Yesterday Ashland University hosted a session of the National Security Decision Making Game, a simulation of international politics and warfare. I first learned of NSDM last summer at Origins, a game convention held annually in Columbus. After seeing it played there, my colleague Chris Burkett and I decided that it would be a great experience for students, and with financial support from the Ashbrook Center we made it happen.
The scenario we played was called "Cold War-1960s," beginning in 1960 and continuing until the players triggered a nuclear holocaust, or time ran out--whichever came first. I am glad to say that we managed to avoid the former (although there were some tactical nukes thrown around in Korea toward the end of the day).
The participants (mostly students, but with a few faculty as well) were divided into three teams, or "cells": the United States, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China. In addition, each player was assigned a particular role to play, and with each role came a specific set of objectives (which, by the way, were kept secret from the other players). Ultimately each participant was judged on the basis of his or her ability to meet those objectives.
I was assigned the role of John F. Kennedy--perhaps based on my ability to imitate his voice, although I think I sounded more like Mayor Joe Quimby from The Simpsons. The game began in the midst of the 1960 election campaign, which I won handily--again probably due to the fact that my teammates were amused by my Kennedy/Quimby impersonation. Immediately we encountered a host of crises--Che Guevara sponsored a coup in Belize, the president of the NAACP was assassinated (followed by urban riots in which the rioters were oddly armed with AK-47s--which, it turned out later, the Chinese had smuggled into the country), and my feeble attempt at a space program fizzled when a Mercury rocket blew up on the launchpad, killing John Glenn. When it came time for the next presidential election, I found myself challenged by, of all people, my own Secretary of State (damn that Dean Rusk). I lost, thanks (as the Russians tried to warn me about, but I only later learned it was true) to Rusk’s having arranged for the PRC to endorse my election to a second term.
It was probably good that I got out when I did. The Chinese sponsored a North Korean invasion of the South, and before we knew it the peninsula was overrun with a million screaming ChiComs. The world came within a whisper of nuclear war until a last-minute deal between the United States and the Soviet Union led to a solution to the crisis.
All in all, it was a memorable experience for everyone involved, and one I hope we can repeat. However, I’ll try to avoid being JFK in the future. Ill pass on having to cope with all of the pressures of presidential leadership without the historical benefit of muscle relaxants, pain killers, and Marilyn Monroe.