Thirteen Days Analysis
Kennedy Khrushchev and Detente in Thirteen Days
Part 1: Introduction to the Analysis
The film Thirteen Days looks at the Kennedy Administration’s response to the threat of a Soviet missile attack launched from Cuba. The year is 1962; the main players are Kennedy and his team of advisors, including his brother Robert Kennedy, his close confidante Kennth O’Donnell and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Kennedy’s team is not only facing pressure from the Soviets (including Khrushchev, the Politburo, Soviet emissary Fomin, and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin) but also from the Joint Chiefs, who represent the war hawks, eager to strike first and ask questions later. Kennedy’s problem is what to do: he states clearly that the US cannot allow Soviet missiles so close to its borders—but how to address the problem without making it worse is the question. Kennedy is reluctant to take any action that would lead to war, but to take no action is to risk being annihilated if the Soviets do indeed intend to launch an attack.
The action takes place primarily in Washington, with pivots to military scenes in Cuba, but the bulk of the film focuses on the work of O’Donnell, the Kennedy brothers, and various advisors. The situation from the outset is tense as unwanted information about the missile build-up in Cuba is delivered to the President and his team at a round table, where everyone—including the war hawks—is assembled to weigh in on the matter and present the President with some options and possible outcomes. The threat of the missiles is immediate as Gen. Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, informs the President that in five minutes the Soviets could kill 80,000,000 Americans and destroy several bomber bases, making it difficult to launch an effective counterstrike. Everyone in the room looks unnerved by the information. Taylor, speaking for the Joint Chiefs, argues that the presence of missiles in Cuba indicates a major doctrinal shift in Soviet thinking. Anyone familiar with Kennan’s Long Telegram of 1946 knows that the policy-thinking of the Soviets was to sit back and allow the capitalist nations of the West to fall by attacking one another. The key tool of the Soviets, as identified by Kennan, was to use propaganda—military strikes were not seen as a threat. That is why in the film Taylor argues that the Soviets are evidently changing their policy with regard to the West by putting missiles in place in Cuba.
Kennedy has to decide what to do—but before he can do that he has to assess whether the threat is real. Just because the Joint Chiefs believe it is does not mean they are correct. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was still fresh in Kennedy’s mind and he was acutely aware of the hawkishness of the Joint Chiefs and their desire to implement a policy of containment. Kennedy was seen by them as soft on Communism—meaning he wanted to avoid using military intervention to contain the Soviet Union or to confront it directly and risk WWIII. The fact that the film ends with Kennedy’s American University speech indicates that his main goal was to promote peace rather than war.
However, in the opening scenes of the film, war is suddenly a very real possibility because it could be forced upon the US—if the Joint Chiefs are right and the Soviets do intend to launch a strike. Where Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs agree is on the matter of the risk that the missiles pose in Cuba. Where there is a lack of agreement is on the extent to which the threat of an attack is imminent. The Joint Chiefs appear indifferent to whether it is imminent or not—the very possibility of a threat makes it so in their minds. Kennedy is conscious, however, of the possibility that the Soviets are playing a political game and that the apparent threat may only be a bluff. Kennedy wants more information before he makes a decision.
Part 2: Analysis of Team Dimensions
Kennedy’s advisors assemble to discuss the matter more fully. Two immediate options are on the table: blockade or air strike. McNamara suggests a blockade to prevent the numerous other ships en route to Cuba from the Soviet Union from potentially delivering new weapons, and it would also allow time for the states to give their support and provide the government with a sense of legitimacy. However, CIA Director McCone informs Kennedy of the risk of conducting a blockade or “quarantine” as they call it to prevent further build-up of missiles. McCone argues that a blockade causes the US to lose the strategy of surprise and does nothing to prevent a Soviet first-strike. The first goal of Kennedy is to determine which option to choose and Kennedy has his speech writer come up with a speech justifying both options.
Kennedy now turns to his core team and describes the information he has that is informing his own perspective. His…to the President is what ends up saving the day for his vision. Ken supports the President by warning him of what the Chiefs are up to in terms of using the reconnaissance mission as a way to drive fire from Cuba and thus justify an attack in response. Ken also plays a part in warning the pilots not to report fire so as to reduce the risk of provocation being reported. Robert, meanwhile, is given the final authority by the President to negotiate on his behalf for terms of peace—even though Robert senses that the Chiefs might be right in their demand for a first strike. Robert sets aside his own personal beliefs to act on the President’s behalf to bring about the solution the President wants. Robert does this well in his meeting with the Ambassador. He sees that his refusal to agree to Soviet demands will cause the negotiation to end in failure, and he knows the President wants a successful negotiation—so he backtracks carefully and presents an alternative solution that both sides can agree upon and that will allow the US to save face even as it gives in to Soviet demands regarding missiles in Turkey. It is a creative solution that Robert devises that nonetheless allows him to remain true to the mission given him by his brother.
The only recommendations I would make for the group would be that more accommodations for dealing with stress be provided. This may not always be possible especially in an inherently stressful situation—but it is important to remember that in any trying situation there is going to be stress and team members have to have a way to deal with stress in a healthy manner. Some of the group turn to alcohol or deny themselves rest, and as anxiety mounts it is missteps towards dealing with stress in unhealthy ways that can lead to poor decision making as the group comes down under the wire. The hiccups along the way could be attributed to improper handling of stress from the outset. The tension is palpable from the beginning, but instead of proceeding by taking some de-stressing steps the group barrels on. If some de-stressing had been conducted at the outset, it might have enabled the group to avoid having to risk (and lose) the life of the reconnaissance pilot, who was sent into harm’s way mainly to forestall the Chiefs. De-stressing might also have given the group the calm and conviction the President required to…
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