The anatomy of major foreign policy decisions is of lively interest to many scholars and practitioners alike. And the 1962 decision of the United States to impose a selective quarantine on Cuba, in order to compel extraction of Soviet offensive missiles, is certainly among the most interesting and studied of such events.

Abram Chayes, then chief Legal Advisor of the Department of State, has provided a valuable addition to existing accounts of the missile crisis. He persuasively documents the case that the quarantine decision was explicitly and substantially contingent upon major legal considerations, even though international law is a subject hardly broached by previous chroniclers of those tense days. His argument proceeds along three paths: 1) the quarantine option was legally most consistent with the circumstances then facing the United States; 2) the collective legitimacy conferred by approval in the Organization of American States was integral to this choice, not mere window dressing for U.S. action; 3) proceedings in the United Nations were carefully considered, owing to their potential to alter the circumstances of the American response (and they almost did). All of this is nicely woven into a narrative that includes the deliberations of 13 days recorded more extensively elsewhere. Thus, the book is not just a legalistic exposition. To the contrary, it portrays the principals as men also concerned with bureaucratic interests, public opinion, alliance politics, and their own consciences. And, along with the pleasures afforded by an insider’s commentary, this makes for balanced and enjoyable reading.

Operating from the specifics of the Cuban case, however, Chayes addresses the broader matter of the role of law in decision-making. From the case at hand he has shown that international law cannot adjudicate decisions or select among choices with any finality. Rather, legal norms are formative to the political processes by which choices are made and decisions implemented (here, choosing the quarantine and referring it to the OAS). Now although this stands as a reasonable proposition inferred from his study, the author might have lent it more credence by digressing at somewhat greater length into the circumstances in which the work of the Department of State’s Legal Advisor (and his counterparts in other departments) is introduced into the high councils of government. Granting that a single case cannot lay the matter to rest, the question is clearly relevant to the author’s overriding interest in “‘how’ law enters the policy-making process . . .” (p. 4).

Chayes has written an excellent case study, however, and its relevance to bureaucratic politics, crisis decision-making and management, and other analytic foci is apparent. In other words, the missile crisis is treated here in a fashion that invites comparison and integration with other scholarship. So careful and concise an effort merits that attention.