LEARNING GUIDE TO:
One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.
Description: In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. discovers that the Russians are secretly installing nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba. President John F. Kennedy convenes a team of advisors to help decide how to respond. The challenge: how to force the Russians to withdraw the missiles without provoking nuclear war. "Thirteen Days" shows President Kennedy's leadership in meeting the challenge as he resists the demands for the air strikes and invasion that would have triggered a nuclear holocaust.
Rationale for Using the Movie: Thirteen Days captures the tension that the crisis provoked and provides an example of how foreign policy was made in the last half of the 20th century. It enables students to understand the importance of diplomacy and leadership in high office.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will gain insight into this period in U.S. History and the Cuban Missile Crisis. They will exercise research and writing skills in the expression of these insights.
Possible Problems: Substantial: Thirteen Days can be a valuable supplement to the study of the Cold War, but only if serious misimpressions are brought out and discussed. The Helpful Background section of this Learning Guide provides the information necessary to make these corrections.
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SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THIRTEEN DAYS IN THE CLASSROOM
Film Enrichment Worksheet
Although the Cuban Missile Crisis lasted for 13 days in October of 1962, the story began much earlier. At the end of World War II, relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. deteriorated, ending the cooperation which enabled the Allies to defeat Nazi Germany. The Russians did not withdraw their forces from Eastern Europe. Russian occupying forces overstayed their tour of duty in the Middle East. The Russians supported Communist revolutionaries in Greece. Britain and America thwarted the expansion of the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic into Iran and began the policy of containment, attempting to restrict Soviet expansion.
As the Cold War took hold, Americans became alarmed at the spread of Communist regimes in East Europe and East Asia. The Soviets were worried about postwar unity among the U.S. and powerful West European nations. The Communist bloc and the capitalist democracies lurched from crisis to crisis. These ranged from the Soviet blockade of Berlin, the Korean War, American spy planes crossing Russian airspace, Chinese shelling of Taiwanese islands Quemoy and Matsu, and the confrontation between Soviet ally Egypt and Western allies Israel, France and Britain over the Suez Canal.
Both sides developed highly destructive nuclear weapons. At the time of the crisis, Russia had almost 40 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and numerous Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). The IRBMs on Russian soil could not reach the U.S., other than Alaska, but they could reach Western Europe. With these missiles and its bomber fleet, the Soviet Union could hit the U.S. and its allies in Europe with approximately 250 nuclear weapons, enough to take out all of the major cities. Well over a hundred million people could have been killed in the U.S. and the NATO countries. The U.S., for its part, had approximately 170 ICBMs, in addition to hundreds of long range bombers, IRBMs and submarine based missiles. The U.S. could deliver some 3,000 nuclear bombs into Russia. While there were defenses to the long range bombers, there were no defenses to ICBMs or IRBMs and the American weapons could have taken out well over 100 million Russians and their allies.
In the effort to stop the spread of communism, in April of 1961 the CIA, with President Kennedy's approval, mounted an invasion of Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower Administration. Using Cuban exiles as the initial landing force, the target was the Bay of Pigs on the Cuban coast. The invasion was poorly planned and quickly crushed. President Kennedy had relied upon the advice of experienced men in the government who told him that the invasion would succeed. He had ignored warnings from some that the plan was flawed. The invasion was an unmitigated disaster for the U.S. government and for President Kennedy. The responsible officials, the head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, and an assistant were told by President Kennedy that they were to resign after a decent interval.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion, the CIA developed Operation Mongoose which actively tried to destabilize the Cuban regime and assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Robert Kennedy, at the direction of the President, personally supervised these activities and was very persistent in pushing the CIA for more aggressive action against Cuba and against Castro personally. This was a massive operation with 6000 acts of sabotage committed in Cuba.
Question 1: How might officials in Cuba's government have felt about the intentions of the U.S. given all of the underhanded, destabilizing activities of Operation Mongoose, and what would be their likely response?
With the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, President Kennedy analyzed his decision-making process. He now knew that before making important decisions he needed to explore the possible consequences of each alternative course of action and seek advice from a variety of sources, inside government and out. Thus, Excomm came into being.
Excomm was an unusual body because it included representatives from outside the government, in this case former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Governmental officials from agencies not usually involved in critical military decisions were included in the committee. Chief among these was Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, a Republican. Finally, all types of views were solicited. As shown in the movie, Adlai Stevenson, ambassador to the U.N. and former two-time Democratic candidate for President, advocated appeasement of the Russians. He was alone in this position. President Kennedy protected Stevenson from being ousted from the Excomm and removed as Ambassador to the U.N., as Bobby Kennedy advised. In the end, Stevenson proved immensely valuable to the U.S. by dramatically showing that the Russians were lying to the world about the missiles. His speech was the single most important victory in the propaganda war that was such an important part of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1962 while the U.S. government knew that its nuclear forces were much stronger than those of the Soviet Union, it realized that losing its major cities with casualties approaching 100,000,000 people was not acceptable. In addition, through treaty obligations and as a practical matter, no U.S. government could permit Europe to be destroyed. The Soviets, for their part, acutely felt the inferiority of their nuclear deterrent. The effort to place missiles in Cuba was an effort by the Russians to improve their nuclear capability quickly and inexpensively. The Soviet leadership, however, didn't realize how much the U.S. feared Russia's nuclear power. In an attempt to redress the imbalance in nuclear missiles and ensure that the U.S. would not mount another Cuban invasion, Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, began a program to secretly place intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. These missiles would be able to reach almost all of the continental U.S. The CIA learned of suspicious activity from intelligence sources on the island, and the U.S. sent U-2 spy planes to investigate.
When a U-2 came back with photographs of missile sites under construction, President Kennedy convened his advisors before announcing the discovery to the world. While some recommended diplomacy, others pressed for military options, such as air strikes or an invasion of Cuba. President Kennedy adopted a middle approach in which the U.S. Navy established a quarantine preventing any additional missiles or offensive weapons from reaching the island. In the meantime, the U.S. mounted a public relations and diplomatic offensive attempting to use world opinion to pressure the Soviets to remove the missiles. Soviet ships tested the blockade but ultimately chose not to challenge the quarantine. The U.S. for its part allowed ships with food and fuel through the quarantine. Acting without Moscow's approval, a Soviet surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery shot down a U-2 spy plane over Cuba, killing the pilot and exacerbating the tension between the Cold War combatants. Finally, in secret negotiations, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles in Cuba. President Kennedy pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the superpowers moved to reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation. Difficulties in communications encountered during the crisis led to the installation of direct telephone communications between the leaders to avoid any future misunderstandings. In subsequent years, the countries negotiated a nuclear test ban treaty. Future presidents and Soviet leaders agreed to Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) in the 1960s and 1970s that limited the number of nuclear warheads poised to strike the other side. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1969 attempted to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated the INF Treaty in the late 1980s, which began the elimination of intermediate range nuclear missiles. Other American presidents and Russian leaders have worked to reduce nuclear weapons through a pair of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I & II).
Never again would America and Russia come to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon.
Looking back on the Crisis from the safe distance of decades, it is easy to see the contrast in styles of decision-making in both President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. President Kennedy reached out to a broad array of advisors for help in making decisions, whereas Chairman Khrushchev had very few advisors. He viewed the members of the Presidium, which would have provided the most experienced and logical pool of advisors, as political adversaries.
In the midst of the crisis, U.S. policy makers rushed to prepare an invasion of the island without knowing that the missiles were already operational and that the island was guarded by 40,000 Red Army personnel armed with tactical nuclear weapons the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Khrushchev, however, was fully aware of all of these dangers. He also knew that there would have been all out war, if nuclear weapons were used on U.S. troops.
President Kennedy and Khrushchev had spent a considerable amount of time together in Geneva. Khrushchev mistakenly thought that the young President was callow and weak. Kennedy was appalled at Khrushchev's ruthlessness and barbarity. Nonetheless, when faced with the probability that his ploy in Cuba would lead to nuclear war, and given an out by the U.S., Khrushchev withdrew the missiles. What Khrushchev had not understood when he gave the order to put the missiles in Cuba in the first place, was that the U.S. population was unwilling to tolerate hostile nuclear missiles in Cuba.
It was therefore impossible for any U.S. government to permit the missiles to remain, and the U.S. would go to war, if necessary, to remove the missiles. Failure to gauge the reaction of ordinary U.S. citizens to the prospect of Russian missiles in Cuba was Khrushchev's key mistake in his planning for the crisis. It was certainly an understandable error for a Russian leader to make. Russia had lived with hostile enemies on its borders for centuries. The U.S. had missiles in countries relatively close to Russia, including Turkey.
The Russians had learned to live with these threats. Khrushchev forgot (or never knew and his experts on the U.S. didn't tell him) that the U.S. had not been invaded since 1812 and that for more than 150 years, the U.S. population had felt protected by the oceans separating it from Europe and Asia. By 1962, with the advent of nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, that feeling of insulation was irrational, but it was still held by many Americans. Khrushchev never dreamed that the U.S. populace would react so dramatically to Russian missiles in Cuba.
Another important element in the decisions made by Khrushchev is the fact that Communications in 1962 were not what they are today. As a result, Khrushchev had only incomplete control over the Russian military units in Cuba. The primary example of this was the shooting down of the American U-2 spy plane over Cuba on October 27. This occurred when a Russian commander violated orders and acted on his own initiative. Khrushchev was also having trouble controlling Castro, who, significantly, was the only head of state involved in the crisis that had not seen service in the military during WWII.
During the crisis, Castro was sure the U.S. was going to invade Cuba. Given the massive military buildup in Florida, the attempted invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and Operation Mongoose with its sabotage and assassination attempts Castro had good reason for this belief. He also knew of the Red Army regiments in Cuba and their nuclear capabilities. He may not have been completely aware of the great advantage that the U.S. had in ICBMs, but he did know that Russian IRBMs in Cuba could deal a massive blow to his enemy to the North.
Castro thought that if an invasion would trigger a nuclear war, the Soviets had the best chance of winning if they struck first with their nuclear weapons. Castro knew Cuba would be incinerated but was willing to sacrifice the island and its people for the good of the Communistcause world-wide. When Castro proposed in a letter to Khrushchev that the Russians begin a nuclear war before the invasion, Khrushchev was horrified. Khrushchev had already decided to remove the missiles; he was just waiting for the right time. After learning of Castro's position, Khrushchev decided that Russia had to dismantle the missiles immediately.
Question 2: In what ways did failure of intelligence, both in terms of information and communication, worsen the crisis?
A final reason Khrushchev was willing to back down can be attributed to President Kennedy's willingness to provide a formal commitment that, if the missiles were withdrawn, the U.S. would not invade Cuba and that it would not help others to do so. This commitment was, in fact, a concession by the U.S. It gave Khrushchev a way to claim that he had achieved an important objective despite removing the missiles.
Over the years, as more about the crisis became public, it become clear that the non-invasion pledge was a real concession. The Kennedy brothers were actively working to change the government of Cuba and to assassinate Castro. However, as more information has come out, Kennedy's role in restraining the forces in the U.S. that wanted to conduct air strikes or invade Cuba has been disclosed. As shown in the film, while on the one hand preparing for war if it had to come, President Kennedy always chose actions that would not lead to war. He ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviet Union with steps that always left the Soviets room to maneuver and time to rationally decide what to do. Through his willingness to agree formally not to invade Cuba, President Kennedy gave Khrushchev a way out of the crisis.
Revelations in the 1990s that the Russians had been able to secretly conduct a massive military build-up in Cuba, introducing 40,000 Red Army troops, and that their 42 nuclear missiles were operational during the crisis demonstrate the wisdom of President Kennedy's approach. By restraining those who wanted to initiate air strikes or an invasion, and by starting the U.S. response with a naval quarantine, President Kennedy avoided war.
The primary example of Kennedy's restraint occurred on October 27 when a Russian Surface to Air missile (SAM) shot down an American U-2 spy plane killing the pilot. Kennedy was faced with two choices. He could treat the incident as an intentional escalation ordered by the Kremlin or view it as an unauthorized action by an overeager Soviet commander. The U.S. had no information as to which was correct. However, President Kennedy did know that one choice led the world much closer to nuclear war and the other kept alive the hope for a peaceful resolution. President Kennedy chose to believe that the attack on the U-2 was unauthorized. It turns out that he was correct.
Question 3: What may have been the outcome had President Kennedy believed that the U-2 incident was ordered by the Kremlin?
Khrushchev, on the other hand, exhibited poor leadership by initiating the crisis. He put his country and the entire world at tremendous risk of nuclear holocaust. However, by backing down and removing the missiles with only the no invasion promise, Khrushchev showed foresight and political courage.
Both sides contributed to the crisis, although most Western historians believe that the gravest responsibility lies with Khrushchev and the Soviets. It appears that Khrushchev had several goals when he initiated the crisis. He wanted to improve Russia's nuclear capabilities without waiting for Soviet scientists and engineers to upgrade Russia's own missile fleet. Furthermore, in the service of Russian neo-imperialism and Communist solidarity, Khrushchev wanted to protect Cuba from invasion from the U.S. Even before the crisis, with the history of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the ongoing "Operation Mongoose," the Russians and the Cubans had reason to fear U.S. intentions. After the crisis, Khrushchev claimed that protecting Cuban sovereignty was Khrushchev's only goal in placing missiles in Cuba. However, Khrushchev is reported to have made several remarks to close aids indicating that improving Russia's nuclear capabilities and reducing the U.S. advantage in ICwere important to him.
The U.S. and the Kennedy Administration contributed to the coming of the Cuban Missile Crisis through a number of policies. The attempted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs followed by Operation Mongoose, which attempted to subvert Castro's government and assassinate Castro, certainly helped set the stage for the crisis. U.S. nuclear policy at the time also contributed to the crisis. The U.S. had an 18 to 1 advantage over the Soviets in ICBMs. Yet because of the numerical superiority of the Red Army and of the Chinese Army, the U.S. would not disavow a nuclear first strike as a military option. U.S. policy makers felt that its "nuclear shield" was all that kept the peace in Europe.
The expense of maintaining an army large enough to counter the Red Army in Europe and the Chinese Army in Asia would have put a tremendous strain on Western economies. Moreover, the Western outpost of Berlin would certainly have fallen and perhaps the entire NATO alliance would have failed, if the Russians had not been convinced that the U.S. would wage a nuclear war to protect Berlin. However, the refusal of the U.S. to disavow a nuclear first strike made the Russians justifiaby nervous — the U.S. had used the atom bomb on Japan to end WWII.
On balance, responsibility for events which put the future of the world at risk fall much further to the Soviet side than to the U.S.; more to Khrushchev than to Kennedy. It was the Russians, after all, who placed their missiles in Cuba. This imbalance of blame (guilt might be a better word) most likely played a role in Khrushchev's decision to back down and that was his saving grace. Certainly, the world and Khrushchev were fortunate that the U.S. had elected a president who had the wisdom and personal strength sufficient to resist demands for an invasion or an air strike and that there was not another escalating incident that would have forced President Kennedy's hand.
After the missiles had been removed, President Kennedy described the process of crisis management by stating that one must be firm, obtain the best information possible, and act with care. During the crisis he warned that there will be people who, through stupidity or because of their own agenda, would take actions to push the country toward a nuclear Armageddon.
Question 4: What may have been the result had those who wanted military action against Russia, prevailed.
After watching the file, engage the class in a discussion about the movie and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
1. In what way do concessions offered to an enemy work to resolve a dangerous conflict? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Students should note that each side has something to gain and to lose in any confrontation; the best conclusion to a deadly stand-off is an honorable exit in which both parties save face as they back away from untenable positions.
2. In democratic countries, many believe that the repository of wisdom is ultimately in the people. However, in 1962 the American people thought that the installation of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba would have resulted in an intolerable change in the balance of power. President Kennedy disagreed. Who was correct? Why? What did President Kennedy do about this? Suggested Response: President Kennedy was correct. The Soviets already had 40 nuclear armed ICBMs stationed on Russian soil. The U.S. had (and still has) no defense to ICBMs. These missiles could have destroyed every major U.S. population center killing an estimated 100,000,000 people; that was an unacceptable result for any U.S. leader. Thus, while the U.S. had more ICBMs than Russia, the two superpowers were at a stalemate. The addition of IRBMs in Cuba didn't really change that fact and the American people were wrong to regard the installation of missiles in Cuba as a substantial change in the balance of power. However, it would probably have been impossible for President Kennedy to convince them of this. President Kennedy's solution was to try to force the Russians to dismantle the missiles through diplomacy and a naval quarantine. Fortunately, this strategy worked. There were other considerations, including the need to look strong on the International stage, the need to punish Russia for a reckless gamble, etc. These were all served by the solution crafted by President Kennedy.
3. A key episode in the movie Thirteen Days is the confrontation between an American warship and a Soviet ship which refused to stop. The navy admiral insists that his ship correctly followed the traditional "rules of engagement." Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that the rules had changed, given the significance of the crisis and the chances for misperception and mistake. Was this a military question, in which the normal rules of engagement should be allowed to run their course or a civilian matter in which the Secretary of Defense should have interfered with the military? Suggested Response: It was a civilian matter because the response of the U.S. warship could have led to war. Under the U.S. Constitution, that is a decision to be made by civilian leaders because the Commander in Chief of the armed forces is the President of the U.S.
4. What ironies can be seen in the fact that President Kennedy became known as a peacemaker in the Cuban Crisis, yet he had sanctioned the Bay of Pigs invasion and authorized Operation Mongoose? Suggested Response: All well-reasonedopinions are acceptable. Some may suggest that President Kennedy affirmed aggressive actions against a small, weak enemy yet supported peace when the stakes were high and the enemy was powerful. It appears that his peacemaker role depended upon the weight of risks and the potential for success both in political and human terms.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. Research sources and write an expository essay on one of the following topics any of which can be expanded to include a power point presentation to the class as a whole.
3. Write a proposal for a checklist of steps and decisions that the U.S. would have to make before engaging in warfare. Consider factors that were important to those facing the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as factors important to a modern, more interconnected world.
For additional assignments, click here.
Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
Last updated October 18, 2015.
Credits and Thanks: To John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, at La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia, for help with early drafts of this Learning Guide and to Alexander Frieden for proofreading and comments.
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