Wednesday, July 31, 2013

13 Days by Robert F. Kennedy

Title: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis
Author: Robert F. Kennedy
Publisher: Pan Books Ltd (1969)

Have I mentioned lately that Michael is awesome? It really can't be said enough and this month will show us another example: he's doing two movies for the book I picked!!! That's right, two! I've always liked the movie Thirteen Days and I thought it would be a nice addition to our series. Turns out a person shouldn't assume books and movies of the same title about the same thing are necessarily based on each other. But, again, Michael is awesome so he queued up the actual movie based on this book and that other movie about the same thing that I like.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Missiles of October/Thirteen Days

"You are in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President." The President answered quickly. "You are in it with me."

This succinct memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a fascinating look not only at the events surrounding the placement of nuclear warheads into Cuba but of the philosophy of dealing with a crisis. It is virtually impossible to separate Kennedy's description of the events from his thoughts on the obligations and responsibilities of those called to respond to crises. I have not found government officials this inspiring in a very long time.

He [RFK] demonstrated then, as I have seen him do on so many other occasions before and since, a most extraordinary combination of energy and courage, compassion and wisdom.
--Robert McNamara

The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis are inherently exciting and tense but this is not the type of memoir prone to the grandiose. If anything, it is focused and generous. RFK sets forth a clear record of the days he spent in council with Ex Comm and the president responding, sometimes hourly, to the USSR's provocation. It's generous in that RFK highlights what was brought to the table by each of the committee members rather than judging or blaming individuals whose opinions varied greatly from his own.

And so we argued, and so we disagreed - all dedicated, intelligent men, disagreeing and fighting about the future of their country, and of mankind.

What becomes abundantly clear is that multiple opinions and viewpoints was integral to what RFK thought was the committee's strength as an advisory body. He never misses a chance to point out that comprehensive information and detailed contingency plans for all recommended courses of action are what enabled JFK to act appropriately during this global, nuclear crisis.

It might be this aspect of the memoir that was most captivating to me. It's a crisis we know the end of, it's a crisis that comes with its own 'dramatic tension' but what may not be known is the absolute dedication of both brothers to have all possible information and not be hasty. JFK did not want the Russians backed into a corner from which they could not gracefully exit. It was the ultimate in think globally (a mistake now will almost surely lead to world devastation) but act locally (our national security is threatened, how do we fix this without precipitating war).

The strongest argument against the all-out military attack, and one no one could answer to his satisfaction, was that a surprise attack would erode if not destroy the moral position of the United States throughout the world. 

I'm the last person who's going to opine modern morals as inferior to the Greatness of the Good Old Days but an additional theme of the decision making during this crisis was: Can we justify what we're going to do? Will the world support what we do? Appropriate answers to these questions were vital to anything JFK might decide. Again, it's clear that Kennedy believed any decision made by a super power had to serve that super power but also had to serve the greater world responsibility any super power has. How inspiring!

Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side bring a counter-response. No action is taken against a powerful adversary in a vacuum. A government or people will fail to understand this only at their great peril. For that is how wars begin -- wars that no one wants, no one intends, and no one wins.

Reading this book left me feeling much as I did when I read Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy: could people who make policy decisions please also read this book? Read it, learn from it, pay attention and apply that knowledge. Emotion and knee-jerk reaction almost never end well. Careful consideration and analysis improve everyone's chances of making the correct decision at the right time. My little scientist heart just soars when I see good analysis. 

He did not want anyone to be able to write... that the United States had not done all it could to preserve the peace. We were not going to misjudge, or miscalculate, or challenge the other side needlessly, or precipitously push our adversaries into a course of action that was not intended or anticipated.

Neither brother ever forgot that this was as much a human crisis as a nuclear crisis. How hard to push was a carefully orchestrated gesture that would be just hard enough and come with UN/Latin American support. This memoir shows the delicate and elegant dance that is international relations. It shows the success that deliberate and visionary problem solvers can enact in the face of great pressure. How inspiring!

So about the movie... don't forget to check out Michael's post.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. As always, you are too kind to me, Rachel. But also, this is another fine book review that got to the merits and gist for the tome in question. I've always heard of this memoir, but hadn't till now read it. Amazingly, it's quite svelte but loaded with info and insight.

    As someone who was alive (age 8) when this occurred, it made for a fascinating read that kept my interest. Pretty darn good for something written 46 years ago on a subject that still has relevance today, as you point out.

    The way diplomacy was acted out, and the personalities involved, were given a context without very much bias. You certainly don't see that today, and it was refreshing. Still, it was an intense crisis that you could surmise would bring out the best, or worst, in people. And I'd rather be the fly on the wall than having to make these kinds of decisions.

    Great pick for this month, Rachel. And it gave me a chance to revisit an old favorite and check-out the newer film I hadn't screened. Thanks.

  2. Great points here, Michael! I quite agree on how how loaded this title is for such a short book. I believe RFK dictated this 7 years after it happened and it's amazing to me that it does have such relevance today (or maybe that speaks to our US habit of war mongering... I don't know. too depressing to think about that part).

    Ditto on being the fly. Anything else would be fly on the windshield. Gah!

    Glad we did this one. I really enjoyed the book and the movie!