“13 Days” – a Pre-quel to the Assassination of JFK” - A Review – By W. Kelly
As a testament to the idea that fact is better than fiction, the film “13 Days” takes the events of October, 1962 – the Cuban Missile Crisis, and presents them in a credible and fascinating way.
It’s interesting that President George W. Bush invited some of the Kennedy family to watch the film with him at the White House, a newsworthy situation that tells us that at least the new Pres saw the film even if he might not get the movie’s message, though it’s frightening to even ponder how the President today would be able to disregard the advice and desire of practically all of his generals.
Leaving the theater however, thoughts and conversations weren’t about how things would play out today, as most people didn’t even talk about the movie or the Missile Crisis, but instead, the focus of interest was on the assassination of President Kennedy.
“13 Days” provides a motive as to why the assassination happened and who was really responsible. As John Judge noted, “13 Days” is kind of a prequel to Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” as it lays out the groundwork and sets the stage for what was to come.
Of course the primary producer, Kevin Costner and actor, probably wouldn’t have made this film if he didn’t make “JFK,” but there’s more than just Costner’s starring roles in both film that brings these two startling events and movies together.
Since most of the viewers of both films weren’t even alive when the events portrayed actually happened, and those of us who were only know the secondary participants by name, “13 Days” gives good insight into the character and personalities of some major players in the JFK assassination drama, especially Air Force General Curtis LeMay, Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, defense secretary Robert McNamara and UN ambassador Adele Stevenson, as well as the Kennedy brothers themselves.
The movie opens at Kenny O’Donnell’s home breakfast table where Costner quizzes his kids on the names and titles of Kennedy’s cabinet, of which he is a part. An important part of this movie is seeing how the Kennedy administrators thought and talked with each other, sometimes doubting and questioning each other’s judgment and then implicitly trusting other decisions while questioning the advice and motives of others, especially those who tried to box them into a forced military reaction. Withholding that option and continuing a reasoned diplomacy was probably one of the most pivotal decisions that has shaped our society, while the assassination of JFK became a watershed event from which democracy has yet to recover.
Gearing up for a fight, and then not having one was harder on the military than we had been led to believe. A bar owner once told me that he hired bouncers, not to fight or eject unruly patrons, but to keep things cool and not have any fights. But sometimes bouncers don’t see it that way and don’t think they’re earning their money if they don’t punch somebody out every once in awhile. It’s sort of like a “Jack Ruby-Sparky Syndrome,” except in a more institutionalized form.
You see it in the wrath of the eyes of General LeMay, (played by Kevin Conway) the strategic “Bomb’m back to the stone age” Air Force commander who was used to giving orders, not following the demands of a couple of punk rich kids a few years out of college. The generals weren’t even trusted by Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker), who had to sleep in his office at the Pentagon because he was afraid if he left the military would make a move without him, and McGeorge Bundy, the national security aid who served as a “buffer” between the military and the administration. Both were eventually taken in by the assassination and Vietnam.
It was the Cuban Missile Crisis and how Kennedy handled it, which made the national security forces recognize that they weren’t going to be able to force their hand during a crisis, when they were paralyzed from holding a coup d’etat when it would be particularly visible and blatant. So they had to do it during a lull in the action, at Dealey Plaza, when the palace guard was down and most vulnerable.
After JFK permitted the producers of Fletcher Nebel’s “Seven Days In May” to film scenes in the White House, he was asked by journalist Joe Alsop if he thought such a coup attempt as depicted in the fictional story could ever actually happen, and Kennedy said it could, “if there was such an event such as the Bay of Pigs,” and then a similar event, then a military takeover of the government could happen.
The motive for the military’s acquiescence for the assassination, if not the actual execution, stems from the failure of the Bay of Pigs, together with the triumph of diplomacy over military action during the Cuban Missile Crisis, iced by the signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the American University “Peace Speech,” all together ensured the removal of the Kennedy administration and replacing it, constitutionally, with one headed by Lyndon Johnson. This military take-over included McNamara and Bundy, who got the message, helped devise the necessary strategy and ensured the redirection of national security policy away from detente and diplomacy and towards war and covert and overt aggression.
The acceptance of this general outline and framing of the assassination of President Kennedy is one generally accepted by most people, but vehemently denounced by mainstream historians, politicians and the media, though it is one that I think will be born out by the evidence when all the facts are in and the total truth is known.
The association of the Missile Crisis and the assassination is not made as clearly in the otherwise excellent made-for-TV movie “The Missiles of October,” which stars Marty Sheen and also clearly delineates the back room dealings that went on during the crisis. The association may come out even more clearly with a closer reading of the actual transcripts of the taped conversations published in The Kennedy Tapes – Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, (Edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow; Belknap Press of Harvard, 1997).
These recently declassified and released papers are now available at the National Security Archives (NSA), at
which was established by a group of journalists who researched and wrote books
on national security matters based on government documents released under the
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Many of these documents are published on
their web site, which makes note of the fact that few, if any of the official
documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis even mention Kenneth P. O’Donnell, whose
role played by Costner is a featured attraction in “13 Days.” George
Some critics have said that O’Donnell’s actual limited role takes some legitimacy away from the truthfulness of the film, while the producers, in the aim of accuracy, pulled some early New York Times advertisements that included photographs of missiles that had yet to be developed in 1962. While the extent of O’Donnell’s role can be questioned, if not measured, you can’t get around the fact that he was there, in the room, when most of the significant events occurred, and I intend to explore his role further.
According to The Kennedy Tapes, “On Monday morning, October 22, Kennedy convened his advisors…in the Cabinet Room. One of those who had probably attended earlier meetings but who spoke for the first time at this meeting was Kenneth O’Donnell. A Harvard classmate of Robert Kennedy and an aide to John Kenney since the senatorial campaign of 1952, O’Donnell was Special Assistant to the President, charged especially with managing the President’s time…”
As described in A Common Good – The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O’Donnell, by daughter Helen O’Donnell (William Morrow, N.Y., 1998), “Kenny’s desk was right outside the Oval Office. As special assistant and appointments secretary, he was the gatekeeper to the president. He was relentless and tough in his new job as had ever been on the campaign. He was widely known as Kennedy’s political chief of staff,…won the nickname ‘the Cobra’….There were three words that epitomized Kennedy O’Donnell in Jack Kennedy’s White House….’Cut the crap.’…That attitude made him valuable to President Kennedy, who knew he could rely on Kenny to handle what needed to be handled, preserve the president’s time, and protect the president’s back.”
As seen through the eyes of O’Donnell, “13 Days” takes you into the White House, the Pentagon war room and cockpits of the Surveillance planes, but leaves the reactions of the Cubans and Russians, other than backchannel KGB contact, totally out of the picture. Before they put in the Hot-Line red phones in the White House and the Kremlin, so both leaders can talk one-on-one in times of crisis, the official bureaucratic channels were so cumbersome that the best and quickest way to communicate a message to Khrushchev in Moscow was either through the press, which in this case meant a KGB officer who they knew had the direct ear of the Russian leader.
In the movie, the KGB officer’s bonafides as a close associate of Khrushchev are checked by comparing career chronologies of both men, which came up with a match of them having served in the same place at the same time during WWII, and shows the importance of compiling such chronologies when conducting such research.
One message RFK gives to his KGB friend that’s not in the movie is that JFK is afraid that he can no longer keep the military leaders at bay and if he doesn’t take a more aggressive stance, they may even attempt to get rid of him and take over the government. Khrushchev knew the feeling well, as he too was under the same pressures from his military commanders, who eventually did contribute to the removal of Khrushchev within a year of JFK’s murder.
Rather than the Soviets, it is the U.S. Military commanders who come off as the Bad Guys they apparently were. In discussing the possible options the
had in response to the placement of Russian nuclear missiles in U.S. ,
about one fourth of the advisors, mostly military men, advocated an immediate
surgical, tactical air strike and full scale invasion of Cuba .
As we know today, that would have resulted in a total thermonuclear war since
the Russians already had tactical nuclear weapons in place in Cuba
under the command of field Colonels who would have used them if attacked. [We
didn’t know this at the time however, and only learned of the tactical nukes at
a unique conference on the Missile Crisis that was held in Cuba
in 1992 and included Cuban, Russian and American scholars and participants,
including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The Cubans have already engaged in two
similar conferences with American researcher in regards to the JFK
JFK mentioning these tactical nukes in the movie is one of the few historical gaffs in the film. Another technical inaccuracy is press secretary Pierre Salinger shown giving a press conference – “The President has a cold,” without a cigar in his hand, while General LeMay is never shown without one, which brings up an interesting anecdote.
LeMay wants the Air Force to be given the ball so they can throw their bombs, but instead, JFK, RFK and O’Donnell make personal phone calls to the pilots of reconnaissance planes to order them not to even get shot at so as not to instigate a forced retaliatory strike. When one pilot returns with the photos, his ground grew marvels at the bullet holes in the wing, which the pilot says were made by a flock of sparrows. “Were they .20 or .40 caliber sparrows?” the ground crewman asks, but
LeMay is more forceful in his questioning, “Did they
shoot you with so much as a BB gun?” LeMay wants to
know, but the good soldier, true to his Commander-in-Chief, just says it was a
It was a good way of emphasizing the desire and determination of the military brass to get into a scrum, while at the same time showing how President Kennedy operated, and how his administrative style included making personal contact with the players on the front lines, making sure they knew the game plan and what their role was, as well as the fact that the guy issuing the orders was really on top of things.
The Kennedys, as they did in their personal as well as professional lives, looked towards challenges as they did the game of football. In the movie, as in their lives, events overtook them, but they still made time to joke a little, throw the ball around the meeting room or backyard and confront crisis as a team effort.
Rather than a close associate of the President, Kenny O’Donnell was one of RFK’s guys, the quarterback on Bobby’s Harvard team, and so he was given a quarterback position in the White House, the Appointments Secretary. O’Donnell was the greater at the door, the Sgt-at-arms who you had to get past in order to get to the President.
Bobby, as the Attorney General, was the nation’s Top Cop, but also served as JFK’s right-hand-man and chief crisis coordinator. While the Cuban Missile Crisis was probably RFK’s greatest moment, everyone in the entire country and probably the civilized world eventually became caught up in the anxiety of the crisis, as it concerned the continuation of our society as we know it.
In the middle of it all, Coster’s O’Donnell takes time out to see his son play some high school football. Then back at the office he has to run physical interference and step in for a block to keep
LeMay from putting his chest into Kennedy’s
The football analogy is brought into play again later when JFK tells Bobby to get ready to take Adlai Stevenson out of the UN and put in someone more force full (John J. McCloy), but when nuclear push comes to shove Stevenson comes through in the clutch. Asking quite succinctly if the Russian Ambassador denies that there are long range offensive ballistic missiles in
Stevenson says, “I’ll wait for an answer until Hell freezes over.” Stevenson
stayed in the game, then got roughed up by a gang of thugs in Cuba
on UN Day and urged JFK not to go to there. Dallas
Kennedy however, did take General Walker out of the game, as he did CIA chief Allen Dulles along with Richard Bissell, the Godfather of the U2 and the architect of the
Pigs fiasco. Also pulled from his position was “ ’s
James Bond,” William Harvey, who experienced the wrath of RFK when Bobby
learned that America had sent in a
commando team to Harvey
during the missile crisis after RFK had ordered a halt to all such operations. Cuba
Lee Harvey Oswald was in the Great Game too, only a less significant player, but a player nonetheless. He had previously been associated with the U2 program as a USMC radar operator in
before he defected to the Japan Soviet Union, where his
knowledge of the U2 (altitude and speed) would have been of interest to the
Russians. Gary Powers said that he believed Oswald gave them the information
they needed to shoot him down, thus averting the Eisenhower-Khrushchev detente
meeting and postponing the end of the Cold War for decades. Its possible Oswald
attended Powers’ trial in . Moscow
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October, 1962, Oswald was back home in Texas with his Russian bride and baby daughter, and just beginning a technicians job at Jaggers-Chiles-Stoval, a graphics art firm that employed Oswald for six months. Besides doing routine advertising work for corporate clients, this company also did classified work for U.S. Army Intelligence, placing marks, arrows and captions on photographs, including aerial photos taken from the U2s taken over the
Soviet Union and .
So it is conceivable that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, some of the U2 photos of the missiles in Cuba that were used may have been tagged with their place names by Lee Harvey Oswald before they were seen by the President and his national security advisors.
The possibility that the Russians would place long range offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba had been suggested years earlier by Gen. Walker, who claimed that such a scenario was played out in war games as long as seven years earlier, before Castro even came to power, and the prelude for crisis was enunciated quite clearly by Clair Booth Luce in Life Magazine a week before the actual crisis.
So the number of possible options they had to work with should have been more numerous than were available at the time, and the administration shouldn’t have had to think on it’s feet and devise their own plays once the crisis got underway, which is when the U2 photos showed undeniable, irrefutable and certifiable evidence of the presence of the missiles in Cuba.
From the transcripts of the tapes, Kennedy seemed to approach it like a chess match:
“President Kennedy: Let me just say a little, first, about what the problem is, from my point of view.
First, I think we ought to think of why the Russians did this. Well, actually, it was a rather dangerous but rather useful play of theirs. We do nothing, they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the
and damage to our prestige. United
If we attack Cuban missiles, or Cuba, in any way, it gives them a clear line to take Berlin, as they were able to do in Hungary under the Anglo war in Egypt….We would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies….After all,
is 5 or 6,000 miles from them. They don’t give a damn about Cuba .
But they do care about Cuba and
about their own security… So I think they’ve got….I must say I think it’s a
very satisfactory position from their point of view….And clearly, if we do
nothing then they’ll have these missiles and they’ll be able to say any time we
ever try to do something about Cuba, they’ll fire these missiles. So that I
think is dangerous, but rather satisfactory, from their point of view… Berlin
Now, that’s what makes our problem so difficult. If we go in and take them out on a quick air strike, we neutralize the chance of danger to the United States…On the other hand, we increase the chance greatly, as I think – there’s bound to be reprisal from the Soviet Union, there always is – [of] their just going in and taking Berlin by force. Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative- and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening….
So I don’t think we’ve got any satisfactory alternatives…On the other hand, we’ve got to do something. Because if we do nothing, we’re going to have the problem with
anyway…So that’s why
we’ve got to respond. Now the question is: What is our response?” Berlin
During the course of the crisis, the lessons of history are mentioned throughout the great debate that would set the course of action – JFK mentions the failures of the strategic policy makers of World War I when he cited The Guns of August, which explains how the technology of warfare outpaced outdated and obsolete policies, which led to the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of soldiers and civilians.
JFK: “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth – but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”
Both George Ball and Bobby bring up
Pearl Harbor, and how the
had not nor should pull off such a sneak attack, while others, like LBJ, didn’t
want to “telegraph” the fact that we’re coming. U.S.
JFK even quotes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War when he says, “The war is won or lost in the temple, years before the battle is fought,” to emphasize the point that there’s something wrong about doing something against your own basic ethics and instincts.
LBJ, who is undisputedly the ugliest person in the entire show, gets in the last word, congratulating the President on his handling of the crisis with some offhand remark about “passing the mid-terms,” which I think he means by the positive effect the whole episode will have on the next election, which of course, he will win.
It must have been difficult to cram in so much in just a few hours, but the movie’s script, by David Self, is really well done, and such writers seldom get the credit when their work is so good.
It all quite fittingly ends with a voiceover of JFK giving the punch line of his American University speech of June 10, 1963, that many credit as laying the groundwork for detente, which ends with the final truth, “…and we are all mortal.”
O’Donnell and Dave Powers wrote their recollections of the Kennedy campaigns and administration in Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye, ( Little, Brown, 1970), but the book ends before
though both men were in the motorcade and were witnesses to Kennedy’s death, as
recalled in A Common Good, by
Helen O’Donnell (Wm. Morrow, 1998). Dallas
“When we were riding through
on our way from Love Field to the Trade Mart luncheon, the sun was shining
brightly and warmly. The crowd at the airport had been warm, enthusiastic, and
friendly. The crowds lining the street were equally warm and friendly. In the
backup car, next to Dave Powers, I turned to Dave and said, ‘There is certainly
nothing wrong with this crowd.’…Sitting on the two jump seats of the Secret
Service backup car, only about ten feet behind the president and Jackie, we
could see their faces clearly when they turned to nod and wave to screaming
people pushing into the street beside them. The president seemed thrilled and
fascinated by the crowd’s noisy excitement. I knew he had expected nothing like
this welcome.” Dallas
“When we were making the sharp turn around
in front of the School Book Depository building, I asked Dave Powers what time
it was. Ahead of us in the back seat of the Lincoln, the president was sitting
on the right side of the car with his arm outstretched, waving to the crowd in
front of the Depository. Mrs. Kennedy, in her pink suit with matching pink
pillbox hat perched on the back of her seat was beside him on his left with red
roses presented to her at the airport on the seat between them….’It’s
twelve-thirty,’ Dave said, looking at his watch. “Fine,’ said Kenny. ‘It’s only
five minutes from here, so we’re only running five minutes behind schedule.” Dealey Plaza
“I had just finished speaking when we heard shots, two close together and then a third one. There must have been an interval of at least five seconds before the third and last shots, because, after the second shot, Dave said to me, ‘Kenny, I think the president’s been shot!’ I made a quick sign of the cross and said, ‘What makes you think that?’ ‘Look at him,’ said Dave. ‘He was over on the right, with his arm stretched out. Now he’s slumped over toward Jackie, holding his throat.’”
“While we both stared at the president, a third shot took the side of his head off. We saw pieces of bone and brain tissue and bits of reddish hair flying through the air. The impact lifted him and shook him limply, as if he were a rag doll, and then he dropped out of our sight, sprawled across the backseat of the car. I said to Dave, ‘He’s dead.’”
, LBJ deferred the first
few decisions to O’Donnell, then when JFK was officially pronounced dead, LBJ
left to commandeer Air Force One, saying O’Donnell told him to take it instead
of his own plane, Air Force II. Parkland
“Kenny O’Donnell often said, ‘We mustn’t live on might-have-beens.’ Sadly, he didn’t follow his own advice. He became trapped by the deaths of John and Bobby Kennedy in a realm of lost possibilities. My father never recovered from Bobby’s death….After those two tragedies, he never cared about politics again, and he never gave his heart over to another politician again…the fight in the man was gone. Though it was alcoholism that would be the technical cause of both my mother’s and father’s deaths, in reality they died long before their last breath was released.”