To Learn Strategy, Know History

Sections of this topic

    When you are faced with the most important and strategic decision of your life, where can you go for wisdom? Can you find insight in a book of history? Facing a world in crisis, John F. Kennedy did just that.

    Generally, we learn skills by trying something, failing, and trying again until we get it right. That’s a conundrum for strategic decision-makers, because the opportunity to make strategic decisions comes around rarely, and failure at the strategic level can be devastating. The realm of Strategy, more than any other discipline, must be learned by watching and learning from the decisions of others.

    Kennedy Making Strategic Decisions

    In 1962, President Kennedy was confronted with the greatest decision of his era. Intelligence-gathering aircraft over Cuba confirmed the presence of missiles there that meant Cuba would soon have capability for launching a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.

    The situation was unprecedented. Moreover, just a year before, Kennedy’s team of advisers had failed to provide him with sound advice, leaving him to blunder into the “Bay of Pigs” disaster, widely seen as one of the most significant strategic failures in American history.

    Kennedy turned to his interest in history for wisdom. As it happened, JFK had recently read Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on the antecedents and beginning of World War I called The Guns of August.

    A particularly compelling passage in Tuchman’s book describes how the critical moment arrived for Kaiser Wilhelm as he was to give the go-ahead for Germany’s well-planned attack on France through the neutral country of Belgium. In the middle of a sleepless night, the Kaiser had a change of heart… second thoughts.. cold feet. After all, pulling the trigger on what was called the “Schlieffen Plan” would mean an attack on a neutral country protected by long-respected treaties and alliances. The world would abhor this action. It would also set into motion, in domino fashion, a series of promises that most of the European countries had made to one or more of its allies that each would go to war to protect the other. An inflexible, almost automatic set of responses would follow, plunging Europe into war.

    “I have changed my mind!” the Kaiser told his generals, suggesting that they stick to a one-front war with Russia. But it was too late. The Kaiser’s illusion of control burst as he realized he was at this point just a character in a carefully scripted play.

    Moved by the story of a world plunged into unwanted conflict, Kennedy told his brother Robert “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] ‘The Missiles of October’. If anyone is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.” [Ironically, just such a book was eventually published, called The Missiles of October.]

    Kaiser Decision for WarKennedy said he wanted to “send a copy of that book to every Navy officer.”. JFK made his aides read The Guns of August and had copies distributed to every US military base in the world.

    “It had a huge impact on his thinking, becoming the dominant metaphor for JFK on the crisis,” said Graham Allison, author of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    In the end, Kennedy’s brother Robert, then the American Attorney General, found a way around the dilemma. In private conversations with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, he promised that the U.S. missiles would be out of Turkey in four or five months. He also said that he would deny ever making such a promise — when the deal happened, all that was announced to the world was that the soviet missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for assurances that the US would not invade Cuba. Five months later the missiles were withdrawn.

    The solution is noted by historians as a creative solution to an apparently intractable problem. Where the European leaders of 1914 followed a rigid plan of action leading to horrific consequence, the Kennedy team found a back door solution that met the needs of both sides and avoided an unwanted conflict.

    And so it is that knowledge of history can imbue us with wisdom useful for making present-day strategic decisions.

    The ancient Greek historian Thucydides saw time as a circle. He believed that his history of the Peloponnesian Wars would arm future decision-makers to do better when comparable choices came around again on time’s enduring track.

    In their wonderful and seminal book Thinking In Time, the eminent historians Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest May assure us that “Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward. Knowledge conveys wisdom; ignorance courts trouble.”

    For wisdom relating to your strategic decisions at hand, look to the wisdom of the ages for help.