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Crisis Management at the Dead Center: The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank Micah Zenko, Jorge Dominguez, Ernest May, Trygve Throntveit, Samuel Lissner, David Feith, Emily Cunningham, Amy Cunningham, and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and criticisms on drafts of this article.

Rebecca Friedman is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining CFR, she researched presidential transitions and national security at Harvard University.


Foreign policy decision making during presidential transitions is an inherently difficult challenge. By examining the 1960-1961 presidential transition and resulting Bay of Pigs fiasco, this article demonstrates that there are six independent, causal variables that best determine the success or failure of foreign policy decision making during presidential transitions: national security decision-making structure, availability of information relevant to the substance and history of the crisis and its policy responses; focus of time and resources; relevant campaign commitments; “newness” of the incoming administration; and “inheritedness” of the policy. Three of President John F. Kennedy's most important Bay of Pigs decisions are explained using this six-variable framework. Drawing from the lessons of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, recommendations are offered for how to improve future national security transitions.