'Thirteen Days' Is Accurate Where It Counts

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller professor of history and director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia

In his article criticizing the accuracy of the movie "Thirteen Days" ("Call 'Days' What You Will, but It's Not Quite History," Jan. 16), Richard Reeves, a respected biographer of President John F. Kennedy, wrote that "compared with most of the junk being made these days, 'Thirteen Days' is practically Thucydides--or perhaps I should say, May and Zelikow. Much of the dialogue is from transcripts of missile crisis meetings transcribed and published by Ernest May of Harvard and Philip Zelikow of the University of Virginia."

The flattery is welcome, but misplaced. The screenplay was influenced by the tapes of the missile crisis meetings, but it is certainly original. It went straight for the really big ideas about the (continuing) danger of nuclear war, the difference a president can make and the value of historical memory, in this case re-creating the high Cold War for a new generation. So I was sympathetic to the screenwriter's decision to use Kenny O'Donnell, played by Kevin Costner, as the "everyman" insider who plays witness and foil to the inner deliberations of the Kennedys.

O'Donnell was an interesting and important person in the lives of the Kennedys. He is the kind of person historians usually neglect because they leave few documents behind and work on the inside, in the back room where there are no note takers or tape recorders.

In his article, Reeves was too hard on the filmmakers. For instance, he wrote that "neither U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson nor Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, the bad guy in the movie, were members of Ex-Comm [an ad hoc executive committee of the National Security Council set up by the White House for the Cuban missile crisis] as they were shown to be in 'Thirteen Days.' " But they did participate in meetings and said substantially what they are depicted as saying, and the Kennedys reacted to this advice much as shown in the movie.

It is true that the Kennedys had little use for LeMay, as Reeves states, but they knew he was a formidable political force in the country and, in this case, he was urging military action as a representative of the unanimous Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I certainly have many quibbles with details in the movie. But the structure of the narrative is basically sound. The leading characters are perceptively portrayed and the film successfully re-creates the look and atmosphere of the time.


The crisis was as dangerous as the film suggests. Reeves states that Army alert status did not change in the crisis. But it did, as did the alert status of U.S. strategic nuclear forces. Scores of bombers circled in the skies around the clock at Defcon 2, the step just short of global war.

Reeves adds: "The movie-makers repeated Robert Kennedy's deliberate exaggerations of the range of the Soviet missiles spotted in Cuba--those missiles could not level every American city except Seattle." But this was no exaggeration. On Oct. 16, President Kennedy was informed about the deployment of medium-range missiles and, two days later, he was informed that sites had also been discovered for intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could indeed strike almost all of the continental United States. The warheads for those missiles had reached Cuba, but the intermediate-range missiles had not--a fact the Americans did not know.

Nor did the Americans know that the scores of coastal defense cruise missiles placed by the Soviets in Cuba were all armed with nuclear warheads too, but fortunately the invasion urged by several of Kennedy's advisors was never launched.

Reeves offers the reassuring suggestion that it "would be small comfort to people in Miami or Atlanta, but Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was not planning to confront the U.S." Ernest May and I think Khrushchev was indeed planning a confrontation, one in which he would use the missiles in Cuba to checkmate Kennedy in the nuclear ultimatum the Soviet premier had just delivered on Berlin, an ultimatum that would come due the next month. Accepting the analysis of his top Soviet advisor, Kennedy had reached this conclusion and, thanks to the tapes, we can hear JFK repeatedly explaining this point to others.

On a fundamental point, though, Reeves and I agree. As he put it, "The fact is that the movie guys, who may annoy people like me who make modest livings arguing about these things for a living, did put together a reasonably accurate entertainment reminding all of us that there was a time when politicians and 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, stupidest war in history."

Or, to put it in Hollywood terms, the filmmakers were willing to bet $80 million on a movie where the good guy wins by not shooting anybody. In Hollywood, maybe that is another kind of courage. So I'll cut the filmmakers a little slack.


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