July 1, 2016
Measuring Strategic Deterrence: A Wargaming Approach
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, President John F. Kennedy weighed a number of factors to assess the potential effectiveness of U.S. actions to deter the Soviets from further deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy realized that an existing missile gap gave the United States an assured second-strike capability, but Soviet missiles in Cuba would make the consequences of a Soviet first strike much costlier. For example, U.S. extended-deterrence strategies would be at risk, which could suggest that the United States might not risk nuclear war if the Soviets subsequently assaulted Berlin. Although Kennedy’s greatest fear was the potential for human error and accidental escalation during the standoff, he gained insight into Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s risk tolerance after receiving a rambling four-part cable from the seemingly stressed Soviet leader.1 In the end, it was the rational consideration of these factors from both his and Khrushchev’s perspectives that allowed Kennedy to assess relative resolve and select actions that would control escalation.