Essence of Decision

by Graham Allison (1971)


A dry but revealing and penetrating examination of the factors contributing to governmental decisions, specifically as applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Allison is cited by Noam Chomsky as one of the better historical analysts of this era, so I came into the book with some bias. I was impressed with how Allison gently but convincingly pulls back the curtain on the standard “Rational Actor” model (Model I, as he calls it) which states that countries and governments act as would a single sane person when confronting a crisis. This is the idea that the USSR would have never escalated the crisis because that would have meant the destruction of half the planet. Unfortunately, as Allison shows, Kruschev was not really in control of the process and the danger of the situation was much more real than most experts believed.

I particularly liked the format of the book, which presents the Crisis through the lens of each of his three models such that each explanation seems reasonable at the time, yet each subsequent explanation makes the previous one look inadequate. His Models II and III come out the clear winners in terms of explanatory power, acknowledging the need to consider organizational and political processes in the making of any major decision by a national power.

Decisions are ultimately made not by a powerful executive such as Kennedy or Kruschev, but rather by entrenched organizational “Standard Operating Procedures” and political affiliations/lobbying. It’s pretty scary actually.

I’ll leave the details for those interested enough in the subject to read it themselves. It is powerfully dry, and I found myself skimming the more theoretical chapters. But overall I’m glad to have read it — I now have a better understanding of how and why governments truly act.


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