President Kennedy was assassinated barely a year after the missile crisis was resolved. A year after that, Nikita Khrushchev was ousted by the Supreme Soviet presidium. Though more than half a century has passed, interest in this pivotal event has endured to this day. Scholars have mined the case for lessons about international politics, team dynamics, and of course, negotiation. The best known study—Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision, first published in 1971—was substantially expanded in 1999 in light of the release of government documents in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Cuba. (The revelation of Fidel Castro’s willingness to endure a nuclear attack on his country was chilling to many analysts.)
The encounter was not truly a game of chicken in a pure game theoretic sense. It was far more complex. Each side had a range of options—not merely swerve or rush straight ahead (as in the case of the dynamite trucks on a collision course). And though events unfolded rapidly in this case, there was time for reflection and carefully measured action. Recall how Kennedy maintained the quarantine but shrunk its size, and how the Soviets prevailed on their demand that the Jupiter missiles be withdrawn from Turkey, though not immediately.
Nevertheless there are important parallels between the actual case and the theoretical model. The most important of which is narrowing a counterpart’s choices by preemptively taking actions that are hard to unwind. Bringing things to a head is the essence of brinksmanship. Making that sort of commitment constitutes a critical moment. Control over what happens next passes from one party to the other. Fortunately the two principal leaders in the Cuban case were rational. Each understood the potentially dire consequences and further knew that his counterpart recognized them, as well. (But there were advisers on both sides who either did not share that perspective or who saw tactical advantage in bluffing.)
Brinksmanship is a high risk strategy, one that requires making credible commitments and communicating them clearly, as Schelling’s analysis emphasizes. It also requires a rational counterpart who will make the choice you prefer. Luck factors in, as well. If both parties simultaneously venture too close the edge, disaster may ensue.