`Thirteen Days' is more a fantasy tale

January 30, 2001|By Gus Russo

WASHINGTON -- The release of the Kevin Costner film "Thirteen Days" will accurately enlighten a new generation about how horrifyingly close the world came to annihilation in October 1962.

While the film brilliantly captures both the drama of the moment and the canniness of the brothers Kennedy to forge a plan that succeeded in pulling us back from the brink, the producers' zeal in amplifying John and Robert Kennedy's heroism obscures the vital truths of mid-century's Cold War hysteria.

"Thirteen Days" recounts how the United States dealt with the discovery of Soviet offensive missiles in Fidel Castro's Cuba. The film's producers can be forgiven for their fantastic exaggeration of the role presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell, as portrayed by Mr. Costner, played in the Cuban missile crisis since it facilitated screenwriter David Self's ability to impart the story to filmgoers.

What is disturbing about this version of history is the manner in which virtually everyone outside the Kennedy's inner circle is demonized, against all historical evidence to the contrary, in order to burnish the Kennedy legacy. The record tells a different story, a tale of two brothers whose political ethos were far more complex than both filmmakers and partisans would like to acknowledge.

The paramount problems with "Thirteen Days," which is based on the book, "The Kennedy Tapes," fall into two categories: those events that were grossly misrepresented and those that were conveniently omitted.

The positive-spin embroidery of Mr. O'Donnell notwithstanding, by far the most egregious distortions concern the military leaders. With absolutely no corroboration, the military careerists' brinksmanship advice was presented as an outtake from "Dr. Strangelove."

Additionally, although the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendations to "take out the missiles" was seriously flawed, they were not presented to Kennedy as depicted. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay suffers the most at the screenwriter's hand when he utters phrases like, "My boys will get rid of those Red bastards," or, "Those goddamned Kennedys are going to destroy the country."

In fact, the Kennedys were first-class saber-rattlers, who thankfully came to their senses on this occasion. Robert Kennedy so admired the chairman of the Joint Chiefs that he named one of his sons, Maxwell Taylor Kennedy, after him.

Two-time presidential candidate, and Kennedy-appointed U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson is presented as a weak sister who is mocked behind his back by the Kennedy claque. In fact, it was Stevenson who originally championed the gambit that eventually ended the showdown, a solution (trading our missiles in Turkey for the Soviets' in Cuba) the Kennedys undertook behind everybody's back.

After the agreement, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, cabled Moscow, explaining why the Kennedys demanded the deal be kept secret and verbal only. Robert Kennedy had told Dobrynin, "The appearance of such a document could cause irreparable harm to my political career in the future."

Completely omitted was any explanation of why the Soviets placed the missiles in Cuba in the first place.

Of course, there were a number of reasons for the deployment, one being that Cuban invasion plans were in a high state of readiness in 1962 and that the Kennedy administration constantly connived to have Mr. Castro assassinated.

Incredibly, John Kennedy informed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's son-in-law in early 1962 that he was considering crushing Cuba the way the Soviets had invaded Hungary in 1956. Within weeks of that breach of security, Khrushchev addressed his presidium, saying, "An attack on Cuba is being prepared ... The only way to save Cuba is to put missiles there."

Astoundingly, the Kennedys appeared to be amnesiac regarding the nuclear bullet they had dodged. Within days after the end of the crisis, the president informed the National Security Council that he could not abide by the terms of the agreement, specifically the no-invasion pledge. Soon, new invasion plans and assassination plots were hatched -- as if nothing had changed. The machinations continued until John Kennedy was assassinated a year later by a Castro sympathizer, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Footnote: With all the testosterone-fueled posturing, the real (albeit indirect) hero of the episode was a heroine. John Kennedy was so moved by Barbara Tuchman's brilliant dissection of the fanatical reasoning that led to World War I in her 1962 book, "The Guns of August," that he abandoned the outdated militaristic paradigms, if only for two weeks.

Gus Russo, an investigative reporter, is the author of "Live By the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK" (Bancroft Press, 1998), a 1999 Pulitzer Prize nominee that is being produced as a mini-series for the Showtime television network.

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