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Groupthink and the Presidency

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
March 28, 2022

It is a clear and present danger when key members of presidential administrations begin to “massage each other’s hearts” when deliberating in advance of major presidential policy decisions. Instead, they might consider doggedly “murder-boarding” their own thinking as a group to create safeguards against groupthink. Groupthink has gotten administrations in trouble and as a direct consequence, endangered the American people.

JFK’s Bay of Pigs Disaster

The classic example of groupthink occurred in 1961 as President Kennedy’s cabinet considered Allen Dulles’s CIA plan to overthrow Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro. This was a half-baked plan that originated in the Eisenhower administration when folks were growing weary of dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. The United States had, in retrospect, wrongly supported Batista, enjoying lavish extravagances in casinos and clubs in Havana—something that would automatically be challenged as unacceptable in today’s political climate. It seemed the time to make things right: get rid of Batista who had murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years. Fidel Castro led a successful revolution against Batista and shortly after that, the proverbial stuff hit the fan with JFK’s Bay of Pigs disaster.

How could Kennedy have so badly miscalculated and approved such a terrible plan? After all, he discussed the plan ad nauseum with his team of “whiz kids” such as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Added to that mix were advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and CIA Director Allen Dulles. Basically, 1,400 Cuban exiles from Guatemala who had already been trained by the CIA, would do a beaching, supported with artillery, at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). After securing the beachhead, they would then march on Havana. The planners counted on the Cuban people to support the invaders and the coup against Castro—an essential part of the plan. After the coup, communism would be stopped in its tracks and the administration would enjoy a major win. Oh, what a marvelous plan the whiz kids asserted. Their plan disintegrated into chaos when JFK pulled air and naval support because he didn’t want it perceived that this was a US-led operation. In three days, 20,000 Cuban soldiers easily defeated the 1,400 Cuban exiles, killing about 200 of them and taking the rest as prisoners. Castro, the national hero, subsequently solidified political and economic partnership with the Soviet Union. Kennedy was so shamed that he cried, “How could I have been so stupid?”

In the administration’s after-action reviews (AAR), Kennedy did a great deal of learning. The basic problem was that none of Kennedy’s advisors brought up any concerns that the mission might just fail. They did not want to go against the grain, be seen as a person who was “not on the team” or “soft.” Schlesinger even went so far as to say that he believed if only one person talked against the plan, that JFK would have asked for another plan. This was the essence of groupthink in action. General Secretary Khrushchev concluded that Kennedy was soft and inexperienced, paving the way for him to install Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Lessons in Leadership from Understanding Groupthink

Although the case study of the Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missiles Crisis is an older one, it remains very valuable in teaching emerging leaders the power of developing alternatives and introducing constructive confrontation in groups. In fact, Kennedy’s experience paved the way for reformation in presidential administrations as to how they deliberate in groups and how they advise the president. I believe that every new administration should undergo such learning from these case studies at the beginning of their term.

There were some notable leadership lessons learned from the Bay of Pigs and the negative effects of groupthink:

  • Concentrate on informality when conducting brainstorming sessions. Formality takes way too much time and usually cripples free thinking, especially when coming up with workable alternatives.
  • Use sub-groups as appropriate.
  • The team and sub-groups should meet sometimes with the President (to both hear his viewpoint firsthand and gage his/her reaction on raised ideas) and sometimes without (to avoid just wanting to play up to the leader).
  • Each person should not only see his/her piece of the problem, such as the military concentrating only on military operations, but on the totality of the challenge or mission. Decide on how best your department can help the overall success of the operation, not just segmented success.

Summary

I have generally observed much groupthink in recent years, and it is not attached to any one party or ideology. With respect to political parties, groupthink has caused much more polarization, running to the extremes of each party’s boundaries. That is causing distrust and the misconception that one can never be too liberal or too conservative. We need more truth-tellers—those who think rationally about each single issue, seeing them under a realist perspective, and being unafraid of criticism. We need public administrators who gain the respect and trust of those they serve by being authentic and not practitioners of groupthink. When that happens, we will all be much better served by our government.


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, government & politics to AP seniors, and leadership to organizations. The Governor of Texas appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Robert_Brescia.

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