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Avoiding Catastrophe: The Interactional Production of Possibility during the Cuban Missile Crisis

David R. Gibson
American Journal of Sociology
Vol. 117, No. 2 (September 2011), pp. 361-419
DOI: 10.1086/661761
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/661761
Page Count: 59
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Avoiding Catastrophe: The Interactional Production of Possibility
                    during the Cuban Missile Crisis
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Abstract

In October 1962, the fate of the world hung on the U.S. response to the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy’s decision to impose a blockade was based on hours of discussions with top advisers (the so-called ExComm), yet decades of scholarship on the crisis have missed the central puzzle: How did the group select one response, the blockade, when all options seemed bad? Recently released audio recordings are used to argue that the key conversational activity was storytelling about an uncertain future. Kennedy’s choice of a blockade hinged on the narrative “suppression” of its most dangerous possible consequence, namely the perils of a later attack against operational missiles, something accomplished through omission, self-censorship, ambiguation, uptake failure, and narrative interdiction. The article makes the very first connection between the localized dynamics of conversation and decision making in times of crisis, and offers a novel processual account of one of the most fateful decisions in human history.

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