In October 1962, following the discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy called his top advisors together to determine America’s response. It was no time to mince words. America was on the brink of war and the fate of the world hung in the balance.
For two weeks, President Kennedy met almost daily, and sometimes two or three times a day with the National Security Council Executive Committee, known as ExComm and secretly tape recorded their meetings.
Now, almost a half-century later, David Gibson has applied a sociological lens to the remarkable recordings in his forthcoming book, Talk at the Brink: Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Gibson, an assistant professor of sociology at Penn, explains that while the existence of the recordings was revealed during Watergate, the tapes have only been available to researchers for about 10 years. He says scholars have occasionally looked to them, and to transcripts published in 1997 as a check against the existing historical record, based mostly on ExComm members’ memoirs.
“No one has asked how Kennedy's decisions were shaped by the precise conversational dynamics,” Gibson says. “If you believe that Kennedy’s perceptions of his options were shaped by what was said during those 20-odd hours of meetings, the inescapable conclusion is that his decisions, and thus the fate of the world, turned, at least in part, on the rules, procedures and vicissitude of talk in a group setting.”
Particularly important is what Gibson calls “suppression,” when ExComm members prevented one another from discussing certain perils such as the danger of bombing operational missiles.
Gibson admits that the implication of his research, that the course of history can depend on conversational minutia, is disconcerting.
"But scholars agree that there were many ways in which this crisis could have turned out differently, so in that sense, at least, this book is consistent with previous scholarship," even as it casts novel light on the conversational dimension.