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How did Clausewitz’s theory of warfare affect Kennedy and Khrushchev’s decision-making process during the Cold War? The Cold War was a period of tension in which a war of control between two superpowers emerged. The United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were involved in bitter disputes over who was the most powerful state in the world. Due to this tension, decision making by the leaders of these countries became paramount as

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the political environment could change in an instant. John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev’s decisions during the Cold War will be analysed in further detail by addressing Clausewitz’s theory of warfare as well as decision-making considerations such as the leader’s specific perspectives as well the role of geopolitics and contingency plans. The Cuban Missile Crisis will be used to further explain these considerations.

Carl von Clausewitz, a theorist from the 1800s, specialised in the nature of war and believed in the importance of context when understanding the dynamics of possible warfare (Paret, 1989: 186). This concept was not foreign to President Khrushchev of the USSR and President Kennedy of the USA who both paid attention to the importance of the circumstances during the 1960s and understood that the context was riddled with problems due to individuals, solutions, ideologies and opportunities for power and wealth (Eisenhartdt & Zbaracki, 1992: 27). This resulted in the bipolarity of these superpowers in the international community being led by two very different leaders, whose psychology affected the events throughout the Cold War.

Clausewitz believed that psychology and education were important elements that were fundamentally at the centre of warfare (Paret, 1989: 204). This is an important view point related to the decision making of the Cuban Missile Crisis as policies and decisions emerged from leaders’ perceptions as well as their political advisors’ theoretical and political education. For example, President Kennedy wanted the USSR to remove its missiles without feeling humiliated or going to war (Allison, 1971: 57). Many theorists believe this is the reason Kennedy decided a blockade would be wiser than invading Cuba (Bell, 1978: 51). Kennedy’s decision for the blockade was supported by the Executive Committee of the

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National Security Council (EXCOMM) of the USA who believed this would be the best option for resolution (Allison, 1971: 57).

Despite leader’s personalities playing an important role when deciding whether to go to war, geopolitics is also a contributing factor to this decision. Geopolitics refers to the

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relationship between geography and politics, and ultimately how geography can affect politics (Bell, 1978: 55). Clausewitz states the military objective and political purpose are closely related (Paret, 1989: 206) and this is difficult to exclude from the important role of geopolitics. Cuba was the ideal location for the USSR to allocate its weapons should a war break out as it was close to the USA and would result in a speed attack against the superpower. Furthermore, the USSR created an informal alliance with Cuba and other Latin American countries by supporting the Cuban Revolution (Kahan, 1972: 569) which was a strategic move from a geopolitical perspective as the USA would have been surrounded by adversaries.

The USA also used geopolitics to their advantage by placing their missiles in Turkey and Italy (Allison, 1971: 42). Nuclear missiles were used as a bargaining move. If the Soviet Union were to remove their missiles, it was assumed that the USA would react by removing their missiles from Turkey and Italy.

Although the geopolitical strategy was in place, the USA had a number of contingency plans that were available as an alternative to the blockade (Anderson, 1983: 211), in order to create a desired response from the USSR. These plans included a secret negotiation with Fidel Castro the Prime Minister of Cuba, the inclusion of a third party such as the United Nations or a possible air strike over Cuba (Levi & White, 1994: 247). These contingency plans were still organised in advance and the airstrike for example was planned and organised by the military (McKeown, 2001: 1181).

Solving conflicts through strategic decision making has become increasingly important as the proliferation of nuclear arms has been a controversial and concerning topic since the late 1940s. Despite Clausewitz’s theories about warfare being dated in the 1800s, his understanding of the role of context, leaders and political strategies are still important in

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modern politics. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev used Clausewitz’s theories to reach a decision making process that would benefit both countries and ultimately avoid nuclear warfare. By not going to war, the Cuban Missile Crisis is an event which proved that both states ‘won’ a war of morality as opposed to materialistic gains.


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Allison, G., 1971., Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis., Little, Brown and Company, USA.

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Bell, C. 1978. “Decision-making by governments in crises situations”, in Frei, D., International Crises and Crisis Management., Gower Publishing, England, pg. 50-59.

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Kegley, W. & E, Wittkopf., 1999. World Politics: Trends and Transformation. Macmillan Press Ltd, London. Kennedy, R., 1969. 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Heron Books, London. Miall, H., Ramsbotham, O & T. Woodhouse. 2005. Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Polity Press, Cambridge. Paret, P., 1986. Makers of Modern Strategy., Princeton University Press, USA. Thakur, R., 1988. International Conflict Resolution., Westview Press, Colorado.

Journal Articles Allison, G., 1969. “Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis”. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63 (3). Anderson, P., 1983. “Decision Making by Objection and the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 28. Belkin, A. & J, Blight., 1991. “Triangular Mutual Security: Why the Cuban Missile Crisis Matters in a World beyond the Cold War”. Political Psychology, Vol. 12 (4). Eisenhartdt, K. & M. Zbaracki. 1992. “Strategic Decision Making”. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 13. Kahan, J. & A, Long., 1972. “ The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Study of Its Strategic Context”. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 87 (4). Levi, A. & G. White., 1994. “The Origins and Function of the Reference Point in Risky Group Decision Making: The Case of the Cuban Missile Crisis”. Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, Vol. 7. McKeown, T., 2001. “Plans and Routines, Bureaucratic, and the Cuban Missile Crisis”. The Journal of Politics, Vol. 63 (4). Pious, R., 2001. “The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Limits of Crisis Management”. Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 116 (1).

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