JFK and Groupthink: Lessons in Decision Making

JFK’s Legacy and Groupthink

Have you ever been part of a group that was making an important decision and you felt uncomfortable with the direction things were headed? Maybe it was a business or academic committee, a social group, a church board, a government agency. Did you speak up? Or did you keep your concerns to yourself? And what was the outcome of the group’s decision? Do you ever wish you had voiced your reservations more strongly?

Perhaps you can identify with John F. Kennedy.

Forty years after his tragic death, President Kennedy continues to fascinate the public. A new JFK biography{1} hit the bestseller lists. Analysts dissect his political and oratorical skills, his character and legacy. His relatives — America’s royalty in some eyes — are frequent newsmakers.

The youthful president has engendered both inspiration and disappointment. Major initiatives that he sponsored or influenced touch society today: the space program, the Peace Corp, and economic sanctions against Cuba, to name a few.

A fascinating facet of Kennedy’s legacy involves the decision- making procedures he used among his closest advisors. Some brought great successes. Others were serious failures. This article looks at two specific examples: the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, an attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro that became a fiasco, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that saw the world come perilously close to nuclear war.

Yale social psychologist Irving Janis studied these episodes carefully and concluded that too often decision makers are blinded by their own needs for self-esteem they get from being an accepted member of a socially important insiders group. Fears of shattering the warm feelings of perceived unanimity — of rocking the boat — kept some of Kennedy’s advisors from objecting to the Bay of Pigs plan before it was too late. After that huge blunder, JFK revamped his decision-making process to encourage dissent and critical evaluation among his team. In the Cuban missile crisis, virtually the same policymakers produced superior results.{2}

“Groupthink” was the term Janis used for the phenomenon of flawed group dynamics that can let bad ideas go unchallenged and can sometimes yield disastrous outcomes. This article will consider how groupthink might have affected JFK and a major television enterprise, and how it can affect you.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion

“How could I have been so stupid?”{3} President John F. Kennedy asked that after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He called it a “colossal mistake.”{4} It left him feeling depressed, guilty, bitter, and in tears.{5} One historian later called the Bay of Pigs, “one of those rare events in history — a perfect failure.”{6}

What happened? In 1961, CIA and military leaders wanted to use Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro. After lengthy consideration among his top advisors, Kennedy approved a covert invasion. Advance press reports alerted Castro to the threat. Over 1,400 invaders at the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) were vastly outnumbered. Lacking air support, necessary ammunition and an escape route, nearly 1,200 surrendered. Others died.

Declassified CIA documents help illuminate the invasion’s flaws. Top CIA leaders blamed Kennedy for not authorizing vital air strikes. Other CIA analysts fault the wishful thinking that the invasion would stimulate an uprising among Cuba’s populace and military. Planners assumed the invaders could simply fade into the mountains for guerilla operations. Trouble was, eighty miles of swampland separated the bay from the mountains. The list goes on.{7}

Irving Janis felt that Kennedy’s top advisors were unwilling to challenge bad ideas because it might disturb perceived or desired group concurrence. Presidential advisor Arthur Schlesinger, for instance, presented serious objections to the invasion in a memorandum to the president, but suppressed his doubts at the team meetings. Attorney General Robert Kennedy privately admonished Schlesinger to support the president’s decision to invade. At one crucial meeting, JFK called on each member for his vote for or against the invasion. Each member, that is, except Schlesinger — whom he knew to have serious concerns. Many members assumed other members agreed with the invasion plan.{8}

Schlesinger later lamented, “In the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions in the cabinet room.” He continued, “I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one’s impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion.”{9}

Have you ever kept silent when you felt you should speak up? President Kennedy later revised his group decision-making process to encourage dissent and debate. The change helped avert a nuclear catastrophe, as we will see.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

Ever face tough decisions? How would you feel if your wrong decision might mean nuclear war? Consider a time when the world teetered on the brink of disaster.{10}

Stung by the Bay of Pigs debacle, President Kennedy determined to ask hard questions during future crises.{11} A good opportunity came eighteen months later.

In October 1962, aerial photographs showed Soviet missile sites in Cuba.{12} The missile program, if allowed to continue, could reach most of the United States with nuclear warheads.{13} Kennedy’s first inclination was an air strike to take out the missiles.{14} His top advisors debated alternatives from bombing and invasion to blockade and negotiation.{15}

On October 22, Kennedy set forth an ultimatum in a televised address: A U.S. naval “quarantine” would block further offensive weapons from reaching Cuba. Russia must promptly dismantle and withdraw all offensive weapons. Use of the missiles would bring attacks against the Soviet Union.{16}

The U.S. Navy blockaded Cuba. Soviets readied their forces. The Pentagon directed the Strategic Air Command to begin a nuclear alert. On October 24, the world held its breath as six Soviet ships approached the blockade. Then, all six ships either stopped or reversed course.{17} Secretary of State Dean Rusk told a colleague, “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”{18}

A maze of negotiations ensued. At the United Nations, U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson publicly pressed his Soviet counterpart to confirm or deny Soviet missiles’ existence in Cuba. Saying he was prepared to wait for an answer “until hell freezes over,” Stevenson then displayed reconnaissance photos to the Security Council.{19} Eventually, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev removed the missiles.{20}

Kennedy’s decision-making process — though imperfect — had evolved significantly. He challenged military leaders who pressured him to bomb and invade. He heard the CIA’s case for air strikes and Stevenson’s counsel for negotiation. Advocates for different views developed their arguments in committees then met back together.{21} Robert Kennedy later wrote, “The fact that we were able to talk, debate, argue, disagree, and then debate some more was essential in choosing our ultimate course.”{22} Many groupthink mistakes of the Bay of Pigs, in which bad ideas went unchallenged, had been avoided.{23}

Groupthink has serious ramifications for government, business, academia, neighborhood, family, and the ministry. One area it has affected is Christian television.

Groupthink and the Seductive Televangelist

Once upon a time, a prominent Christian televangelist, despondent about his rocky marriage, had sexual intercourse with a church secretary.

This televangelist and his wife regularly appeared on international TV, providing physical and spiritual care to hurting people. Television brought in millions of dollars. Their headquarters and conference center displayed a wholesome, positive atmosphere. Yet the operation was quite lavish and included an opulent five-star hotel, white limousine, corporate jet, and bloated salaries.

The distraught secretary contacted ministry headquarters, wanting justice. The ministry paid her hush money, laundered through their builder. Several insiders were aware of the sex scandal and cover up, but turned a blind eye. Many of these top leaders also enjoyed privilege, esteem, comfort, and wealth from the successful ministry.

Eventually, fearing media exposure, the televangelist confessed his sexual episode to the local newspaper and stepped down. The ensuing turmoil became an international soap opera complete with sexual intrigue, power struggles, and legal morass. The televangelist and his VP served prison terms. The builder’s wife divorced him because of his involvement with the televangelist’s wife, who divorced the televangelist, married the builder and tried to start another TV ministry.

After prison, the televangelist wrote a book admitting wrong{24}, joined an inner city ministry, and remarried. The church secretary had plastic surgery and posed nude for Playboy. The local newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize.

You may recognize this as the story of PTL and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.{25} Reporter Charles Shepard’s book about PTL, Forgiven{26}, stands as a timely warning to ministry leaders and boards of the temptations of fame and power.

The PTL scandal exhibited several possible symptoms of groupthink{27}, such as belief in the group’s inherent morality, rationalizations, stereotyping adversaries, and pressures to conform. Desires for approval, pride, greed, and a false sense of well-being stemming from being an accepted member of a wealthy, influential inner circle apparently stifled dissent. Leaders seemed to overlook problems for “the good of the ministry.” Richard Dortch, Bakker’s second in command, later admitted, “We were wrong. I should have refused the kind of salary I took. . . . We were so caught up in God’s work that we forgot about God. It took the tragedy, the kick in the teeth, to bring us to our senses.”{28}

Groupthink can affect leaders of all stripes. What lessons might JFK and PTL have for you?

Groupthink and You

As we have seen, Kennedy’s presidency provides some potent examples of this psychological theory about flawed group decision-making. When the group culture overvalues internal agreement, members can become unrealistic.{29}

Symptoms of groupthink include:

  • Illusions of invulnerability: “No one can defeat us.”
  • Belief in the group’s inherent morality: “We can do no wrong.”
  • Rationalizing away serious problems: “Danger signs? What danger signs?”
  • Stereotyping the opposition: “Those guys are too dumb or too weak to worry about.”
  • Illusions of unanimity: “Members who keep silent probably agree with the ones who speak out.”
  • Pressuring dissenters: “Look, are you a team player or not?”

JFK’s Bay of Pigs advisors accepted the CIA’s flawed plan almost without criticism. Leaders underestimated Castro’s military and political capability and overestimated their own. Jim Bakker and his PTL Christian ministry leaders rationalized away sexual and financial impropriety, to their peril.

Of course, not every group succumbs to groupthink. Nor does groupthink explain every bad group decision (decision makers could be inept, greedy or just plain evil, for example).

What about you? What can you do to avoid the groupthink trap? May I offer some suggestions, from a biblical perspective?

First: Determine to stand for what is right, regardless of the cost. Jesus of Nazareth, one who stood by his convictions of right, admonished followers to “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”{30}

Second: Determine to speak up when the situation warrants it. One of Jesus’ close friends said of certain people too fearful to speak up amidst opposition that “they loved the approval of…[humans] rather than the approval of God.”{31} How sad.

Third: Seek to structure groups to avoid blind conformity and encourage healthy debate. JFK once said, “When at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each of us, it will ask: Were we truly men of courage — with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies — and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates?”{32} Paul, a first-century follower of Jesus, encouraged group members to “admonish one another.”{33}

We all have a chance to leave a legacy. John Kennedy left his, which was mixed. PTL left a legacy, also mixed. What legacy will you leave?


1. Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003).

2. Irving L. Janis, “Groupthink,” Psychology Today 5:6, November 1971, 43-44, 46, 74-76. See also Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972).

3. Dallek, op. cit., p. 367.

4. Ibid., 375.

5. Ibid., 366.

6. Ibid., 363.

7. For a summary of the invasion and various assessments of its many flaws, see Ibid., 356-372; and Michael Warner, “Lessons Unlearned: The CIA’s Internal Probe of the Bay of Pigs Affair,” Studies in Intelligence: A collection of articles on the theoretical, doctrinal, operational and historical aspects of intelligence, 42:2, Winter 1998-1999, www.cia.gov/csi/studies/winter98-99/art08.html.

8. Janis 1971, op. cit., especially 46, 74.

9. Ibid., 74.

10. Most of the historical material for this section is taken from Dallek, op. cit., 535-574. Another useful summary of the Cuban missile crisis by a former New York Times reporter who covered it from Washington, D.C. — and became a participant, of sorts — is Max Frankel, “Learning from the Missile Crisis,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2002, www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues02/oct02/missile_crisis_full_1.html. For a collection of declassified documents from the crisis, see Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, eds., The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Documents Reader, 2nd edition (New York: The New Press, 1998); the Introduction is reproduced at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/declass.htm.

11. Dallek, op. cit., 368, 372.

12. Ibid., 544.

13. Ibid., 559.

14. Ibid., 547.

15. Ibid., 547-58.

16. Ibid., 558-59.

17. Ibid., 561-562.

18. Ibid., 562.

19. Ibid., 564-565.

20. Ibid., 562-572.

21. Ibid., 550-56.

22. Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 111; in Chang and Kornbluh, op. cit., Introduction, www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/declass.htm.

23. Janis 1971, op. cit., 76.

24. Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong: The Untold Story of the Shocking Journey from PTL Power to Prison and Beyond (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996).

25. See, for instance, Keith A. Roberts, Religion in Sociological Perspective, 3rd ed. (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995), 376-78. The PTL saga has reached textbook-case status.

26. Charles E. Shepard, Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991).

27. Janis 1971, op. cit., 44, 46, 74-75.

28. “Interview: ‘I Made Mistakes’,” Christianity Today, March 18, 1988, 46-47.

29. Janis 1971, op. cit.

30. Matthew 5:16 NLT.

31. John 12:43 NASB.

32. Dallek, op. cit., 535.

33. Colossians 3:16 NIV.


©2003 Probe Ministries.

Rusty Wright, former associate speaker and writer with Probe Ministries, is an international lecturer, award-winning author, and journalist who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

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