Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis


In October 1962, the fate of the world hung on the American response to the discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba. That response was informed by hours of discussions between John F. Kennedy and his top advisers. What those advisers did not know was that President Kennedy was secretly taping their talks, providing future scholars with a rare inside look at high-level political deliberation in a moment of crisis. Talk at the Brink is the first book to examine these historic audio recordings from a sociological perspective. It reveals how conversational practices and dynamics shaped Kennedy's perception of the options available to him, thereby influencing his decisions and ultimately the outcome of the crisis.

David Gibson looks not just at the positions taken by Kennedy and his advisers but how those positions were articulated, challenged, revised, and sometimes ignored. He argues that Kennedy's decisions arose from the intersection of distant events unfolding in Cuba, Moscow, and the high seas with the immediate conversational minutia of turn-taking, storytelling, argument, and justification. In particular, Gibson shows how Kennedy's group told and retold particular stories again and again, sometimes settling upon a course of action only after the most frightening consequences were omitted or actively suppressed.

Talk at the Brink presents an image of Kennedy's response to the Cuban missile crisis that is sharply at odds with previous scholarship, and has important implications for our understanding of decision making, deliberation, social interaction, and historical contingency.


Sometime after 9:00 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday, October 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s top aides received an urgent message: the president wanted them to drop their other appointments and report to the Cabinet Room of the White House for an urgent meeting. By the time they arrived, all were surely aware of the reason for the sudden summons: a U-2 spy plane, flying high (and undetected) over Cuba, had photographed Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, missiles that the president had declared, only the month before, would never be tolerated, and that Soviet Premier Khrushchev had promised would never be emplaced. Yet promises notwithstanding, there the missiles were, and with very little effort at concealment.

Thus began the most precarious days of the Cold War, when the United States and USSR squared off over the presence of history’s most dangerous weapons on a sugar-exporting island country roughly the size of Pennsylvania, ninety miles from the tip of Florida.

Forests have been felled to supply the pages of books about the crisis, and vats of ink emptied making that very observation, so we have to ask the requisite question: Is there anything new to be said about these events? If the answer has been, time and again, yes, the reason is that new information about the crisis periodically gets released, as records become declassified and archives are opened up to journalists and scholars. And not just documents: in recent years extraordinary recordings of the deliberations of Kennedy’s circle (the so-called ExComm), secretly made by Kennedy himself, have been released, providing us with an unprecedented (and, most likely, never-to-be-matched) view of a crisis of world-historical importance from the perspective of those at the helm, at least on the near side of the Iron Curtain.

These recordings are this book’s raison d’têre, the explanation for why a student of conversation (among other things) would immerse himself in Cold War history and risk the ire of established scholars. This book is about those tapes, and what they tell us about the role of talk in the decision-making process. My contention is that, contrary to most accounts, Kennedy’s decisions were not the product of the clash of factions (e.g., hawks versus doves), or the haggling of parochially minded appointees, or a clear-sighted assessment of the risks, and least of all of a president forcing his will on submissive advisers. Rather, Kennedy’s decisions were the outcome of talk about possible futures conducted pursuant to the rules, procedures, and vicissitudes of talk generally—related to how we ask and answer questions, tell stories, interrupt one another, justify our actions, and soft-pedal disagreement—conducted against the backdrop of . . .

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