Negotiation lessons from the most dangerous thirteen days in history

Posted on March 5th, 2014 by

negotiation in the missile crisis

Negotiation is a sequence of events that builds and reinforces perception and beliefs and ends either with an agreement being reached or with one party walking away.

But, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, neither the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev nor John F Kennedy, the president of the USA, were able to walk away from the row over Russian nuclear missiles being sited in Cuba.

The crisis was a standoff whereby an agreement had to be reached or it could have triggered the start of nuclear war, resulting in mass casualties and devastating consequences for the whole world.

Neither party in the beginning had fully understood their bargaining strengths properly and only realised after events had begun to spiral that there were no real grounds for a nuclear agreement. Both parties had to take a step back and consider other options (the principle of BATNA – Best Alternative To No Agreement).

Let’s look at Khrushchev as the seller and Kennedy as the buyer. Khrushchev was trying to sell the idea to America that the Soviet Union could not be dominated. Khrushchev had an issue with America’s placing of nuclear missiles in Turkey. He felt threatened, and emotions of power, threat and pressure drove Khrushchev to the brink of nuclear war.

The Soviets had formed an economic and military alliance with Fidel Castro, who led the Communist party of Cuba. After a failed attempt by the US to overthrow the Cuban regime, Castro agreed with Khrushchev that Russia should place nuclear missiles in Cuba to act as a future deterrent to the US and to redress the imbalance of power created by American situating its missiles in Turkey.

As buyer, Kennedy was resisting the Soviet’s actions; refusing to negotiate publicly, but in the background – within his own counsel – he was constantly establishing negotiating ploys and positions to take if matters developed.

So what are the modern steps in any negotiation and how did Kennedy and Khrushchev manage these steps?


A negotiation plan is essential for complex projects in order to align the negotiation team to a structured and informed approach and to facilitate the anticipation of the supplier’s position. Knowledge is power and gives the negotiation team both confidence and professionalism.

Rather than following a researched plan, Khrushchev acted on impulse (emotion). He planned a secret mission whereby he arranged for nuclear missiles to be transported to Cuba without Kennedy’s knowledge. When Kennedy subsequently found out about the missiles in Cuba, he called immediately for a blockade (quarantine) on all Cuban water borders to stop Khrushchev transporting further missiles to the country.

Khrushchev at this point was blind and did not know what Kennedy was planning, nor did he know what intelligence Kennedy had about their nuclear operation; neither party had a strategy and there was no clear view on how to approach the situation and how to negotiate a solution.


Conditioning should normally be planned early in the development of any sourcing strategy. Neither party used conditioning as a precursor to their hostilities: part of the strategy was to be secretive rather than to openly influence the other party.

The days that followed the instigation of the blockade witnessed extensive conditioning by each party though, with Castro also playing his hand. On 27 October 1962, known today as “Black Saturday”, miscommunications were sent by both sides, and deliberate acts of misdirection, bluffs and statements were made – including a notable speech by President Kennedy (using power/threat) that he would do whatever was necessary and not back down, yet at the same time putting the ball back in Khrushchev’s court by arranging a blockade on Cuba, and saying he would not prematurely or unnecessarily start a nuclear war.

Opening discussions

The opening should be conducted by the lead negotiator according to the negotiation plan. This is the point at which you can identify what position the other party is in and look for signs of stress, weakness and emotion. These all provide opportunities that will help you to identify in which direction the negotiations are going.

Discussions started on ‘Black Saturday’ between both parties. Khrushchev started feeling overwhelmed at not having full control, and wanted a way out. He wrote a letter to Kennedy saying “and a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it”, showing his uncertainty.

Photo of a Russian Nuclear Missile

Khrushchev felt personally responsible and started visualising a real nuclear war. In a second letter, he wanted Kennedy to remove missiles from Turkey, the first real attempt by the Soviet Union to make a demand. Khrushchev then sent a further letter stating for the first time that all missiles in Cuba will be destroyed if America removed all their nuclear missiles from Turkey.


When Kennedy received the letter from Khrushchev stating that he wanted to clear all missiles, he, unsure of his next action, consulted his advisors. Kennedy’s advisors at this point unilaterally wanted to bomb the nuclear missiles in Cuba and retain their nuclear missiles in Turkey. To them, a negotiated settlement without this was not an option.

The strength of Kennedy as lead negotiator was resolute. He used logic and reason on his own team, asking them why it was acceptable for America to threaten Russia with hostile missiles in Turkey, yet, not acceptable for them to retaliate with missiles in Cuba. Kennedy also reasoned that the missiles deployed in Turkey were in fact dated and would need replacing soon anyway, so a major capital expenditure programme would be necessary.

Acting against advice, Kennedy put forward a compromise; that America would destroy the missiles in Turkey if the Soviet Union destroyed their missiles in Cuba. Only at this point did both parties know about each other’s expectations.

So, like in a lot of tactical negotiations, each side had pushed each other into a corner, with the effect that, when the ego was attacked, defence mechanisms kicked in and the ‘truth’ became hidden. Kennedy’s advisors all started to rally behind an ‘outcome’ without finding out what the true motives for the offensive actions from the Soviet Union were. Khrushchev wanted to show power (to counter-balance America’s act of power) and wanted America to discard the nuclear missiles that threatened Russia.

Testing, moving and closing

In this next phase, movements are now made based on fall-back positions and tradable elements. If Kennedy did not remove the missiles from Turkey, would this have meant the start of a nuclear war? Agreement resulted in withdrawal of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles from Cuba and withdrawal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. There was also further agreements with the Soviet Union; that the America would never invade Cuba without direct provocation and that a nuclear hotline was created between America and the Soviet Union to mitigate future risks.

Like in many negotiations, a real roadblock had been established: if neither party agreed to the above, then the BATNA was undoubtedly war. However, fear saved the day. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev experienced the existential fear of a nuclear war and the destruction of civilisation as they knew it.

So what can be learned from this?

Kennedy had to seek advice and include his advisors before making a decision. Yes, he did choose to disagree with them, but Kennedy knew that Khrushchev was in a position that he wanted to get out of. Khrushchev showed emotions and lack of control over the situation, which gave Kennedy the advantage to act on Khrushchev’s reactions. Kennedy also knew his BATNA. What would happen if the fall-back was not achieved? Walk away and risk a nuclear war? Listen to his advisors and bomb Khrushchev’s missile operation and still risk a nuclear attack?

Many methods of persuasion were deployed at different junctures throughout the negotiation: logic and reasoning were applied, along with power, threat and coercion, emotion, anger and intimidation. Both sides played their cards and the lead negotiators showed their own styles and strength of character in remaining ‘open’ to options and being principled in determining an outcome that suited both parties where ultimately a “win/win” scenario was achieved. There was no “win/lose” in this negotiation: both sides gained. The respective leaders also learnt a lot about their foe in these times of the Cold War.

Lessons for our own negotiations

  • People and their behaviours are key dynamics and play a vital role in any negotiation.
  • Do your research: make sure your counterpart isn’t able to show you an unexpected hand
  • Think of the wider ramifications of the negotiations, they may not be as drastic as nuclear war but what effects, good and bad, will negotiations have on you and your stakeholders?
  • Consider the basis for your party’s reasoning: if the decision seems emotional or it is in the personal interests of one person rather than the interests of the company, consider alternatives

Are there any other lessons that should be taken away from this frightening period in history?

For more information on the modern steps of a negotiation download SpringTide’s free ‘Guide to Negotiation’. Inside we include real life anecdotes from our years as practitioners; leading simple and complex negotiations, and disucss the latest theories and approaches that will revitalise your negotiations.