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That 3 A.M. Phone Call

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
May 11, 2008


“Mr. President, I’m sorry to wake you, but…” Then the national security adviser pours out the bad news—which it inevitably is at that early hour.

Thanks to the current Presidential race, the 3 a.m. phone call is etched into voters’ minds. Which of the candidates will be alert and experienced enough to make the right decision? Will the call result in an order to launch missiles or wait, a directive to rescue hostages or negotiate? The ability to handle the call is now seen as a test of fitness for the Oval Office.

The reality of the 3 a.m. call, however, is both less dramatic and less telling than most Americans think.  But it is revealing of how our government works—which is pretty good at such moments—and of the attendant political and media pressures.

The issue first surfaced with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when senior CIA officials phoned McGeorge Bundy, John F. Kennedy’s national security adviser, before midnight to say that analysts believed new aerial photos proved that Moscow had deployed nuclear-capable rockets in Cuba . But Bundy knew that the President had had a hard day and didn’t tell him about the photos until the next morning. Months after the crisis had abated, JFK asked Bundy why he had not been called. Bundy replied flippantly that the President could explain it however he wished in his memoirs.

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