When the masses silent the wise

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When the masses silent the wise


The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion remains as a lasting blot on U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s profile. Fresh into his presidency, Kennedy approved a Central Intelligence Agency-planned military campaign to sabotage and overthrow the new socialist government led by Fidel Castro. The CIA naively believed that it could disguise the invasion as an anti-Castro guerilla activity. But as soon as the 1,400-man invading force landed on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, they were swamped and defeated by heavily armed Cuban combatants. The Kennedy administration immediately came under fire for unsophisticated military maneuvering at home and abroad during the tenuous and sensitive Cold War period.

Arthur Schlesinger, a historian who served as special assistant to Kennedy during the period, recalled later that although he opposed the plan as it could “fix a malevolent image of the new administration in the minds of millions,” he held back his opinion lest he undermine the president’s desire for a unanimous decision. Following the plan’s failure, he lamented, “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.”

Shouting “no” when everyone else is saying “yes” requires enormous courage and responsibility. Such hasty, uncritical reasoning toward faulty decision-making is termed as “groupthink,” as identified by psychologist Irving Janis. In his 1972 book “Victims of Groupthink,” Janis singled out the Vietnam War and Bay of Pigs invasion as particularly compelling examples of how a group of smart people can make collectively foolish decisions.

Desire for unanimity and conformity, repulsion against outside opinions and panic in a state of emergency all can motivate a faulty “groupthink.” Such circumstances leave no room for in-depth discussions and the voice of reason is easily silenced by the multitude’s louder noise.

We see and hear this happen every day in our society. Led by militant unionists, the long and violent strikes ruined Ssangyong Motor’s workplace, at the same time taking a toll on the local and national economies. Despite repeated calls from other members to return to the National Assembly, executive members of the main opposition Democratic Party continue to stage protests on the streets.

Kennedy learned his lesson from the Bay of Pigs failure and took a different path in coping with the Cuban missile crisis that took place the year after. He encouraged dialogue between experts on international issues, and this scrutiny helped prevent a catastrophic nuclear confrontation.

Our politicians must learn, too, that mistakes can be made. But what’s important is to admit them, then learn from them to avoid making more.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Shin Ye-ri [shiny@joongang.co.kr]

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