The Bay of Pigs invasion is a spectacular example of how wilful blindness can be amplified by group dynamics and cause even the most brilliant people to make stupid mistakes. How could John F Kennedy and his inner circle be so wilfully blind? What did the Kennedy administration learn from this humiliating failure and how can these lessons help today’s trustees make better decisions?
1960s Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962, President John F Kennedy with general Curtis Lemay & aides discuss surveillance of Cuba
Kennedy's presidential honeymoon ended in humiliation
The 1960 US Presidential election brought a tight race between John F Kennedy and vice president Richard Nixon. Kennedy was behind in the polls but gained in the polls after his successful performance in the televised candidate debates. Just before the last debate, Kennedy made a shrewd political move and advocated for US interventions in Cuba. This made Nixon appear weak since the republicans had ‘only’ implemented an embargo and Nixon could not reveal that the CIA had been tasked with planning an invasion. Some argue that this bold political move convinced enough swing voters to give Kennedy the upper hand in the election.
As President, Kennedy inherited the invasion plan from the previous Eisenhower administration. The covert operation, developed by the CIA, was simple; organise and arm exiled-Cubans for a contra-revolution. The first step was to establish a bridgehead on Cuban territory. Then the CIA-controlled Cuban government in exile would join the contra-revolutionaries, proclaim the ‘liberated’ Cuba and ask for international assistance. This was a smoke and mirror approach, which would allow Kennedy to invade Cuba without breaking international treaties and risk the Soviets making a move on West-Berlin.
Through the CIA the Americans had access to an airfield in an inaccessible part of Guatemala and set up a training camp. Contra-revolutionaries were recruited among exiled Cubans in Miami, calling themselves Brigade 2506. The CIA recruited pilots and purchased a few decommissioned B-26 aircraft, disguising them as Cuban air force. The plan to destroy Castro’s small air force while it still was on the ground, before an armada of assorted ships carrying Brigade 2506 would storm the beaches of the Bay of Pigs and establish the bridgehead.
The invasion started on April 17, 1961. The first wave of attacks on the Cuban air force caused only minor damage. On Kennedy’s direct order further air attacks were cancelled. When approaching the beaches at Bay of Pigs, Brigade 2506 discovered that there were razor sharp underwater coral reefs that made it impossible to get to the beach and offload the material as planned. The ill-prepared invasion turned into a logistical nightmare while Castro’s air force dominated the skies. Three days later it was all over and the members of Brigade 2506 were either killed or imprisoned. Castro and Khrushchev gloated to the United Nations and the total humiliation was a fact.
A showcase of wilful blindness
Kennedy had gathered some of the smartest people in his inner circle. How could all of these brilliant people be wilfully blind to the shortcomings of the plan? The quick answer: a combination of human biases, amplified by groupthink, played a critical role.
Most individuals in Kennedy’s inner circle were well-educated, upper-class and highly successful men, who had given up stellar careers in the private sector. As individuals, they were not used to failure, which makes it easy to become overconfident, while the homogeneity of the group as a whole also presented vulnerabilities.
Although the invasion plan seemed relatively straightforward, it relied to a large extent on one crucial assumption. There were strong beliefs that the Cuban population hated Castro and as soon as they heard about a contra-revolution they would rebel and force Castro to flee the country. This intelligence was heavily coloured by exiled Cubans in Miami, but since it confirmed their beliefs, this assumption was not adequately challenged.
The critical decision to go ahead was taken in a meeting ten days before the invasion. To provide an opposing view, Kennedy had invited Senator Fulbright to present his perspective on the invasion plan. Fulbright highlighted several weaknesses in the plan and argued that it was against American values and principles. In terms of group dynamics, Fulbright’s speech acted as a decoy which galvanised Kennedy’s inner circle. The group considered Fulbright to be an ‘external’ threat and closed rank – the debate was over. Many individuals in the inner circle later reported that they did not believe in the plan but still voted for it, a sign of groupthink leading to self-censorship.
During the operation’s early phase, Kennedy made the executive decision to cancel the second wave of air attacks. The chances of success went from slim to none. If Kennedy was in doubt, he should have cancelled the invasion altogether instead of continuing half-heartedly. One explanation is that Kennedy was mentally framed by his election promise of removing Castro and that his commitment toward the invasion plans escalated.
Culture and process for dealing with wilful blindness
The Bay of Pigs invasion shows that even the most brilliant and successful people can be wilfully blind and that group dynamics, if not managed, can derail any decision-making process. Kennedy shouldered the responsibility for the failed invasion in public. In his own cabinet meeting he said, “There is only one person in the clear – that’s Bill Fulbright”.
The analysis concluded Senator Fulbright’s arguments were basically discarded because they came from an outsider with respect to the inner circle. To break groupthink, it helps if the Devil’s advocate is an insider of the group, as this can help to eliminate the introduction of a ‘we-them’ framing. The Kennedy administration identified the following areas of improvement:
As commander in chief, the President is responsible for all military operations. Kennedy acknowledged that he had put too much trust in the expertise of the CIA and his military advisors instead of taking sufficient responsibility for the plan.
The administration concluded that the culture in the White House had to change and at the centre of this change was the President himself. Kennedy was asked to stop his habit of rearranging his meetings at the last minute and have a fixed daily security briefing. To better serve their President, he empowered his staff to speak up, express their opinions and even second-guess military plans.
During the Bay of Pigs invasion, the intel from the different agencies and military branches was not always up to date when it reached the President. To resolve this issue, the Situation Room was created in the basement of the White House. This was a Cold War command centre plugged into all information streams, putting the President at the centre of the information flow.
A field test of the improved decision process
The Cold War era can be described as a dog eat dog world. Kennedy’s unwillingness to deploy US military forces and thereby letting the invasion fail was interpreted as a sign of weakness by Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Bloc. To show strength, Kennedy stepped up the American activities in Vietnam and responded immediately to the Soviets’ successful launch of a human into space by challenging the Americans to put a man on the moon.
The lessons learned from the Bay of Pigs failure were soon to be put to test. Just over a year after the failed invasion of Cuba, the Cold War escalated and peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 -bringing the world to the brink of a full-blown nuclear war. During this crisis, Kennedy and his inner circle were able to respond resolutely to navigate the crisis. The same President and to a large extent, the same inner circle, were able to improve the way they approach a problem, analyse information and make decisions to better deal with their wilful blindness.
How can trustees deal with wilful blindness?
The board of trustees is the commander in chief of a pension scheme and face the same challenges of wilful blindness as presidents and prime ministers. As commander-in-chief, you are ultimately responsible for members’ financial outcomes and safely navigating your scheme towards the targeted endgame.
Wilful blindness can be amplified by group dynamics, leading to self-censorship and overreliance on expert advice. How many times do we hear stories of trustees just letting the experts make the decisions without challenging them. The Kennedy administration learned this the hard way and they introduced several de-biasing tools to mitigate groupthink that are just as relevant today as they were back then.
As a trustee you must see beyond your advisor’s PowerPoint presentations and their complicated technical calculations. This includes challenging the expert’s fundamental assumptions as well as their chain of logic. Trust your common sense, instead of just following the conventional wisdom, and take ownership of the strategy.
Make sure that there is diversity in thinking around the decision table and apply de-bias tools to actively mitigate groupthink. Create a culture where you demand that your advisors collaborate instead of working in isolation. Systematically create constructive conflicts to challenge conventional wisdom and hopefully unravel some wilful blindness. Don’t hesitate to challenge your advisors to bring innovative thinking and spot potential weaknesses.
At the decision table, it is important that you have both correct and compatible information from the different branches of expertise. Each piece of information needs to be analysed in a joint framework such as “Integrated Risk Management (IRM)”. Aggregated information should provide an objective description of the scheme’s current economic reality and you could therefore consider a wisely implemented IRM framework as your Situation Room.
When applying these tools in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and his inner circle did not know how the Soviet leader Khrushchev would respond to their actions. Therefore, they had to consider the potential consequences across a range of scenarios that could play out, including a doomsday scenario, when choosing between different actions. Pension schemes are in a somewhat similar situation, since we do not know how the financial market, or the financial strength of the scheme sponsor, will develop in the future. To avoid becoming wilfully blind in an everchanging world, we should not overly rely on detailed long-term planning based on statistical models. Instead, we should think in terms of scenarios and be prepared for whatever the world might throw at us as we navigate schemes towards the targeted end game.
Tools for dealing with wilful blindness will be discussed at the Imagine Conference on Wednesday 12 February 2020.