Talk At The Brink

Title:                      Talk At The Brink

Author:                  David R. Gibson

Gibson, David R. (2012). Talk At The Brink: Deliberation And Decision During The Cuban Missile Crisis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

LCCN:    2011049042

E841 .G53 2012


  • Introduction: Talk in time of crisis — The future in thought and talk — The ExComm — The response — The blockade — The deal — Conclusion.


Date Posted:      April 13, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

David Gibson is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in the meaning of conversation, or talk. He characterizes the main argument of Talk At The Brink as follows:

Insofar as a decision arises out of talk, and there is no “right” answer simply waiting to be discovered or decreed, that decision emerges from an intersection of individuals’ perspectives and interests; conversational rules, procedures, and vicissitude; and external events that may impinge on the decision making process before it has run its course. (p. 159)

Gibson’s analysis is based on the now-public recordings of conversations of President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Committee (ExComm)-the core group of NSC members and White House advisors that met throughout the crisis. Although Gibson acknowledges that “Kennedy was the person who would ultimately make the crucial decisions and who would principally be held accountable for them,” (p. 72) the concept that the president’s decisions resulted from a spirited exchange of ideas is too simplistic, from his point of view. Those who have accepted that interpretation are judged incorrect for reasons Gibson enumerates.

To make his point, Gibson provides an extensive review of the ExComm and how it functioned, quoting many exchanges. There follow several chapters of detailed analysis of the conversations, many portions of which are reproduced. He notes that Kennedy himself described “the decision making process as impenetrable … mysterious even to those most intimately involved.” He goes on to suggest that Kennedy would have been surprised if he thought that decision-making involved “a cerebral exercise in which the decision maker was entirely in charge and at the mercy of his … cognitive limitations [and] the information available.” (p. 165) No one knows what Kennedy thought on the subject, but Gibson does not make clear why he would have been surprised.

Gibson relies heavily for his views on the disorganized and repetitive nature of the ExComm’s discussions. Here he employs often esoteric social science concepts. Nevertheless, for nonsociologists, the interpretations found in Talk At The Brink do not discount the simpler explanation that Kennedy considered all the evidence, as disorderly as it was, and simply made the decision that he thought would avoid a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 126-127). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

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