For nearly forty years
most American accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis of have left
Cuba out of the story. With the blockbuster film "Thirteen Days"
the story now ignores the Soviet Union as well. The film turns
history on its head and drums into our heads exactly the wrong
lessons of the crisis.
"Why do you think the Soviets put the
missiles in Cuba?" I asked my fourteen year-old daughter after
she saw the film. "They were bad," she reasoned on the basis
of what the film taught her. "They wanted to hurt the United
States." Yes, the United States as victim, an old theme that
justifies massive military build-ups.
She could not learn from "Thirteen Days"
that in October 1962 the United States was waging a war against
Cuba that involved several assassination attempts against
the Cuban leader, terrorist acts against Cuban civilians,
and sabotage of Cuban factories. The endgame
of this low intensity conflict envisioned a U.S. invasion.
Nor would she have know from the film that the Kennedy Administration
had convinced the Soviet military that the United States was
planning a first strike against its superpower adversary by
rapidly building up U.S. strategic forces. In 1962, the Soviet
had fewer than fifty bombers and missiles that could hit the
United States. We had more than five hundred. The missile
gap Kennedy exploited in his 1960 campaign was real, except
that it was in the U.S. favor, not the Soviets.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sought to placate his generals
by placing intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba.
It was a cheaper way to provide some deterrent against a feared
U.S. attack than to build many new intercontinental ballistic
missiles that could be launched from the Soviet Union. 
Once a decision is made to confine the
story to the fabled thirteen days in October 1962, the omission
of Cuba and the Soviet Union from a film about the Cuban Missile
Crisis is almost inevitable. (Director Roger Donaldson and
screenwriter David Self took their cue from Robert Kennedy's
memoir also titled Thirteen Days.) But we not only
lose the broader context for the drama when the time frame
is narrowed. We learn the wrong lessons from the history of
this moment when the world came closer to nuclear destruction
than at any other time.
The first lesson is about the causes of
the crisis. On the basis of documents I obtained through the
National Security Archive's Freedom of Information Act requests,
it is clear why the Soviet and Cuban leaders were expecting
a U.S. invasion of the island. Notably, former Secretary of
Defense Robert S. McNamara acknowledged at an historic 1989
meeting with former Soviet and Cuban officials that "if I
had been a Cuban leader, I think I might have expected a U.S.
invasion. Why? Because the U.S. had carried out what I have
referred to publicly as a debacle--the Bay of Pigs invasion...
Secondly, there were covert operations. The Cubans knew that.
There were covert operations extending over a long period
of time."  At the same time, President
Kennedy had ordered the largest expansion of peacetime U.S.
military power despite the acknowledgment by Deputy Secretary
of Defense Roswell Gilpatric that U.S. strategic forces far
surpassed Soviet capabilities.  We now
know that one of the five approved strategic plans at the
time, which were based on the U.S.
build-up, called for a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet
Union.  Like our own military analysts,
Soviet national security advisers tend to worry about worst-case
scenarios, and U.S. actions made them very nervous. While
the Soviet placement nuclear missiles ninety miles from the
United States may have been an absurdly risky and dangerous
way to discourage both U.S. aggression against Cuba and a
U.S. first-strike against the Soviet Union, it is an understandable
reaction to the circumstances. The lesson we should learn
from the Cuban Missile Crisis is that foreign leaders will
act in seemingly irrational ways when their national security
is threatened. Therefore, the United States should be more
prudent in trying to overthrow or threaten other governments.
Instead the lesson we learn from the film, by taking the crisis
out of its broader context, is that crazy foreigners will
always threaten the United States and so we must always be
The second traditional lesson that the
film reinforces is that the crisis was resolved because the
United States forced the Soviet Union to back down. We came
"eyeball to eyeball" with the Soviets, Dean Rusk said, and
they blinked. Yet we have learned from several meetings of
former U.S., Soviet and Cuban officials, organized by Brown
University's James Blight, that it was not a game of chicken
which convinced the Soviets to seek a peaceful resolution
to the showdown. Khrushchev, like Kennedy, perceived the crisis
was spiraling out of control. You would not know from "Thirteen
Days" that the Soviet leader had given orders not to shoot
down any U-2 surveillance planes. A local Soviet commander
violated those orders on October 27 when he downed Major Rudolph's
Anderson's U-2 with a surface-to-air missile. Soviet officials
seem to have understood this could have brought retaliatory
strikes and perhaps even a U.S. invasion. 
Khrushchev knew, and contrary to the film's
depiction, Kennedy did not know that the Soviets had deployed
tactical nuclear missiles to Cuba. These battlefield weapons,
intended for use against an invading army, had warheads nearly
size the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Had a local Soviet commander
fired one of these, it would have been the start of a general
nuclear war.  This was Khrushchev's fear.
It is not the kind of fear one experiences in a game of chicken,
where the fear is for your own personal safety. It was the
fear of destroying all humankind, all life. Toughness and
rigidity in such a situation makes it more likely that the
other side will feel compelled to act equally macho. It was
Kennedy's flexibility--finding a way to trade the missiles
in Turkey for the missiles in Cuba--and Khrushchev's willingness
to risk humiliation (he was deposed as General Secretary in
1964 in part because of the missile crisis) that brought the
confrontation to a peaceful conclusion. The filmmakers do
achieve a laudable sense of the tension some of the key U.S.
players felt at the time. Most important, they depict the
lack of precision with which President Kennedy reached a peaceful
resolution of the crisis. Hopefully, the scenes depicting
human frailty will destroy one of the oft-invoked lessons
of the confrontation, that crises can be managed if the Kennedy
technique of assembling the best and brightest is repeated.
In fact, we were lucky to have survived, because such situations
cannot be micro-managed with precision.
Donaldson and Self also get it right in
understanding that the Kennedy brothers manipulated the consensus
of the ExComm toward a decision they wanted (blockade) rather
than waiting passively for agreement to emerge from a group
that tended to favor an aggressive act. President George Bush
should learn from this what Governor Bush did not understand,
that a leader cannot simply turn to advisers for solutions.
He must have a grounded sense of what he wants to achieve
Still, there are numerous inaccuracies
in "Thirteen Days." The big one most reviewers have noted
is the role of political aide Kenny O'Donnell, who did not
have a serious role during the crisis. O'Donnell's character
provides a useful dramatic vantage point from which to watch
the crisis. But the film goes overboard in giving the character
important tasks O'Donnell never had: conspiring with Navy
pilots to hide from admirals the results of reconnaissance
missions; checking CIA files on the background of the KGB's
Washington station chief. The filmmakers also make a big error
in portraying U.S. officials as having knowledge that there
were armed tactical nuclear missiles on the island. In fact
they did not know, and their ignorance is what almost brought
us to the brink.
Smaller errors also creep in. Cuban anti-aircraft
gunners did not fire on low-level U.S. reconnaissance planes
until October 27, when they almost brought one down. 
Only two or three people--not the bulk of the ExComm--knew
about Robert Kennedy's secret October 27 meeting with Soviet
Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and his offer to remove the Turkish
missiles.  But these artistic discretions
do not depart substantially enough from what really happened
to discredit the film. Far more significant is the film's
one-sided presentation of the events in 1962.
Most of the film's reviewers also are
to blame in not alerting us to the serious distortion. Elvis
Mitchell in The New York Times blandly comments that
the film is "a competent, by-the-numbers recreation of the
events surrounding the Cuban missile crisis of 1962." Sure,
except it missed inconvenient facts about U.S. attacks on
Cuba and the U.S. missile build-up. The Washington Post's
Stephen Hunter asserted baldly that "'Thirteen Days' does
a pretty good job of explaining why [the world didn't end
in 1962]." No it doesn't. Without Soviet restraint during
the crisis it could have been far different. Variety's
anonymous reviewer tried to offer readers some of the relevant
background, but unfortunately repeated myths about Khrushchev's
low regard for Kennedy that were debunked more than a decade
Do reviewers have an obligation to know
the most accurate history of real events that the films they
review purport to portray? In a case like this one, yes. "Thirteen
Days" is likely to be the one film about the missile crisis
from which at least a generation of students will learn the
crisis's lessons. And teachers will use it unless warned,
because the missile crisis did bring us closer to nuclear
holocaust than any other confrontation. Other producers will
shy away from the subject for a while now that it has been
done to such acclaim. In contrast to USA Today, which
advised parents and teachers that "younger audiences ought
to see this movie," reviewers should have raised a ruckus.
This movie feeds the worst American jingoism, they should
have warned us. Its lessons are dangerous to your health.
In Russian history texts, the Cuban Missile
Crisis is called the Caribbean crisis. The confrontation between
the superpowers took place on the high seas and for the Soviets
that is where the crisis occurred. In Cuba, it is called the
Crisis of October, to distinguish it from the many other confrontations
Cuba has experienced with the United States. From the Cuban
perspective, the crisis has never been resolved: war was avoided
but the root cause of the dispute continues in the U.S. desire
to overthrow the Cuban government. The relevance of the Cuban
Missile Crisis for U.S. policy-making today is absent from
"Thirteen Days," which seems to be about a past long gone.
In fact, we have much to learn still from the Cuban Missile
Crisis. To do that we need to see it from the viewpoint of
all the countries involved.
Philip Brenner is a professor of international relations at
American University, the author of several books and articles
on U.S.-Cuban relations and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a
member of the advisory board of the National Security Archive.
1. "Minutes of the First OPERATION MONGOOSE
meeting," December 1, 1961, and "The Cuba Project," 20 February,
1962, in Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, The
Cuban Missile Crisis: A National Security Archive Documents
Reader (New York: New Press, 1992), Documents No.
4 and 5, pp. 20-37; Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the
Cuban Missile Crisis, Rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings
Institution, 1989), pp., 7-9; Select Committee to Study Governmental
Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Alleged
Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, An Interim
Report, No. 94-465, US Senate, 94th Cong., 1st Sess., 20 Nov.
1975, pp. 71-169; Philip Brenner, "Thirteen Months: Cuba's
Perspective on the Missile
Crisis," in The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited, James A. Nathan,
York: St. Martin's, 1992), pp. 188-191.
2. Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence
of Decision, 2nd edition
(New York: Longman, 1999), pp. 92-93; James G. Blight, David
A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine
the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989),
3. Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali,
One Hell of a Gamble (New York: Norton, 1997), pp.
138-139; Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis,
4. James G. Blight, Bruce J. Allyn and David
A. Welch, Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis,
and the Soviet Collapse (New York: Pantheon, 1993), pp.
5. "Address by Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy
Secretary of Defense, before the
Business Council at The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia,"
1961, Unclassified Speech No. 1173-61, in Cuban
Missile Crisis Document Set (Washington, DC: National
Security Archive, 1992), Document No. 00115; Michael R. Beschloss,
The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963
(New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 329-332.
6. Blight and Welch, On the Brink, pp. 29-30.
7. James G. Blight, The Shattered Crystal
Ball: Fear and Learning in the Cuban Missile Crisis (Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990); Fursenko and Naftali,
One Hell of a Gamble, pp. 277-87; Nikita S. Khrushchev,
Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, translated
and edited by Jerrold L. Schecter, with Vyacheslav V. Luchkov
(Boston: Little Brown, 1990, p. 177; Blight, Allyn and Welch,
Cuba on the Brink, pp. 116-120.
8. General Anatoli I. Gribkov and General
William Y. Smith, Operation
Anadyr: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile
Crisis (Chicago: edition q, 1994), pp. 4, 27-28.
9. CINCLANT Historical Account of Cuban Crisis
- 1963, Serial:
000119/J09H, 29 April 1963 in Cuban
Missile Crisis Document Set, Document No. 003087, p. 14.
10. Bruce J. Allyn, James G. Blight, and
David A. Welch, eds., Back to the Brink: Proceedings of
the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January
27-29, 1989 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America,
1992), pp. 92-93.
11. Beschloss, The Crisis Years,