Thirteen Days

I watched Kai’s copy of Thirteen Days tonight. As a historical re-enactment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is apparently quite accurate. A lot of the dialogue was taken straight from tapes made of the meetings. Though, from what I have read, our historical understanding of the crisis keeps changing as new evidence becomes available. One can only speculate how much of what has happened in world politics more recently will be improperly understood, unless such archives are eventually opened.

The tension between the military and civilian portions of government is a particularly interesting aspect of the film. The kind of autonomy granted to military forces – as required for strategic reasons – is profoundly worrisome, in a world where ever more states have ever more nuclear weapons. That’s what makes the crisis such a chilling incident: the disjoint between intentions and certain action, the possibility of error and catastrophe.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “Thirteen Days

  1. Ah the inspiration of at least two of my papers on ExComm.
    I suspect you may have already read it but Allison’s The Essence of Decision is essential reading as is Bobby Kennedy’s Thirteen Days, on which the movie is based.
    Though while Kenny O’Donnell was the closest thing that would resemble the White House Chief of Staff, one should keep in mind that his role was dramatically expanded for the sake of Kevin Costner.
    But damn, the movie is worth watching for the impeccable Brooks Brothers’ suits and 60’s fashions alone.

    Ahem, it is one of my favourite movies.

  2. The first, for HIST 403 (Public Opinion with Gossen) was on public reaction to the choice of quarentine and the second for 446 (Timofiiv) was on the Kennedy/Military dynamic in decisionmaking.
    Those were the days…

  3. My brother Mica has Timofiiv now for some kind of American history class. He was a really nice guy, though you had to pay attention in order to keep track of what he was saying.

    I don’t think I ever had a class with more reading than Gossen’s HIST 432 class, though it was quite interesting. Only Brian Job’s security studies class even came close.

  4. Its funny that you should mention Dr. Job’s class, I just brought my readings from that out of storage and had an interesting discussion about how it used to be strategic studies and was renamed.
    I really did enjoy both Timo and Gossen, great instructors that for whatever reason were still sessionals.
    Anyhow, currently reading Ian Clark’s Legitimacy in International Society and I think you would enjoy it… when you aren’t so inundated with work!

  5. This is really interesting:

    Able Archer 83

    “Able Archer 83 was a ten-day NATO exercise starting on November 2, 1983 that spanned the continent of Europe and simulated a coordinated nuclear release. It incorporated a new, unique format of coded communication, radio silences, participation by heads of state, and a simulated DEFCON 1 nuclear alert. The realistic nature of the exercise, coupled with deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and the anticipated arrival of “super-stealth” Pershing II nuclear missiles in Europe, led some in the USSR to believe that Able Archer 83 was a genuine nuclear strike. In response, the Soviets readied their nuclear forces and placed air units in East Germany and Poland on alert. This relatively obscure incident is considered by many historians to be the closest the world has come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The immediate threat of nuclear war abruptly ended with the conclusion of the Able Archer 83 exercise on November 11.”

  6. “While it is true, as Podvig writes, that “the U.S. superiority in capabilities and number of strategic nuclear weapons was one of the most decisive factors that shaped the evolution of the conflict [during the Cuban Missile Crisis] and the positions taken by both countries during the crisis,” it is also true that Kennedy and his advisors did everything possible to avoid provoking a Soviet attack – even if such an attack had culminated in no more than Bundy’s “one … bomb on one city of one’s own country.” One bomb was always enough.”

    Rhodes, Richard. Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. p. 94

  7. The crisis did not come out of the blue and last thirteen days. U.S. blindness toward Cuba only made it seem that way. The crisis began eighteen months earlier, after the failed April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, with the Cubans’ fears of an imminent full-scale U.S. invasion. They asked the Russians for defensive weapons. The Russians began providing them, and the superpower-sleepwalk toward Armageddon began. The U.S. was not a victim of the deployment; its threats to Cuba were an important cause of it. U.S. intelligence assessments were atrocious: they did not predict the deployment; they did not even confirm it until the missiles in Cuba were almost ready to fire; and their conclusion that warheads for the weapons probably never reached Cuba was dead wrong. In all, 162 nuclear warheads were shipped, delivered, stored and made ready to fire by Soviet technicians in Cuba. While JFK courageously and ingeniously resisted the many hawks in his administration urging him toward war, Kennedy had no plan when the missiles were discovered and was shocked at the deployment. Nobody won. Nobody lost. Nobody “blinked.” Once Kennedy and Khrushchev realized they were losing control of the crisis, they worked feverishly, collaboratively and effectively to terminate it. But Moscow’s and Washington’s dismissal of the Cuban perspective, leading to Cuban outrage and provocative behavior, sent the crisis to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war. Far from being a “bit player,” Cuba became the hinge of the world. Believing they were irrevocably doomed by an imminent U.S. nuclear attack on the island, Fidel Castro wrote to Khrushchev urging him to launch an all-out nuclear attack on the U.S. ASAP, once the Americans began invading the island. The Cubans, and their Russian comrades in Cuba, prepared to nuke the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base, and to use their short-range nuclear weapons against the invading U.S. forces. Had these been carried out, a U.S. nuclear response would likely have followed, and Armageddon would have commenced then and there.

  8. Having read more, I think my comment above that Thirteen Days “it is apparently quite accurate” is significantly off the mark. A page on the website of the National Security Archive at George Washington University explains:

    The dominant North American myth about the Cuban missile crisis, which has been paradigmatic for more than a half century, goes like this. The bad guys (the Soviets) threaten the good guys (the Americans) by putting nuclear missiles into Cuba. The good guys stand firm, threatening to go all the way to nuclear war unless the bad guys remove their missiles and haul them back to where they came from in the USSR. The bad guys “blink” and cave in under U.S. pressure, and remove the missiles. The verdict: the good guys win the Super Bowl of the Cold War, with President John F. Kennedy the MVP. Kennedy had the moxie it took on the Cold War playing field. The bad guys lose badly. Their leader, Nikita Khrushchev, is gotten rid of shortly thereafter in an October 1964 coup. Cuba itself had almost nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis, other than to provide a parking lot for Russian missiles, very briefly, before the Russians were forced by U.S. pressure to un-park them. The little guy, Cuba, led by Fidel Castro, had nothing to do with the origin, conduct, resolution or level of nuclear danger in the crisis. For their part, the Cubans learn how the big dudes play the Cold War game, without regard for the interests or inclinations of bit players like Cuba.

    Alas, this myth represents only a very partial history of what actually happened. It is partial because it typically omits, as insignificant, events that occurred on the island of Cuba, and focuses almost entirely on events in Washington and Moscow. Kennedy did this. Khrushchev did that. U.S. troops moved from A to B. Soviet forces moved from C to D. And so on. The history of the Cuban missile crisis told in the movie, “Thirteen Days,” is like this. It is true that both before the movie appeared in 2000, and after, some fine historians have departed from the Washington-Moscow exclusivity, and have begun to make use of the data our project has been generating since the 1980s, and generated additional data themselves. But for various reasons, they and we have failed to break through and change public perceptions of the crisis. As a consequence discussion of the contemporary nuclear threat has not moved to where it needs to be: focused on abolishing nuclear weapons from this planet.

    Specifically about Thirteen Days, it seems one of the most compelling scenes (where Secretary of Defence McNamara screams at Admiral Anderson about “language”) probably bears no relation to anything that literally happened. I should find which credible source I read it in, but my understanding now is that no such close confrontation with ships running the blockade line took place.

    This page talks about some of the film’s decision-making regarding historical accuracy.

  9. So after reading one stellar review after another in the national media, I took my current class on the presidency to see Thirteen Days, the new $80-million blockbuster starring Kevin Costner, on the weekend it opened. It turned out to be a disappointing movie, except for actor Bruce Greenwood’s wonderfully nuanced portrayal of John F. Kennedy as — at least for the duration of the crisis — a thoughtful, anguished, morally serious president who remained cool under pressure. Despite its flaws, however, I’m still glad I took my students to see it.

    In one entirely fictitious scene, O’Donnell phones the Navy pilot who is about to fly a low-altitude surveillance mission over Cuba and tells him to lie to his superior officers if Cuban or Russian soldiers try to shoot him down. O’Donnell would rather conceal evidence than allow it to be used by advocates of a military strike. In another scene, O’Donnell calls Adlai Stevenson to stiffen the U.N. ambassador’s spine before Stevenson presses the American case against the Soviet Union in the Security Council. Stevenson’s spine needed — and received — no such stiffening from O’Donnell or anyone else on that occasion.

    As my colleague Daniel Cullen mentioned to me, Thirteen Days is especially deserving of criticism on these large matters because it is so scrupulously accurate on the small ones. The thin ties and horn-rimmed glasses the actors wear, the tail-finned cars they drive, the physical gestures they make, even their rotary-dial phones and transistor radios are all dead-on perfect. Black-and-white establishing scenes and actual excerpts from Walter Cronkite’s live television reports on the crisis further contribute to the movie’s verisimilitude. This is the way it really was, the filmmakers implicitly promise with those fine points: Just look at McNamara’s slicked-back hair. It’s all the more distressing, then, when we discover that in several important respects this isn’t the way it was at all.


    Most of the incidents described in the film actually occurred, including the meetings in which the Russian Foreign Minister Gromyko lied directly to President Kennedy when he assured him that the Russians were not installing missiles in Cuba, the late night meeting between Bobby Kennedy and the Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in which the offer to remove obsolete missiles from Turkey was made, the confrontation at the U.N., the back channel efforts to communicate with Khrushchev, and some of the specific exchanges between President Kennedy and his advisors. The language of many important conversations has been taken right out of the transcripts or reports of the participants.

    That being said, the film leaves the viewer with several important misimpressions.

  11. Hearts started beating faster on the afternoon of Oct. 25, when the Pierce’s radio operator received a message that the Lebanese merchant freighter Marucla was in the area. The ship, chartered to the Soviets, was suspected of carrying prohibited cargo to Cuba.

    Moore sighted what he thought could be the freighter. He said the Pierce initially was ordered to let it proceed, but a short time later, things changed.

    “On the evening of Oct. 25, we received a message to intercept the Marucla,” Moore said. “I got in touch with one of our anti-submarine aircraft flying overhead and asked him to take a look at the vessel I thought was the Marucla.

    “He illuminated its stern and confirmed it was the ship we were looking for. We reported this, and then came the message that it would be nice if the official boarding ship would be another destroyer, the USS Joseph P. Kennedy.

    “Joseph Kennedy was killed during World War II and was the president’s older brother. We were directed to follow the Marucla until first light, and if the Kennedy couldn’t make it by then, we were to go ahead and conduct the boarding.”

    The USS Kennedy kept its four boilers roaring and almost ran out of fuel before arriving shortly after daybreak Oct. 26. Using internationally recognized flag signals, it ordered the Marucla to stop and prepare to be boarded.

    Navy protocol dictated that the boarding party had to include two officers of a certain rank. To fill this requirement, the Pierce’s executive officer, Dwight G. Osborne, became senior officer of the boarding party.

    “The Marucla was less than a half-mile away,” Moore recalled. “It stopped as soon as we asked it to.

    “A motorized whale boat was dispatched from the Kennedy and came by to pick up our executive officer. It then went over to the Marucla.”

    The party boarded unarmed. “The captain of the Marucla was very cooperative and lowered ladders for them,” Moore said. “He greeted the boarding party and took them in for coffee before the inspection. He gave them the run of the ship.”

    The inspection turned up 12 trucks and harmless cargo. The ship was allowed to proceed.

  12. Mett said the men on the blockade fleet had no idea of the intense diplomatic maneuvers being made between Washington and Moscow. They knew only they had orders to stop and board any ship trying to go into Cuba.

    Most of the Soviet ships headed for Cuba either stopped, slowed down or turned back.

    All except the tanker Bucharest, which was a Soviet naval vessel. The tanker kept coming, and the destroyer and the aircraft carrier Essex were told to stop it.

    When the Gearing approached the Bucharest, talking to it by heliograph, the Soviet ship slowed but did not stop. The Gearing was 200 yards from the tanker preparing boarding parties. The main guns were swung to bear on the Soviet ship.

    “It was touch-and-go,” said Mett. “Someone realized that if one of our guns accidentally fired, World War III would be on and they were turned away from the tanker.”

    But the men could not understand why Washington told them not to board the ship. “We were unhappy,” Mett said.

    The orders came to let the tanker go. Mett said the crew had no idea what was going on. “When the Bucharest got to Havana, there were big stories in the Cuban papers about how this ship had smashed the imperialist blockade.”

    A few days later it was announced that Russia was withdrawing its missiles and the United States pledged it would not invade Cuba.

  13. Alice George on the role of the USS Pierce in the Cuban Missile Crisis:

    I realize the film compresses events for the sake of drama, but I can’t find an account that says that Admiral Anderson ordered star shells to be fired over a Soviet ship, or that such a confrontation happened between Anderson and McNamara.

  14. Actually, the same book describes an exchange between Anderson and McNamara a lot like the one in the film, albeit not at the same time as a confrontation was happening between the USS Pierce and a ship potentially challenging the blockade:

  15. We have already had several such close calls. The most well known is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When the United States discovered Soviet efforts to base nuclear missiles in Cuba (as a response to NATO missiles based in Turkey), President Kennedy responded with a blockade (and planned an invasion if a diplomatic solution proved impossible, which would have been disastrous in the event because, unbeknownst to Kennedy, Soviet forces in Cuba already had the warheads for their missiles; faced with death by invasion they may well have launched to defend themselves). On October 27, a Soviet submarine, B-59 passed under the blockade line and US Navy ships responded by dropping a series of small ‘signalling’ depth charges (practice charges that were very small, but of course in the moment does the target know they aren’t a real threat?). But B-59 was armed with nuclear torpedoes and had orders to use them if damaged by depth charges (and was, to boot, to deep to receive radio signals); the captain of the vessel assumed the war had already started and wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo but was stopped by the vice admiral who commanded the flotilla who was, happily, aboard. With the Soviet forces in Cuba already having their warheads ready, it is not hard to see how a Soviet submarine nuking an American fleet would lead fairly directly to escalation and a nuclear exchange, had just one Soviet submarine officer held a different opinion.

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