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In October 1962, I was 10 years old, beginning sixth grade at P.S. 79. Like my classmates, I was surprised to hear that we might not have school the following week, because by then, there might not be a school. Or much else left standing. There have been plenty of books and documentaries and a handful of fictional TV shows and films devoted to this crucial moment in history. This post is a review of what I think were the best of the pack.
One of history’s coincidences was the publication earlier in 1962 of Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” about great powers stumbling into a disastrous world war no one really wanted. John F. Kennedy liked the Tuchman book and recommended it to his national security chiefs. They read it a few months before the Cuban missile crisis, or as the Russians have always called it, the Caribbean crisis. That book’s title inspired the best (IMHO) of the screen treatments, 1974’s three-hour ABC television film, “The Missiles of October.” It’s almost forgotten today and hard to find online. Why do I think it was the best? We’ll get to that.
What do we use as a trusted historical source to judge the truth of movie or TV adaptations? Usually, a good book. Serhii Plokhy’s “Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” published just this year, is my current go-to book about this subject. Professor Plokhy is Ukrainian, so he had access to copies of KGB files that Moscow will no longer allow to be seen.
One of the few remaining (literal) bombshell surprises from Soviet archives was already revealed 30 years ago: Some nuclear missiles were not only assembled but ready to fire when JFK told the world that offensive weapons were in Cuba. The possibility of World War III was every bit as real as popular memory made it out to be.
I’d never realized how fast this all happened. Nikita Khrushchev made the decision to place atomic missiles in Cuba in late spring and wanted them ready by the end of the year. Hastily sent military survey teams were completely unfamiliar with how hot and humid the summer would be. They didn’t realize that palm trees would make poor cover from aerial surveillance. They even missed important basic technical details, like the simple fact that Cuba’s electrical supplies were on the U.S. standard, 120 volts at 60 Hz, not the European/USSR standard of 240 volts, 50 Hz. Follow-up teams had to reject their proposed locations for missile bases and come up with more practical ones.
The missiles themselves were about 45 feet long; driving them inland in huge trucks was all but impossible with Cuba’s narrow, winding dirt roads. Soviet engineering battalions, beset with dysentery, spent the summer frantically paving and bridging.
Soviet naval crews hadn’t deployed in large numbers to tropical climates before, and the ships transporting the missiles and warheads became ovenlike.
It was always part of missile crisis lore that the Kennedy brothers stood against war while their military advisers plotted to drag them into it. That isn’t really so. JFK and Bobby vacillated all month between fear and bellicosity. Robert Kennedy’s own account, “Thirteen Days,” long thought to be definitive, is heavily shaded to minimize the fact that the brothers first fumbled through all the options. Yes, many of the conversations in RFK’s book were recorded. But Plokhy, who unlike many Americans isn’t blinded by Kennedy worship, dryly points out that Kennedy’s White House recordings, unlike Nixon’s, were selective. They didn’t erase tapes; they just didn’t run the recorder if the talk was likely to be troublesome later. Unsurprisingly, the finished product makes the administration look like saints and heroes.
1962’s October Surprise wasn’t a surprise to everyone. Republican Sen. Kenneth Keating of New York had been sounding the alarm all year. I hadn’t realized to what degree Keating, and his early warnings about Cuban missiles, was woven into JFK’s White House political calculations. At one point, Kennedy, exasperated, growls that at this rate, Ken Keating will be elected president in ’64.
The Plokhy book demonstrates how erratic diplomatic communications were, for both bureaucratic and technical reasons. There was no “hot line” yet. The USSR had limited radio, telephone, and telegraph links with the outside world. Furthermore, the two capitals were eight time zones apart, introducing more delay factors. This hadn’t mattered much, until avoiding war became a minute-to-minute job that could totally fail overnight.
This fog of uncertainty also applied to military communications. Plokhy notes that it was nearly a tragedy that the nuclear age preceded the information age by 30-plus years. Orders were missed, garbled, and misunderstood. With what was now a worldwide battlefront on land, sea, and air, mechanical breakdowns and normal, everyday errors, accidents, and confusion were inevitable, more so as the crisis stretched on.
Khrushchev was, of course, a dictator, but not as absolute as we thought. In a sense that I’d never realized, he was in a trickier position than Kennedy vis-à-vis his internal politics. Except for Vice President Lyndon Johnson, almost everyone around JFK was his appointee, dismissable at any time. Khrushchev, on the other hand, was merely considered first among equals in the council of ministers. He had less maneuvering room than I thought. Nor was this just in theory; they had the power to remove him, and two years later, they did. We tend to regard the formalities of Communist-era governments as being mere rubber stamping, but the post-Stalin Communist big shots themselves didn’t see it that way.
And there was a third side, a third set of protagonists to the Cuban missile crisis: the Cubans. They didn’t see themselves as subservient to the Soviets; far from it. They took Marxist anti-imperialist rhetoric seriously and expected no less from their friends in the Kremlin. But Khrushchev had the power of final decision making, not Fidel Castro, and Castro knew it. The Plokhy book reinforces what was already guessed at: Castro was a reckless World War III enthusiast who was bitterly disappointed when the USSR declined to stage a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the U.S.
Castro had a testy relationship with the “old” official Communist Party of Cuba, which rode along with Castro’s revolution but couldn’t boss him around. Quite the opposite. One of the things that had changed by 1962 was the Soviet Union delicately switching its affiliation from the old underground Reds it had known for decades to Fidel’s hard-fighting but still (relatively) politically ignorant faction of rebels.
Plokhy gives us an honest reading of the outcome: Kennedy won, Khrushchev lost. That’s the way it was seen at the time as well. But he does it in power terms, not moral terms. The handful of Jupiter missiles that the U.S. had installed in Turkey were quietly removed as JFK’s secret part of the deal. (Today, you can listen to JFK briefing former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower about the details. When asked about the rockets in Turkey, Kennedy hesitates and then lies.) Khrushchev did walk away with something else, a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba.
Now we get to the screen adaptations. By far the best known is a feature film starring Kevin Costner, “Thirteen Days” (2000), taken more or less directly from RFK’s book. I’ll tell you upfront: I don’t like it; it’s dishonest. Its biggest deviation from Bobby’s self-serving tale was making Kenny O’Donnell a central character, and as every living JFK staffer declared, O’Donnell had nothing to do with the Cuban missile crisis. In real life he was a lackey and political hack, not someone in a position to pick up a phone and tell the armed forces what to do. The movie depicts the U.S. military, not the USSR, as if it was the “real enemy.” Some decent acting and a couple of scenes aside, the only virtues of “Thirteen Days” are its production values: the cars, the offices, the skinny neckties, the TVs, and the telephones are meticulously real. It’s the script that’s phony.
That’s why a mere TV movie from December 1974 rates higher with me. It, too, uses RFK’s memoir as a starting point, but it leaves out some dubious assertions and adds some crucial facts, making it a more balanced and truthful portrait that’s worthy of your viewing time. On a TV budget, it doesn’t and couldn’t have a feature film’s polished look, and to the credit of the producers, it sensibly didn’t try. It’s classic television drama, a late example of what’s now thought of as the Golden Age of live TV in the ’50s. Twenty-plus years before “The West Wing,” “The Missiles of October” gave us an unusually realistic look at White House life. This is no noble Camelot we see here but hard-nosed political operatives dealing with power and its limitations.
A small personal sidenote: In the fall of 1964 I met Sen. Kenneth Keating in Queens, New York, where I was one of the kids volunteering at local Republican headquarters. Before he showed up that day, one of the GOP grown-ups barked at us, “Hide those Goldwater buttons.” This seemed comically cowardly to us at the time, but we complied. Years later, I realized that it wasn’t because they didn’t want Keating to see them, but because they didn’t want press photographers to see them, or random Democrats to be put off potential ticket splitting.
Keating autographed something and smiled wanly when I asked him if he’d really been a teacher of Latin when he was 19. Even a 12-year-old kid could see he was in the last days of a failing campaign to save his Senate seat — from, as it turned out, Bobby Kennedy. So the unheeded prophet, who correctly gave early warning of Soviet missiles in Cuba, lost out to one of the loudest skeptics and longest holdouts. But it was Robert Kennedy who would get to write the history.
This post is part of the Group Writing project, administered by Clifford A. Brown, a member-created feature of Ricochet.Published in