Turning History on Its Head
by Philip Brenner
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.[1] 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.[2] 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. [3]

    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." [4] 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. [5] 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. [6] 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 vigilant.

    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. [7]

    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. [8] 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 first.

    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. [9] 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. [10] 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 ago. [11]

    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, ed. (New
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), p. 31.

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, p. 21.

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. 41-42.

5. "Address by Roswell Gilpatric, Deputy Secretary of Defense, before the
Business Council at The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia," October 21,
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, chapter 9.