The Assumption that Almost Destroyed the World


This is the text of a speech I am going to give tonight, my first upon joining the PMI Chicagoland Toastmasters Club.  It is a speech from an advanced manual called “Technical Presentations”, where I try to explain a technical concept from project management, in this case the role of “assumptions” in shaping the strategic planning of a project.   It also serves as my Icebreaker speech, since I am going to be speaking at the club for the first time tonight.

The purpose of this speech is to explain why examining assumptions is important in a project.   I take as an example the Cuban Missile Crisis, and treat it as if solving the crisis were a project, with President Kennedy as the project manager, and the various parts of the US–and the Soviet–government as the stakeholders.

There were two weeks in October 1962 when the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union was in danger of becoming a very hot war indeed.    How hot?   Oh, a couple million degrees, because that’s the temperature in the center of a nuclear explosion.   You see, we almost had a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  At that time, John F. Kennedy was the president of the United States and Nikita Khrushchev was the Premier of the Soviet Union.

The United States had deployed nuclear missiles in Turkey that were capable of reaching Moscow, and so in a sort of global chess game, Khrushchev conceived of a plan in May 1962 to counter this by deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba that could be pointed towards the U.S.  This was readily accepted by the dictator Fidel Castro, because it would also serve as a deterrent to prevent the U.S. from another attempt at invasion of the island of Cuba, like had been tried in the Bay of Pigs incident the previous year.

On October 14th, 1962, their plans were found out.   A US spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over Cuba took pictures of seemed to be a missile base construction site.

The CIA analyzed the photographs identified the objects as being medium-range ballistic missiles.   These were rockets that were capable could carry nuclear warheads to their targets in the U.S., and estimated that if they were all armed, they would put the lives of 90,000,000 Americans at risk.   They did not see any warheads themselves.    So they assumed that the warheads had not yet been delivered, and that the Soviet Union would soon be sending ships to deliver them to Cuba, and that the Soviet ship the Voltava on the way from Moscow would be the first one to reach the island in a matter of weeks.

The President was informed of the existence of the missiles in Cuba and he held a meeting with members of his cabinet including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military.   There were essentially four options discussed other than doing nothing:   use, diplomacy, use the US Navy to create a blockade to prevent the warheads from reaching Cuba, use the US Air Force to perform a series of attacks on the missile sites, and finally, a full-scale invasion of the island using all the branches of the military.

The State Department argued for diplomacy.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that the only option to remove the threat was a full-scale attack and invasion.   They figured that since the nuclear warheads were not yet in Cuba, the Soviets would not be able to stop the U.S.  The National Security Council preferred the blockade option, with an air strike as a fallback position.

Kennedy met on October 18, President Kennedy met with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Grumyko, who claimed the weapons were for defensive purposes only.  This was obviously false because the missiles were medium range, not the kind that would be used against an air strike.  So the diplomatic channel seemed futile, at this at this level.

Kennedy then opted for a blockade, with the military to be instructed to be prepared for an air strike and a possible invasion if the blockade were to fail.  180,000 troops ended up being mobilized.

Meanwhile, on a beach in Miami, Florida there was a little boy who was playing with his grandfather.    He and his mother had flown from Chicago to spend a vacation there.    That night they saw President Kennedy on the television who announced that Cuba had missiles aimed at the U.S. and that the U.S. would launch a blockade around Cuba.

The Soviet Union now gave its response, and Khrushchev said the Soviet Union would view a blockade as an act of aggression and that their ships would defy the blockade.   The situation was now at a stalemate; the U.S. raised its defense level to condition red, or DEFCON 2.   There is only condition beyond this, condition white, or DEFCON 1, so we were literally one step away from nuclear war.

At 6:00 PM on the night of October 26th, the State Department received by teletype a very long and emotional letter written by Khrushchev .

Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knot of war.  “Let us take measures to untie that knot.  We are ready for this. ” He was offering to take the missiles out of Cuba if Kennedy agreed to take his missiles out of Turkey.

Tommy Thompson from the State Department,  a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, was sitting at the elbow of the President reading what he referred to as the soft, diplomatic message which he said had come directly from Khrushchev.    Just then, another message that came in that was more threatening, saying that an invasion would invite certain retaliation, and it was the message that had written by the hardliners in the Kremlin, who supported the idea of a military confrontation.

The crucial question now was:   which message should the U.S. respond to, the soft message or the hard message?

Tommy Thompson had knowledge of the Russian language, but even more importantly, because of his time as the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, he knew the Premier personally.   He could empathize with him, and knew exactly what the Premier was thinking.  At first, President Kennedy was skeptical that negotiation could be used to get the missiles of Cuba.  However, Tommy Thompson disagreed, and said the Premier was being pushed by his hardliners into a military confrontation and he wanted desperately to find a diplomatic solution that would allow him to save face politically not just in Cuba but in Russia.   He could say to Fidel Castro and the Cubans that he saved them from invasion by the US, and he could say to those in the Soviet Union that he was responsible for getting those missiles out of Turkey that were pointed towards the Soviet Union.   As a fellow politician, President Kennedy knew exactly how Khrushchev was going to sell it to his people, and knew that he could sell the deal to the American public as well.  Kennedy agreed with the Khrushchev deal , and the crisis was averted.

In 1992, it was discovered that the CIA had made a mistake.    Remember how they had assumed there were no warheads in Cuba?   There were over 160 nuclear warheads already in Cuba.   So the blockade accomplished nothing.    But more importantly, if Kennedy had listened to the military, who based their strategic plans on what the CIA had told them, the invasion would have failed and nuclear war would have resulted.

And I would not be standing here today.    Why?   Because that boy I mentioned in the story–was me.   That night, the boy who staying with his grandfather heard the voice of his father on the telephone calling to tell him that he loved him very much.    You see, the father was a reporter who knew the seriousness of the situation, and knew that his son was in a place that would very likely be a target of a nuclear attack in the case that war broke out.   He wanted to memorize the sound of his son’s voice in case he never heard it again.

I urge you to see the documentary The Fog of War, the former Secretary of State Robert McNamara listed several lessons to be learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, among them 1) be prepared to re-examine your assumptions, which you can see by the fact that the CIA made a mistake regarding the warheads, and 2) empathize with your stakeholders, which was the key to Tommy Thompson’s diplomatic breakthrough.  In this way you can imagine their motives and predict what how they will react to your moves.

And to that, I would like to add a lesson of my own.  We can learn from Tommy Thompson and use the power of language to engage the language of power.   And it is the power of language, and its ability to be an window of understanding, and through that window, to be an instrument of peace, that has motivated me throughout my life, and it is what inspired me to join Toastmasters.

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