moreover, in 1969, both superpowers began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), discussing further rules considering atomic weapons. This give-and-take finally concluded in the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty in 1972, limiting the size of nationwide defensive missiles[37].

Allison and Zelikow’s Conceptual Models

Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow aim the display of multiple forms in decision-making, taking the Cuban Missile Crisis as a case study. In order to offer a detailed analysis of the specific occurrences in October 1962, they illuminate three conceptual models, which serve to explain relevant governmental behavior.

The Rational Model

Both scholars, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, identify here the nation, i.e. the government, as a rational and unitary actor, whose purpose is to make decisions. Hence, the administration is personified in having a specific set of beliefs and perceiving only a limited set of choice and the respective consequences. However, the actor will only act if there is a problem that he has to face, such as threats or opportunities, which changes substantially its position in international politics. Furthermore, the decision, that is to be made, is chosen in consideration of the actor’s aim to maximize strategic goals and objectives, since occurrences in foreign affairs are the nation or government’s direct choice.

Given those general characteristics, Allison and Graham illuminate the core of this concept, meaning the Action as Rational Choice [38], which is subdivided into the subcategories of Goals and Objectives, Alternatives or Options, Consequences, and Choice. First, explicit aims have to be termed in “desirability or utility of alternative sets of consequences”, meaning that the agent is capable of evaluating all consequences in terms of his or her values. Thereby, the agent’s preferences become visible. Second, the rational actor has multiple ways to confront the happenings it faces. Alternatives need to be displayed precisely, so that this course of action results in the differentiation of the possible options given. Third, given this list of alternatives, it has to be marked that each option implies certain consequences, which the actor has to value in his own terms. Forth and finally, the agent chooses rationally the alternative with the best outcome in terms of its objectives. As a consequence, the nation performing this particular action must have made a judicious selection of all alternatives and their respective consequences. Choosing the best alternative includes, therefore, a value-maximizing pattern in order to attain the actor’s goals and objectives (Dominant Interference Pattern).

Summarizing, the state is here depicted as a unified actor, having the main purpose of maximizing utility. Behaving concerning one’s values and goals, the state only acts in response to threats or power of increasing opportunities. As Allison resumes in his article, “In terms of this conceptual model, analysts attempt to understand happenings as the more or less purposing acts of unified national governments” [39].


[1] McDougall, Walter A. “The 20th-Century International Relations.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified July 26, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. In Sub-Chapter: “The Coming of the Cold War, 1945-57.”

[2] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, 18.

[3] McDougall, Walter A. “The 20th-Century International Relations.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified July 26, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. In Sub-Chapter: “The Coming of the Cold War, 1945-57.”

[4] Gaddis, John Lewis. We Know Now: Rethinking Cold War History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 38.

[5] The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “The Cold War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified February 17, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

[6] ibid.

[7] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, 25.

[8] ibid. 22

[9] McDougall, Walter A. “The 20th-Century International Relations.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified July 26, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. In Sub-Chapter: “The Coming of the Cold War, 1945-57.”

[10] Millet, Allan R.. “Korean War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified July 17, 2017. Accessed December 9, 2017.

[11] Spector, Ronald H.. “Vietnam War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, last modified May 8, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

[12] Roberts, Priscilla. Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2012, xiii.

[13] Dinerstein, Herbert S.. The Making Of A Missile Crisis: October 1962. London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1976, 25.

[14] Dunbabin, J.P.D. The Cold War: The Great Power and their Allies. Harlow: Longman, 2008, 265.

[15] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, 76.

[16] Dunbabin, J.P.D. The Cold War: The Great Power and their Allies. Harlow: Longman, 2008, 266.

[17] ibid.

[18] Roberts, Priscilla. The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2012, xiv.

[19] Walton, Richard J.. Cold War and Counterrevolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy. New York: The Viking Press, 1972, 104.

[20] Blight, James, Bruce J. Allyn, and David A. Welch. Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002, 203.

[21] Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. New York: The Penguin Press, 2005, 76.

[22] ibid., 78.

[23] Kennedy, Robert F.. Thirteen Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis October 1962. London: Macmillan, 1969, 44; 31-32.

[24] ibid., 84.

[25] Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999, 111-118.

[26] Kennedy, Robert F.. Thirteen Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis October 1962. London: Macmillan, 1969, 37.

[27] ibid., 51-52.

[28] Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999, 120.

[29] “Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Soviet Arms Buildup in Cuba, October 22, 1962.” John F. Kennedy: Presidential Library and Museum, accessed December 12,

[30] Dunbabin, J.P.D. The Cold War: The Great Power and their Allies. Harlow: Longman, 2008, 270.

[31] “Timeline.” Harvard Kennedy School – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: Cuban Missile Crisis, accessed December 12, 2017.

[32] Garthoff, Raymond L.. Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd ed., Washington DC: Brookings, 1989, 202.

[33] Roberts, Priscilla. The Cuban Missile Crisis: The Essential Reference Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2012, 211.

[34] Kennedy, Robert F.. Thirteen Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis October 1962. London: Macmillan, 1969, 166.

[35] ibid., 95.

[36] ibid., 100-101.

[37] “Timeline.” Harvard Kennedy School – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: Cuban Missile Crisis, accessed December 12, 2017.

[38] Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1999, 18.

[39] Allison, Graham. “Conceptual Models and “The Cuban Missile Crisis.” The American Political Science Review 63, no. 3, (September 1969): 690.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


An Examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of Allison and Zelikow's Conceptual Models
University of Lisbon  (Faculty of Social and Human Sciences)
North American Policy
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
557 KB
Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War, Missile Sites, Nuclear Weapons, Kennedy-Khrushchev agreement, Conceptual Models, Decision-making, Graham T. Allison, Philip Zelikow
Quote paper
Janine Evangelista (Author), 2018, An Examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of Allison and Zelikow's Conceptual Models, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: An Examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis in terms of Allison and Zelikow's Conceptual Models

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free