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Talk at the Brink:
Deliberation and Decision during the Cuban Missile Crisis
David R. Gibson

Winner of the 2013 Melvin Pollner Prize, Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis Section of the American Sociological Association

Hardcover | 2012 | $42.00 | £34.95 | ISBN: 9780691151311
256 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 47 line illus. 1 table.
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In October 1962, the fate of the world hung on the American response to the discovery of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba. That response was informed by hours of discussions between John F. Kennedy and his top advisers. What those advisers did not know was that President Kennedy was secretly taping their talks, providing future scholars with a rare inside look at high-level political deliberation in a moment of crisis. Talk at the Brink is the first book to examine these historic audio recordings from a sociological perspective. It reveals how conversational practices and dynamics shaped Kennedy's perception of the options available to him, thereby influencing his decisions and ultimately the outcome of the crisis.

David Gibson looks not just at the positions taken by Kennedy and his advisers but how those positions were articulated, challenged, revised, and sometimes ignored. He argues that Kennedy's decisions arose from the intersection of distant events unfolding in Cuba, Moscow, and the high seas with the immediate conversational minutia of turn-taking, storytelling, argument, and justification. In particular, Gibson shows how Kennedy's group told and retold particular stories again and again, sometimes settling upon a course of action only after the most frightening consequences were omitted or actively suppressed.

Talk at the Brink presents an image of Kennedy's response to the Cuban missile crisis that is sharply at odds with previous scholarship, and has important implications for our understanding of decision making, deliberation, social interaction, and historical contingency.


"[W]ith his thorough and incisive analysis of the ExComm meetings, David Gibson has provided a new, refreshing, and disturbing look at how US decision-makers responded to the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba."--Asa McKercher, Dzplomacy & Statecraft

"For its empirical contribution alone, Talk at the Brink is required reading for scholars of Cold War history and American politics. The writing is witty and uncluttered, while the raw intimacy of the back-and-forth among ExComm members, as rendered by the painstakingly precise transcription and coding, makes for a rather riveting and eminently teachable experience."--Phaedra Daipha, American Journal of Sociology

"Gibson's Talk at the Brink is a stimulating and insightful contribution to scholarship on one of the single most important events in American history of the past sixty years--the Cuban Missile Crisis. . . . The book is well worth a read, and a place on your bookshelf."--Erik Schneiderhan, Oxford University Press


"The ping-pong match known as the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 is reinterpreted in this brilliant, analytic exposé. David Gibson sheds landmark new light on the terse diplomacy between Kennedy and Khrushchev. His research is prodigious. Highly recommended!"--Douglas Brinkley, Rice University

"Some phenomena are so important, so consequential, that they are worth putting under a microscope. If true for the cells of a human being, why not apply another kind of microscope to the crisis conversations skirting the edge of global thermonuclear war? That is what Gibson has done, giving us a renewed sense of indeterminacy about the whole event. It takes a rare kind of historical sociologist to find this extra depth of understanding."--Philip Zelikow, University of Virginia, coauthor of Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Table of Contents:

List of Illustrations and Excerpts ix
Preface xi

Chapter 1 - Introduction: Talk in Time of Crisis 1
Chapter 2 - The Future in Thought and Talk 24
Chapter 3 - The ExComm 49
Chapter 4 - The Response 74
Chapter 5 - The Blockade 109
Chapter 6 - The Deal 135
Chapter 7 - Conclusion 159

Appendix A - Timeline of Events and ExComm Meetings 167
Appendix B - Dramatis Personae 175
Appendix C - Conversation-Analytic Transcribing Conventions 177
Appendix D - The Audio Recordings 181

Notes 183
Bibliography 203
Index 213

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