December 19, 2013  

Luck in war: Two Cold War cases

By Lt. Joseph Hatfield

In the end, we avoided war [during the Cuban Missile Crisis]…because we lucked out, absolutely lucked out, on both sides. — Robert McNamara

The Cold War wasn’t won through fate or luck. Freedom prevailed because our free nations showed resolve when retreat would have been easier, and showed courage when concession seemed simpler.— Donald Rumsfeld

What role does luck play in war? McNamara emphasized the power of contingent events to determine the fate of nations, while Rumsfeld stressed volitional factors: courage and resolve.

We can explore the question by analyzing two Cold War events: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Important and well-documented, these cases also stand at a sufficiently distant historical remove to allow reasonably accurate inferences about chains of causation. Luck, we may safely assert, helped shape the resolution of both crises.

But so what? How can a discussion of luck possibly help the military planner? It turns out that a rational approach to contingency — used in many fields, from civilian manufacturing to poker — can help minimize the negative consequences of luck.

What Is Luck?

How to define luck? We can start by noting that, for our purposes, the notions of “luck” and “contingency” are interchangeable. We may borrow from moral philosophers whose analyses of luck can be fruitfully applied outside concerns about morality. The most influential of these, Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Luck” (1976), identifies three kinds of luck: resultant, circumstantial, and constitutive.

Resultant luck is luck in the way events turn out. Suppose there are two drivers who neglect to have their brakes serviced but are otherwise responsible people. Both drivers’ brakes fail them while driving, however one driver safely stops while a child steps out in front of the other driver and is killed. The latter driver is the victim of bad resultant luck as his prior actions were no different than the first driver but the results were quite profound.

Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances in which one finds oneself. It is possible that someone who became a concentration camp officer might have otherwise led a commendable life had the Nazis not come to power.

Finally, constitutive luck is luck regarding who one is or about the traits or dispositions one has. Since we have no control over our genetic endowment — who our parents were, and so on — we can attribute much of who we are to constitutive luck. This taxonomy is helpful as we look at our Cold War cases.

Showdown Over Cuba

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the culmination of a series of important events, including: Khrushchev’s assessment of and feeling of dominance over Kennedy at the Vienna Summit in 1961; the Soviet embrace of Cuba following strained relations with the U.S.; the U.S.’ covert attempts to remove Castro; Soviet intelligence reports (since the late 1950s) that the U.S. had deployed Jupiter missiles to Turkey; Kennedy’s embarrassment following the Bay of Pigs debacle and desire to finish what he had started; the Cuban arms build-up and the delivery of modern surface-to-air missiles; the KGB’s post-February 1962 assessments that Kennedy was determined to invade Cuba; and Kennedy’s decision to resume nuclear testing in April 1962.

On Oct. 16, 1962, a critical event occurred which set into motion what would later be understood as arguably the most dangerous period in world history: President Kennedy received news that a U-2 spy plane had photographed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Soviet Union introduced offensive nuclear missiles into Cuba partly out of a desire to show support to a third-world nation that suspected an imminent U.S. invasion. The Soviets were also motivated by the desire to counter a U.S. advantage in strategic nuclear missiles.

Soviet-Cuban fears of a U.S. invasion arose largely from a January 1962 discussion between Kennedy and Khrushchev’s son-in-law, Aleksei Adzhubei, in which the president compared Cuba to Hungary. Soviet leaders concluded that Kennedy was considering a second, larger invasion of Cuba, perhaps involving American military forces.

On Oct. 1, just two weeks before the U-2 discovered the missiles, McNamara directed the Joint Chiefs of Staff to raise the readiness for possible implementation of contingency plans to invade Cuba. Kennedy wasn’t determined to invade but wanted the military to be prepared in case events made an invasion necessary.

The U.S. had four times as many 1-megaton ICBMs as the Soviet Union. Soviet chairman Khrushchev had reasoned that Cuba might make a useful base for Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles, of which Moscow had an ample supply.

The CIA had dismissed human intelligence reports indicating that missiles were present. However, analysts at the Defence Intelligence Agency matched this reporting to their knowledge of Soviet nuclear missile sites and recommended U-2 flights over these areas. For political reasons, the U-2 flights had been on hold for the six weeks before Oct. 16. This is an example of circumstantial bad luck. Had the intelligence community been able to recognize the importance of the reporting sooner and had the political circumstance regarding U-2 flights been different, a verification flight might have been scheduled weeks before.

Because timing determined the level of missile readiness, earlier notification would have lessened the sense of urgency felt by all sides. In this sense, circumstantial luck intensified the non-contingent factors that were already converging toward crisis.

Noting the significance of the time factor, Robert Kennedy wrote in his memoir of the crisis, “The time that was available to the President and his advisers to work secretly, quietly, privately, developing a course of action and recommendations for the President, was essential … If we had had to make a decision in twenty-four hours, I believe the course that we would have to take would have been quite different and filled with far greater risks.”

It follows that if good circumstantial luck had allowed greater time for decisionmaking, the risks may have been further reduced.

Once informed of the missiles, Kennedy ordered the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex Comm) to begin deliberations and provide him with recommendations for action. At the first Ex Comm meeting, the President outlined potential responses. The Ex Comm eventually recommended a blockade as a measure that was both forceful but allowed Khrushchev a way out of the situation without leading to war.

One hundred and eighty-three U.S. Navy ships, including eight aircraft carriers, were ordered into the Caribbean with the support of NATO allies and the Organization of American States. What the U.S. didn’t know was that four Foxtrot-class attack submarines carrying nuclear torpedoes were already in or nearing the Caribbean with authorization to deploy their arsenals in battle per Soviet military doctrine.

Additionally, Gen. Pliyev, the Soviet commander in Cuba, had been authorized to use tactical nuclear missiles if the U.S. sent troops ashore. That U.S.-Soviet tactical military actions didn’t escalate into a nuclear exchange, through the fog of war that accompanies tactical military exchanges, can be attributed to fortunate resultant luck.

Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw an opportunity to wipe out not just the missiles but the entire Cuban threat in one large attack. On Oct. 16, they recommended additional U-2 flights over Cuba to gather targeting information in case the President exercised this option. On Oct. 27, a U-2 was spotted at Guantanamo heading toward Soviet positions. Pliyev had ordered his forces not to strike U.S. forces without his approval but allowed them to defend their positions in the event of attack. Pliyev’s commanders had but a few minutes to decide whether a U.S. air campaign had begun and whether to fire on the incoming aircraft. Pliyev wasn’t at his command. Interpreting Pliyev’s orders somewhat loosely, the commanders fired a missile at the U-2, destroying it and killing its pilot.

Kennedy decided not to respond militarily to this attack because he feared an escalation that would move beyond control. His decision may have, by itself, prevented nuclear war. As it happened, Kennedy had recently read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” and had talked to his brother Robert about the miscalculations and mistakes that tumbled Europe into WWI. Throughout the crisis, Kennedy spoke of the need not to let things spiral out of control. The resultant bad luck of Pliyev’s absence from command during the U-2 flight was balanced by the constitutive good luck of Kennedy’s convictions.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was neither begun nor resolved solely by luck. However, the manner in which it was carried out was inexorably shaped by instances of resultant, circumstantial and constitutive luck. The stakes were high because both sides possessed nuclear weapons and were willing to use them if conditions called for their use. Because of these high stakes, contingency threatened to overwhelm non-contingent factors.

In the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara’s judgment is vindicated.

Hungary, 1956

The Hungarian Revolt began on Oct. 23, 1956, when students marched through the streets of Budapest to protest Hungary’s Stalinist government. Important preceding events included: the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1944-45; the June 1953 election of the reform-minded Imre Nagy as Hungary’s new prime minister; the early 1955 replacement of Nagy with Stalinist diehard Matyas Rakosi; the example of Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1940s; the encouragement to revolt by Radio Free Europe (RFE); and the example of Wladyslaw Gomulka’s reinstatement under popular pressure in Poland on Oct. 9, 1956.

As the revolt began, someone concocted a state radio broadcast that asserted that the demonstration had been sanctioned by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA). Out of perceived necessity, the MIA decided to go along and officially sanction the demonstration. This decision is an instance of resultant luck; without it, the crowd of over 200,000 people spontaneously organizing around the Parliament building following the broadcast would likely not have occurred. By the end of the night, a full insurgency was underway in the streets of Budapest.

Inspired by Nagy’s reformist history as prime minister, the students chose him as their de facto leader, a position at which he proved ineffective. With a long, if little-known, history of collaborating with Moscow, he initially opposed the demands of the insurgents, then fully embraced even the most extremist elements within the revolution.

A successful consensus-builder as a statesman, he failed to steer the insurgency from its stated desire to declare Hungary’s neutrality, although he knew that would invite a crackdown by the Soviet military. His personal limitations became a major source of constitutive bad luck for the revolution.

From the initial stages of the insurgency through its peak, RFE, then controlled by the CIA, increasingly encouraged revolution and all but promised support to any uprising. Had RFE tried to curtail the most extreme demands of the revolutionaries, the harsh Soviet military backlash might have been avoided, and Western interests better served. But RFE’s decisions were wrought amid limited information, considerable uncertainty, and nearly four years of Washington’s persistent rhetoric about “liberation” and “rollback.” Bad circumstantial luck prevented RFE from productively moderating the destructive revolutionary extremism it helped spark.

Like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Hungarian revolt was shaped by resultant, constitutive and circumstantial luck. Actions meant to placate did the opposite, while poor leadership stemming from personality conflicts failed to steer volatility toward pragmatism. The historical circumstance of the revolution blinded outside forces to the possibilities of the moment. Once again, McNamara’s view is vindicated.

What Can Military Leaders Do?

So if luck is important, sometimes even decisive, in military affairs, what can be done to mitigate its toll in blood and treasure?

First, we must discard the idea that luck is completely immeasurable.

In poker, a “bad beat” occurs when a player’s hand loses despite the odds being in the player’s favor; for instance, when an opponent draws the sole remaining card that might put him or her on top. Phil Hellmuth, the 13-time World Series of Poker winner, is famous for his wild antics when he takes a bad beat. Television audiences are generally sympathetic to Hellmuth’s plight because they know he “deserved” to win, but ran into bad resultant luck.

Yet if poker is so strongly affected by luck, how can professionals like Hellmuth win so frequently? The answer: They identify luck’s role, measure their vulnerability, and create a mitigating strategy that tempers its inevitable impact.

Poker players take seriously what this essay aims to convey: that luck exists, that it is important, and that its effects can be planned for and mitigated. They don’t throw up their hands in despair; instead, they measure their vulnerability by calculating the probability of bad luck. Good players create mitigating strategies that help decrease the costs of inevitable bad luck, such as calculating a cost versus benefit ratio called “pot odds” that increases their chip count over the long run.

A similar strategy is employed in manufacturing. Quality analysts understand that all processes generate random, inexplicable variation (sometimes called “statistical noise”) that causes product defects — the engineering equivalent of bad luck. Good quality control analysts produce process flow-charts that identify defect opportunities, measure their frequencies and create a mitigation strategy. They try to reduce the defect opportunities in a process (through combination, simplification or elimination), and thereby decrease the cumulative impact of luck-induced costs.

Military leaders must do the same. They must foster a habit of recognizing luck’s influence in military affairs, and seek mitigation strategies that avoid luck’s negative influence. If the efforts of an important military planning team are ruined because personality conflicts — arising from random constitutive luck inherent in team assembly — vitiate positive group dynamics, then leaders must have a plan in place to meet this challenge head on. Alternatively, they must circumvent luck’s effects by shuffling or otherwise reorganizing the teams. This wouldn’t have to be preordained. Perhaps good constitutive luck prevails. But good leaders will have understood this dimension and have planned for such a contingency.

Of course, the responsible mitigation of luck requires knowledge of the potential impact that bad luck might have. The moderate impact of bad luck should be met by an equally moderate mitigation strategy — no need to require an entire aircraft carrier strike group to support a human intelligence “first contact” simply because the potential source may be an enemy agent. The downsides of a miscalculated recruitment are serious, but hardly catastrophic.

On the other hand, truly calamitous impacts call for extreme luck-mitigation strategies. This point was acutely brought home by the revelation, from recently declassified documents acquired by The Guardian newspaper using a Freedom of Information Act request, that the U.S. nearly detonated an atomic bomb over North Carolina by accident in 1961. Catastrophe was averted due to a single small metal switch! In such cases, critics of nuclear weapons have long argued, the costs associated with bad luck are so high that the only reasonable mitigation strategy is the elimination of the weapons themselves.


From historical remove, these Cold War crises look far more orderly than they were. Despite Rumsfeld’s confident assurances, non-contingent historical forces such as Western “resolve” and “courage” suggest themselves only after the dust settles and we look back to construct historical narratives that lead from history to the present day. A more nuanced understanding of how the “fog of war” operated during these crises illustrates how luck became a significant factor on its own.

Military leaders should appreciate the role luck plays in the complex unfolding of war. They must measure the costs of bad luck and imaginatively implement mitigation strategies that avoid or lessen its negative impacts.



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Joseph Hatfield is an active duty U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed in Sicily and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His dissertation focuses on the ethics of war.