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Lessons in Cuba

Missile, covid responses revealing by ROBERT MARANTO SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | November 7, 2020 at 3:40 a.m.

"Two men say they're Jesus; one of them must be wrong."--Dire Straits, "Industrial Disease"

When teaching bureaucracy in October, I cover the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union faced off over the installation of nuclear missiles near American shores at the height of the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev quite literally decided the fate of the world in October 1962.

Surely, when stakes run as high as nuclear Armageddon, government can get its act together, right? Wrong. With government, you grade on a curve.

As David Barrett and Max Holland detail in "Blind Over Cuba," it took months of electoral posturing and internal bickering for the Kennedy administration to order reconnaissance flights over Cuba. Kennedy covered up reasons for the delay, putting his political interests ahead of national security, even with the fate of humanity at stake.

In "Essence of Decision," Graham Allison portrays military experts as behaving as badly as White House politicians, privileging organizational missions over national interests. Air Force generals proposed hitting Cuban missile sites with surgical airstrikes, but admitted under questioning that "surgical" meant 500 sorties with civilian casualties, uncertain success, and some risk of World War III.

The Navy got approval to blockade Cuba as a midway step between inaction and attack. Yet in a scene worthy of "Dr. Strangelove," when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara asked Navy Admiral George Anderson sensible questions about how a blockade would proceed, such as whether our ships had Russian-speaking officers on board, Anderson waved the giant Manual of Naval Operations in his superior's face, shouting, "It's all in there."

McNamara retorted, "I don't give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now." Anderson then dismissed his civilian boss, saying, "Now, Mr. Secretary, if you and your deputy will go back to your offices, the Navy will run the blockade."

The Soviet government seemed equally incoherent, reflecting Marxist hierarchy. President Kennedy could only transfer his experts; Soviet Premier Khrushchev could kill his. This made Soviet bureaucrats even less likely to share information with the boss, so they could avoid accountability for screw-ups.

It's amazing the world survived.

I often think of all those egos while reading about government responses to covid-19, like when Swedish and British health experts bitterly attacked each other. Swedes insisted that only a small percentage of people face serious risk and that social distancing and masks offer enough protection. British experts insisted that 1 percent of Brits would die without closing their nation.

These experts resented questions, unlike more humble doctors like our own Anthony Fauci. We will not know until well into 2021 whether British Jesus or Swedish Jesus hit nearer the mark when each tallies total deaths. Even then, consider that Britain and Sweden differ in health, population density, and social norms. Policies that work in one place might fail the other.

Experts are influenced by their interests and values. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, pilots wanted to bomb; admirals wanted a blockade. Likewise in covid, doctors tend to favor extreme measures, while those involved with mental health, education, or economic growth are more inclined to favor compromises between physical safety and emotional, educational, and economic flourishing.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns in "The Righteous Mind," humans instinctively seek authority. We want certainty, so as religion declined, experts have risen. Yet I prefer my Jesus in the heavens. When earthbound experts claim divine authority, it never ends well.

Experts have hubris and bias, not because they are bad people, but because they are people. Good political leaders hear and question a range of experts, and then use judgment. For all his dissembling and delays, President Kennedy eventually did that in the Cuban Missile Crisis, so I give him a B-.

President Trump made the covid pandemic all about him, as both he and his opponents do most things. Administration officials like Vice President Mike Pence, who might have imposed more coherence and transparency, feared that taking the lead would make Trump jealous.

The Trump administration got some things right, like letting states devise their own policies reflecting local conditions and values. Yet for sheer ego, Trump gets a D-.


Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and has served in national and local government.


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