'Thirteen Days' and its Ageless Lessons for Tomorrow
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
February 18, 2001
Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School
'Thirteen Days' and its Ageless Lessons for Tomorrow
US must outwit - still - certain or surprising foes
By Graham T. Allison,
The movie 'Thirteen Days' dramatizes the most dangerous moment in human history: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It also reminds us vividly of an inescapable truth about the world today. As George W. Bush took office, the United States and Russia each continued to maintain active arsenals of more than 4,000 nuclear warheads on alert missiles ready for momentary launching. The new president thus serves not only as American commander in chief and leader of the free world, but also as final arbiter of the nation's survival.
In 1962, President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stood eyeball to eyeball making choices whose consequences could have meant 100 million quick deaths. At the time, JFK estimated the chances of war as between one-in-three and even. The historical record supports that estimate.
Hollywood's 'Thirteen Days' is dramatization, not documentary. Cinematic compression distorts historical facts - inflating the role of a political adviser played by Kevin Costner, and caricaturing the Joint Chiefs of Staff as clones of Curtis LeMay.
Nonetheless, 'Thirteen Days' is not Oliver Stone's 'JFK.' Stone's lurid invention of a CIA plot to assassinate Kennedy did a great disservice by teaching false history. In sharp contrast, the nuggets to be gleaned from 'Thirteen Days' are consistent with the central truths of the missile crisis.
The movie makes real the fact that, hard as it is to believe, this confrontation could have ended in nuclear war. It allows one to be a fly on the wall as a president and his advisers struggle with an intractable problem. Viewers vicariously experience the irreducible uncertainties and chilling fear of failure in choosing among options that could trigger nuclear war. We see the essential, ultimately decisive role of presidential leadership in choosing among conflicting recommendations of persuasive advisers.
In 1962, the United States discovered the Soviet Union in a surreptitious effort to place nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Kennedy demanded withdrawal of the missiles. During a week of bargaining, accelerated construction of the missiles on the island brought them to operational readiness. At endgame, the United States faced a choice between capitulation and escalation to war.
At the final hour, President Kennedy devised a complex, even devious proposal. It consisted of a public deal (a US promise not to invade Cuba if Russia withdrew its missiles); a private ultimatum (a threat to attack Cuba unless Khrushchev accepted the offer within 24 hours); and a secret sweetener (withdrawal of US missiles in Turkey within six months after resolution of the crisis).
Kennedy's performance in this his finest hour stands in marked contrast to his ineptitude a year earlier in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Had the missile crisis occurred in 1961 and a new president behaved as he did at the Bay of Pigs, the result would have been nuclear war.
The new Bush administration includes many seasoned veterans of crisis decision-making, including during the Gulf War. But as a leader as inexperienced and untested in foreign affairs as JFK was in 1961, President Bush should reflect on the record of other presidents' first years.
Could the new president find himself facing his own nuclear test? A decade beyond the Cold War, scenarios for a nuclear crisis are fortunately much more difficult to imagine. But here too the Cuban Missile Crisis offers clues.
Khrushchev's recklessness in attempting such an adventure seemed to the Kennedy administration inexplicable. With the benefit of the historical record, including now-declassified secret Soviet files, one can see how earlier, unilateral American actions created a context for Khrushchev's actions.
In his first month in office, Kennedy announced a rapid buildup of US strategic nuclear missiles. At that time, Soviet missiles capable of reaching the United States numbered about 20 - roughly the same number as China has today. As the number of US strategic nuclear weapons rapidly approached 1,000, Soviet strategic planners had to think the unthinkable. A surprise US first strike could have eliminated their ability to retaliate. Cuba offered an attractive location from which their ample supply of shorter-range missiles could hit the American homeland not 100 miles away.
As President Bush pushes ahead with his campaign proposals to simultaneously build national missile defenses and reduce strategic nuclear offensive capabilities, he should consider the lessons of the missile crisis.
Indeed, he took one opportunity to do so recently, when he screened 'Thirteen Days' at the White House. What, for example, could Russia or China do in response to US missile defense? History shows that such reactions can include unlikely, unforeseen, and highly risky initiatives that pose grave dangers for America.
Graham T. Allison is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the author of 'Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,' and the creator of a companion Web site to 'Thirteen Days.'
This story ran on page 4 of the Boston Globe on 2/18/2001.
Â© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center at 617-495-1400.
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