I went to see the movie "Thirteen Days," a story of the Cuban missile crisis, only because I was paid to do it -- by the Los Angeles Times, which wanted some check on its historical accuracy. In doing a book on President John F. Kennedy, I had spent years listening to tapes and talking to people who were actually there in October of 1962.
So I felt I didn't need to see Kevin Costner save the world. I knew Costner was playing Kenny O'Donnell, Kennedy's appointments secretary. And I knew O'Donnell had no important role in the confrontation between the Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when the Soviets attempted to put medium-range nuclear missiles a couple of hundred miles off the coast of the United States.
I also knew there had to be some mangling of history, and that I would almost certainly hate the movie.
I was right. I was also wrong. There were few ridiculous mistakes or distortions in the film, but the important thing is that it was made. Presumably if a big star had not been interested, there never would have been a movie. They could have used the money to make "Scream 13."
The filmmakers did mix and match quotes from tapes of White House meetings for dramatic effect, often putting the right words into the wrong mouth, usually Costner's. But the film does get the two biggest things right: The world was closer to nuclear war than it ever was before or since, and President Kennedy did a hell of a job.
What follows is one man's list of comparisons between reality and the fiction of the film, with a caveat: History is in the eye of the beholder; it is often an argument about, as much as a chronicle of, times past.
*O'Donnell, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, the bad guy in the movie, were not members of Ex-Comm, the ad hoc group of 14 men who met for 13 days in the Cabinet Room.
*The film shows President Kennedy putting down Stevenson as some kind of weakling when he suggests there must be some way to avoid choosing between war and blockade. Actually, Kennedy did have a "third way" plan in the works, for use if Soviet ships ran the American quarantine. He had secretly asked U.N. Secretary-General U Thant to propose trading the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey for the removal of the Cuban missiles.
*The military was not as aggressive as shown. U.S. generals and admirals don't want war; what they want is overwhelming advantage if politicians get them into wars. Their job is to prepare contingency plans, and they almost always err on the side of caution, recommending in this case plans that began with 800 sorties attacking the missile sites, anti-aircraft missiles and destroying the Cuban air force.
*All the talk of DEFCON levels -- with DEFCON-5 meaning no alert and DEFCON-1 meaning war -- ignores the fact that the U.S. Army was at DEFCON-3 when the missile crisis began. One hundred thousand men were mobilized, ready to put down the rioting and killing over the admission of the first Negro, James Meredith, to the University of Mississipi.
*The range of the Soviet missiles was deliberately exaggerated by the Kennedys. The Soviet S-4s could not level every American city except Seattle. At the time, the president simply did not know whether there were nuclear warheads in Cuba -- he had to assume there were -- and the range of the S-4s was between 650 and 900 miles. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was not planning to confront the United States; he was gambling that he could sneak a few short-range weapons off Florida to show some equivalent to overwhelming American strategic power.
*Presidents do not call Navy captains and Air Force pilots or their families to tell them what to do. Presidents also are not told by aides to sit down, loosen their ties and have a drink.
But in the end, "Hollywood" did put together a reasonably accurate entertainment, reminding all of us that there was a time when politicians, diplomats and military commanders, on both sides, were determined and capable enough to prevent their own Cold War nuclear games from escalating into the hottest in history.
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