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Frantic days, sleepless nights

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Presidential aides and scholars relive 'Thirteen Days' in 1962

It was the fall of 1962. American intelligence aircraft had spotted evidence of Soviet offensive weaponry in Cuba. For nearly two weeks the entire world watched and waited as the two major superpowers stood on the brink of nuclear war.

How President Kennedy and his administration resolved the Cuban missile crisis remains one of the most storied and fascinating chapters in modern American political history. Even 38 years later, many scholars continue to regard the event as the most chilling moment in the nuclear age.

It also makes for fascinating cinematography, as evidenced by the success of Kevin Costner’s new film “Thirteen Days,” which provided the baseline for discussion about the crisis during a roundtable session last Wednesday night, Feb. 21, at the Forum of Public Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG).

Panelists included Peter Almond, the film’s co-producer; Ernest May, Charles Warren Professor of American History; and two of Kennedy’s closest advisers, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and speech writer Theodore Sorensen. The discussion was moderated by Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at KSG.

“Who can forget Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK?’” Allison asked the panel. “That movie, in my view, did a great disservice because it taught a generation of viewers false history. … ‘Thirteen Days’ is no such film, thank goodness … Our hope is that the film pricks people’s curiosity about what really happened.”

What really happened was actually much more complex than most previous accounts have elucidated.

“The movie makes clear the set of concerns that preyed on Kennedy,” May said. “For Kennedy, the central problem was not so much the missiles in Cuba, [but what could happen] to the 2.5 million people in Berlin who could only be protected with the threat of nuclear missiles.”

Three years before the Soviets began shipping missiles to Cuba, NATO had placed several dozen intermediate-range ballistic missiles known as Jupiter missiles in Turkey and Italy, causing severe consternation in Moscow. Many historians believe that action was what prompted the Kremlin’s response in the Caribbean.

“[Kennedy’s] concern,” May explained, “was that if he didn’t act as he did in regard to Cuba, he would face the choice of either having to let [West Berlin] go under Soviet control or else use nuclear weapons [to try to save the German city].”

According to McNamara, Kennedy’s main concern was to prevent a disaster.

“He felt one of the primary responsibilities of a U.S. president in a nuclear age was to avoid war with your major opponent, and particularly to avoid nuclear war. That was always in his mind,” McNamara said. “He acted during those 13 days with that underlying belief while many of his associates did not feel that responsibility to the degree that he did.”

Proceeding with air strikes, as many military advisers had recommended, could have resulted in a catastrophe, McNamara told the audience. “The CIA at that time stated … they believed there were no nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba. It wasn’t until 30 years later [after other documents were declassified] when we learned there were nuclear warheads there.”

As it was, the president waited patiently, consulting with his advisers for days before opting for a naval blockade of Cuba while also demanding that the Soviets dismantle the missiles already on the island.

“Had we not had that week … and had to make an immediate decision, very likely we would have made exactly the wrong decision, which the joint chiefs ultimately urged, which was to strike militarily against Cuba,” Sorensen said. “We know now that that would have brought both a strategic nuclear response from [Soviet] missiles and a tactical nuclear response from the Soviet forces on the island of Cuba.”

Kennedy used time to his advantage, Sorensen stated, possibly saving the world from a devastating nuclear war.

“The lessons learned from the crisis are extremely relevant today,” he said. “First of all, it shows the absolute indispensability of presidential leadership. Experts can come up with options and advisers can advise but ultimately it comes down to the president of the United States having the judgment and the knowledge of foreign affairs to make the final decision.

“It also demonstrated the value of keeping the lines of communication open, even when adversarial relations were at their most tense … because ultimately that line of communication made possible a negotiated solution instead of a military solution.”

On Sunday, Oct. 28, 1962, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for a promise from Kennedy not to invade the Communist island. It was later revealed, however, that Kennedy had also made a secret promise to remove the NATO missiles from Turkey.

“The Jupiter missiles in Turkey were militarily obsolete,” McNamara said. “Basically, Kennedy was saying over and over again in opposition to many of his advisers: ‘I’m not taking this nation to war over a pile of junk.’ That was his feeling and he felt it more strongly than anyone else in the room.”

Peace prevailed, in large part because of the diplomatic skills of the man for whom the KSG is named.

“He had an uncanny ability to look at his problems and his country and himself in a very objective way, free from prejudice and sentiment, and he tried to focus on exactly what was right and what was needed,” Sorensen explained.

“He also had this incredible curiosity and wanted to know everything about every country and every leader and every problem in the government at home and abroad. Those are not qualities that we see too often in our presidents.”

“It really becomes apparent that the Cuban missile crisis is President Kennedy’s ‘Washington crossing the Delaware’ moment,” co-producer Almond said. “The confusion created by the Bay of Pigs is surmounted by this extraordinary diplomatic and military achievement in the Cuban missile crisis.”