Tuesday, January 3, 2017

On Admitting Ignorance and Asking Questions

From another discussion:

How Admitting Ignorance Might Have Prevented A Nuclear Holocaust.

Excerpt from Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis

Most accounts of the missile crisis attempt to answer the central questions by comparing competing hypotheses, examining specific details of the deployment of missiles in Cuba or the blockade for clues to governments' goals and intentions. On the assumption that actors do what they intended, the details of actions taken and comparisons of the costs and benefits of the different options provide evidence about intent. Yet despite the best efforts in analyzing the behavior of the Soviet and American governments in this case, including our Chapter 2, anomalies and inconsistencies abound; "inexplicables" invite attention through the lens of organizational behavior.

As a point of departure consider the troublesome Jupiter IRBM missiles (15 in all) deployed to Turkey under Turkish control, along with their nuclear warheads, which would remain under U.S. control. Originally a highly publicized gesture of reassurance to allies fearful of the Soviet ballistic missiles being fielded in the late 1950s, the crude liquid-fueled Jupiters, along with F-100 fighter-bomber aircraft and their nuclear bombs, were by 1962 part of NATO's plans for defending Europe, specifically the eastern flank—namely Turkey. These pieces on the chessboard greatly complicated the challenge President Kennedy faced in managing a confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba.

Unraveling the more important threads of this story requires entry into the arcane world of military acronyms or, as a colleague has named it, "acronymphomania." The term refers to the practice prevalent in Washington, especially in the Pentagon, of using acronyms that many participants in discussions do not understand but are afraid to ask about lest they expose their ignorance. In the case of Turkey, the most important acronyms were: EDP and QRA. These stand for: Emergency (or European) Defense Plan and Quick Reaction Alert.

A vignette from the tapes of the missile crisis deliberations captures Kennedy as he discovers EDP. On October 21, in one of the few direct presidential orders of those two weeks, he dictates that a special order be sent to Turkey giving commanders explicit instructions. They should not fire their nuclear weapons, even if they were attacked, unless and until they had a direct order from the White House. At the meeting on the morning of October 22, the Deputy Secretary of Defense reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff object to sending out such a special order and thus that none had been sent.

Kennedy repeats his instruction: "We may be attacking the Cubans, and a reprisal might come. We don't want these nuclear warheads firing without our knowing about it." Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze responds, explaining that the Chiefs thought such a special instruction "compromises their standing instructions." Eager to avoid conflict between the President and the Chiefs, Bundy and Taylor attempt to move the conversation along, observing that a reminder to commanders to be sure to check their standing instructions requiring presidential authorization for the use of nuclear weapons should suffice.

But then Nitze let the cat out of the bag. "They [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] did come back with another point, and that is: NATO strategic contact requires the immediate execution of EDP in such events." Many participants undoubtedly wondered: what do "strategic contact" or "EDP" mean? In most discussions, however, that much acronymphomania, especially from authorities who presumably know what they are doing, would strangle questions.

Not with President Kennedy, who persists: "What's EDP?" Nitze replies, "The European Defense Plan, which is nuclear war. So that means . . ." Kennedy interrupts, "Now, that's why we ordered that [special instruction] on that."

Backpedaling, Nitze tried to explain that the standing order did require presidential authorization. Yet Kennedy pushed to the deeper point. "They [in Turkey] don't know . . . what we know," he said. "And therefore they don't realize the chance there will be a spot reprisal. And what we've got to do is make sure these fellows do know, so that they don't fire them off and put the United States under attack. I don't think we ought to accept the Chiefs' word on that one, Paul."

Recognizing that he has dug himself into a hole, Nitze tries to stop and move on: "I've got your point and we're going to get to that." The Cabinet Room erupts in laughter. But sensing the president's skepticism, Bundy says, "Send me the documents, and I will show them to a doubting master." More laughter. In the end, an hour later, the instruction Kennedy wanted was sent. It said unambiguously, "make certain that the Jupiters in Turkey and Italy will not be fired without specific authorization from the President. In the event of an attack, either nuclear or non-nuclear . . . U.S. custodians are to destroy or make inoperable the weapons if any attempt is made to fire them." The instructions were kept secret from the Turks, Italians, and other NATO allies.

Kennedy's caution was well founded. While Nitze and the Chiefs were certainly right that presidential authorization was legally required in order to authorize any use of U.S. nuclear weapons, all—including Kennedy—knew that the president had, by earlier order, delegated some of this authority to NATO entities in the event of attack. There were at least two reasons for such predelegation. The first was that a Soviet nuclear attack might well kill the president and other leaders before they could issue orders for retaliation. So to keep the Soviets from being tempted by this scenario, launch authority was delegated in advance if such a contingency occurred. (Presumably, the Soviets should know about the arrangement, although it is not clear anyone told them.) The second reason for predelegation was that some allied governments, such as Germany, sought proof that all NATO nuclear weapons would be used under certain predetermined conditions, so that Soviet attack would be deterred by a more automatic response that left little to chance or whims of an American president. To address the first concern the Eisenhower administration had predelegated its nuclear use authority "in the event of a nuclear attack upon the United States," authenticated as such if possible. To address the second, Eisenhower had predelegated the authority to use nuclear weapons for the defense of U.S. forces based overseas if there was "grave necessity," subject to required consultation with allies.

Don't ever be afraid to admit that you don't know something. Some day, it could save the entire world from annihilation.


If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.

"Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else."

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