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Power and Politics – The Prisoner’s Dilemma

On this page you will learn about the political game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma in relation to global Cold War politics.

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As both sides built up massive arsenals of nuclear arms, it became clear that the Cold War had put the world in the most dangerous situation it had faced yet. The military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction emerged during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, and was put to the test during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union had allied itself with communist Cuba, and, in 1962, was caught building a nuclear warhead on the island, only 90 miles from U.S. soil.

After many secret meetings with his top advisors, President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade around Cuba to cut off Soviet military supply lines, and ordered the Soviet Union to remove the missile and destroy its production site. Kennedy wrote to Soviet leader Khrushchev reminding him of the “catastrophic consequences” this crisis would have for the world if it were not solved peacefully.

The two leaders of the world’s greatest powers wrote back and forth to each other for several days, questioning each other’s true motives and eventually negotiating terms of settlement.  After 13 days of crisis, the Soviet Union finally agrees to remove the missile in exchange (primary documents) for the United States lifting the naval blockade on Cuba and agreeing not invade the country.

In this case the “prisoner’s” dilemma is clear: each side can cooperate avoid annihilating each other, or they can defect and shoot first, guaranteeing total destruction of their countries and significant portion of the world.

Despite the crisis, the nuclear buildup continued. Neither side had an incentive to reduce their arsenal while the other grew theirs; however, MAD and the game theory behind it more or less guaranteed that neither side would ever actually use a nuclear missile, and luckily for the world, they never did.

Video: What Is the Prisoner’s Dilemma?


Credits: This page curated by CES.