The '62 Cuban missile crisis nearly became nuclear war. As Soviets put missiles on Cuba, 90 miles from Florida - making a strike on 80 million Americans very easy - President Kennedy demanded their removal, and our Navy blockaded ships carrying missiles to Cuba. The world crowded around TV sets, afraid nuclear bombs would fly as ships drew closer in the Atlantic. At last Walter Cronkite had good news: The Soviets turned back. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said, "We went eyeball to eyeball, and the other guy blinked."
In "Thirteen Days," an intelligent thriller, not only the Soviets blink: America's military brass, eager to play nuclear, backs down, too. JFK adviser Kenny O'Donnell (Costner) and Defense Secretary McNamara (Baker) stop the Joint Chiefs and USAF General LeMay. "This is a setup," O'Donnell tells Kennedy (Greenwood). "If Castro shoots an American plane, the chiefs will insist we fire." Such fare springs more from screenwriting than history, but history buffs will know better. But for the rest of us, the movie is a parable, like Oliver Stone's "JFK." Things sure seem to have happened this way!
Although hardly on JFK's tapes of the time, and not usually significant, O'Donnell here tells the story, and can be where, and can think in ways, JFK can't. (By the way, Earthlink millionaire Kevin O'Donnell, the actor's son, invested in the movie producer's company.) O'Donnell, Bobby's roommate at Harvard and Jack's campaign manager, is an utterly loyal, close advisor. When the Joint Chiefs itch to fight, he tells a pilot, "Look through this" - code to lie to superiors rather than trigger war.
What our side knows, and hopes the other does, is the danger of striking first, purely from fear. Kennedy's team must ask how much Khrushchev can be trusted; everything depends on what they decide. They make quiet calls to their families.
The movie's taut style isn't action-packed, but the movie is a thriller. We now know the world didn't end but identify with the characters, who don't, and who have more power than knowledge. No war has started or ended this way. If no one had blinked in 1962, even if we'd won, we would now probably be missing most of the people of Cuba, Russia, and our Eastern seaboard, and the air would be radioactive. Khrushchev was reckless to put missiles in Cuba, and Kennedy was right to want them gone, but it's good someone blinked.
Ernest R. May & Philip D. Zelikow
Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp, Henry Strozier, Dylan Baker, Charles Esten
Bay of Pigs, Cold War, Kruschev, Cuban missile crisis, Cuban
war and peace
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