Role Playing Methodology: JFK and Khrushchev likely to Agree to a Compromise, World War III Prevented

Jared Leets – Guest Contributor

7 December 2017

Executive Summary:

John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Khrushchev are unlikely to go to war over the missiles planted in Cuba by the Soviet Union. While extremely tense at moments and with Khrushchev sending his navy to go through the blockade created by the U.S., the two leaders will not launch World War III. Both leaders seemed ready to show their power and defend their nations, but in the end both realized that nuclear war was not worth the pain and destruction for both countries. Although both leaders were fearful of allowing the enemy to gain the upper hand ultimately it would prove to be foolish as nuclear war would lead to a domino effect with many nations joining sides and de-escalation seemed highly likely. In addition, Khrushchev is likely to be slightly more aggressive than JFK, most likely to appease Soviet hardliners, while JFK seems more diplomatic.



Learning from the Cuban Missile Crisis using the methodology of role-playing, can help analysts with future forecasts.[1] Role-playing, if used correctly and wisely, can show different perspectives for professionals needing to understand how their targets think and needing to evaluate other pieces of evidence. In national security, role-playing is likely to help produce alternative outcomes that the employees can think of and analyze. A list of decisions were shown to each of the participants on deciding to steps to make. Only JFK and Khrushchev are role-played with two people participating. Reading about the backgrounds of JFK and Khrushchev was critical to helping understand how to use role playing effectively and produce a credible analysis. The following scenarios help illuminate this and some are alternative choices from what actually occurred.


In 1959 Cuba had a Communist Revolution leading to Fidel Castro becoming Prime Minister of the country. The U.S. fearing a communist domino effect, took action. The U.S. tried to join forces with the rebels groups against Castro and this led to the Bay of Pigs invasion to attempt to kill Fidel Castro in 1961.[2] However, Castro’s forces defeated the rebels and invasion failed and became an embarrassment for the U.S. Shortly after this, Castro formed an alliance with the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet Union welcomed the alliance as they to felt threatened by the U.S. placing nuclear weapons on an air force base in Turkey in 1959.[3] The weapons were 90 miles away from the Soviet Union. Khrushchev asked Castro if he could place nuclear weapons in Cuba, which was 90 miles south of the U.S. eventually leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.[4] In addition to this, both the U.S. and Soviet Union competed in a race for the first man to go to space, which the Soviet Union won sending Yuri Gagarin in 1961. The amount of fear on both sides was staggering.


The two leaders in this role playing scenario include U.S. President John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Soviet Union General Secretary Nikita Khruschev. JFK served as a senator from Massachusetts and won the 1960 presidential election.[5] He comes from a very wealthy prominent family that has been in politics for decades with his father and brothers serving in prominent roles. LBJ aide by the name of Harry McPherson described him in his memoir, A Political Education. “Mythically wealthy, handsome, bright and well connected he seemed to regard the Senate grandees as impressive but tedious.”[6] He is young and brings hope to the country. He is witty, charismatic, and described as being a risk-taker. He is also an extremely competitive and confident man, as any of his televised debates or speeches will show.[7]


Khrushchev, on the other hand, had a very humble beginning. He grew up in poverty, working as a shepherd and as a miner.[8] He was very proud of his humble origins and habitually made remarks regarding it. Khrushchev served in the Soviet military. Once Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev found himself in a brutal political battle to become the leader of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev had enough political clout to win that battle and became the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953 later becoming the Soviet Premier in 1958.[9] Khrushchev is described as being a man of action rather than an abstract thinker.[10] He is known as being practical but also having volatile streaks. In 1956 he told Western ambassadors at a reception in Poland, “We will bury you!” At one point he claimed that all Westerners’ grandchildren would live under Communism.[11] While he must deal with hardliners who worshiped Stalin and admired his brutal tactics and strength, Khrushchev knew how to deal with them. This background information helps give an understanding of the leaders for those who acted as them during the role-playing scenarios.


It is highly unlikely that a nuclear war would break out between the two nations. JFK tried to get other nations, along with the U.S., to confront the Soviet Union and demand they remove the missiles from Cuba. In response to this, Khrushchev attempted to appear strong but backed down eventually. While Khrushchev appeared more aggressive dealing with the blockade it was still met with diplomacy by JFK. Communication was critical during the crisis, and both the U.S. and Soviet Union deciding to possibly drive through the blockades increased the chances of war but still the U.S. waited to communicate with the Soviet Union on deciding what steps to take next. Even when an attack occurs both sides are more likely to wait and get a damage assessment and talk before even thinking of any kind of attack. Diplomatic responses are typically much stronger than military attacks. At times lack of communication seemed that it would amplify the chances of war. However, this proved not to be the case as both sides would talk and assess damage done to both sides. Even if JFK did not respond to a letter and waited for more communication from Khrushchev this did not seem to provoke war at all.


Another issue that arose was that both countries wanted to save face during the crisis. It remains likely that both leaders would remove the missiles from Cuba and Turkey to de-escalate the situation and the preferred way of doing this was secretly in order to prevent humiliation between the leaders. In the end if there was a more conflict it would likely fizzle out and the situation would improve.


Both sides were able to critically analyze each other’s steps and decisions. For example, in one scenario the participant made a decision that would significantly increase the chances of going to war between the two nations. The other person weighed the options and consequences of this decision and acted as they thought best. It required critical thinking and a completely different way of understanding something. Other issues that occurred from role playing this scenario was that one of the participants did not know enough about Khrushchev and tried to think how the current Russian President Vladimir Putin would think. Therein lies one of the problems with role playing, if used improperly, it cannot be as effective as intended to be. In addition, eliminating bias and trying to be objective was not entirely possible. Eliminating bias hurt the chances of making this scenario a truly worthy example of role playing at its best. Other issues that occur with role playing is that it can be fairly easy for participants not to take it very seriously, therefore making it lose its credibility and not making it as realistic as possible.

Overall it proved to be an effective methodology for understanding another person’s way of thinking and helped develop alternative courses of action for each participant to consider. This methodology can continue to make national security agencies see the value in role-playing and help with out of the box thinking at a relatively low cost.


Analytic Confidence:

Analytic confidence for this assessment is moderate. Source reliability is high with very little conflict among sources. The analyst’s expertise is minimal and worked with several others to run several trials of the role-playing exercise. The task complexity is moderately complex and the time constraint was ample.


[1] Anderson, P. A. (1983). Decision making by objection and the Cuban missile crisis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 201-222.

[2] Understanding Decisionmaking, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Review Essay

Barton J. Bernstein

International Security 2000 25:1, 134-164


[4] Ibid





[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid


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