President Kennedy convened an advisory committee (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) comprised of key cabinet Secretaries, military leaders, and international experts. Some members advocated an immediate preemptive attack on Cuba. One or two others suggested that the United States shouldn’t overact to the presence of the new missiles—given that Soviet subs close to American shores already carried nuclear weapons.

President Kennedy (to the left of the flag) with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on his right,
and other EXCOMM members, October, 1962.

Kennedy welcomed—even encouraged—the diversity of opinion. He especially valued assessments of the choices that the Soviets now were confronting. Limited as those options were, it was important to ensure that Khrushchev could stand down without being totally humiliated. Something would have to be offered to them in return for removing the missiles, if only as a face-saving measure.

Negotiation expert William Ury calls this “building a golden bridge.” It is an ancient concept, sometimes attributed to the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. It does not require compassion or respect for one’s counterpart. Rather, it can be a pragmatic way of getting another party to take an action that is in one’s own interest.