Film Forum: JFK vs. the
Joint Chiefs in Thirteen Days

Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days.

By Joseph McBride, Contributor
April / May 2001

On the morning of Saturday, October 20, 1962, I was in a station wagon with my family en route to Milwaukee’s Billy Mitchell Field to hear President John F. Kennedy make a campaign speech for Democratic congressional candidates. As we moved slowly in a long line of cars to the airport, the radio reported that JFK had come down with a “slight cold” in Chicago and was returning directly to Washington. We didn’t know then that the Cuban Missile Crisis was reaching its boiling point.

Even after Kennedy revealed in a television address two days later that the U.S. and the USSR were staring each other down over nuclear missiles in Cuba, I don’t recall being worried about the possibility of world annihilation. As a devout Catholic boy, I was mostly concerned that the president had lied to us. My naïveté over what the French call a “cold diplomatique” is a measure of how far we’ve come since that more innocent era; today we tend to assume the president is lying unless we can be convinced otherwise.

The stirring new film about the Missile Crisis, Thirteen Days, can’t help seeming somewhat old-fashioned in stressing the importance of thoughtful presidential leadership. The crisis actually had two heroes: President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Nikita S. Khrushchev. Their prior recklessness over Cuba precipitated the crisis, but in the end both had the wisdom to save the world from destruction. Khrushchev is not depicted in Thirteen Days, but he is a powerful off-screen presence. In the 1974 TV movie on the crisis, The Missiles of October, he is memorably played by Howard da Silva.

Missiles is more a chamber play than a realistic re-creation, but it works superbly on those terms while thereby avoiding the pitfalls of impersonating famous characters. Surprisingly, so does the far more elaborately produced Thirteen Days, which boasts an extraordinarily fine performance by Bruce Greenwood as JFK. Greenwood captures Kennedy’s body language and the timbre of his voice while avoiding the usual caricature. Most importantly, Greenwood conveys the thoughtfulness and prudence that enabled Kennedy to resist the pressures of his Joint Chiefs of Staff to escalate the crisis by attacking Cuba. Thirteen Days is unexpectedly timely now, since “thoughtfulness and prudence” are not words that spring to mind in discussing our new non-elected “president” George W. Bush.

Steven Culp smoothly impersonates Robert F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days, although the characterization is somewhat sentimentalized, portraying Bobby as less “ruthless” than he actually was, thus missing some of his complexity. The film alludes only briefly to RFK’s plotting against Castro, which continued even after the missile crisis, and while emphasizing his gradual dovishness, it does not include his rash suggestion early in the crisis that the U.S. stage a provocation, “[Y]ou know, sink the Maine again or something.”

Steven Culp as Robert F. Kennedy.

Both actors playing Kennedys act rings around the nominal star, Kevin Costnet, who affects a laughably bad Kennedy accent as the president’s appointment secretary, Kenneth O’Donnell. Costner doesn’t seem to realize that a Kennedy accent, which has strong traces of England, is not the same as a Boston Irish accent. Despite Costner’s efforts to be relatively self-effacing, his star power imbalances the film, since his O’Donnell is basically a glorified courtier. But it was only Costner’s clout as star and producer that made this film possible. (The unofficial sequel to Thirteen Days has already Ken made, and it also stars Costner – Oliver Stone’s JFK. Maybe next he can play George H. W. Bush in the prequel, The Bay of Pigs.)

Thirteen Days screenwriter David Self ably edited the riveting dialogue derived from the 1997 book of transcripts of the White House deliberations, The Kennedy Tapes, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow.

Unfortunately, that marvelous book is given ungenerous acknowledgment in microscopic type near the close of the end credits (the film’s title is cribbed from RFK’s posthumously published book on the crisis, on which The Missiles of October was based).

Director Roger Donaldson, an Australian who began his filmmaking career in New Zealand, is not seduced by any American flag-waving rhetoric, and he vividly depicts the ominous military preparations for an invasion of Cuba, an element unseen in Missiles. But Thirteen Days, for all its aura of authenticity, misses the ultimate point of the crisis. The filmmakers went eyeball to eyeball with some of the darkest troths about modem American history – and they blinked.

The strange decision to tell the story from O’Donnell’s viewpoint led Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen to mock Thirteen Days as “Kenny O’Donnell saving the world.” Journalist and Kennedy confidant Ben Bradlee described Costner’s heart-tugging portrayal of O’Donnell as “exaggerated and fictionalized. To me, he was the enforcer, he kept everyone in line. He was a tough guy and totally loyal servant and friend.” It’s significant that the more convivial Kennedy aide Dave Powers, JFK’s closest friend and O’Donnell’s collaborator on the 1972 memoir Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, is not portrayed in the film, for Costner’s character resembles a combination of Powers and O’Donnell.

I find it hard to accept O’Donnell as a loyal, sympathetic figure because I can’t overlook his role in covering up the truth about Kennedy’s assassination. O’Donnell and Powers were riding in the Secret Service follow-up car behind JFK’s limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Asked by Warren Commission assistant counsel Aden Specter for his “reaction as to the source of the shots,” O’Donnell testified cryptically, “My reaction in part is reconstruction – is that they came from the right rear. That would be my best judgment.” However, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill revealed in his 1987 autobiography, Man of the House, that O’Donnell and Powers told him they heard two shots from behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll in front of the president.

O’Donnell explained to O’Neill, “I told the FBI what I had heard, but they said it couldn’t have happened that way and that I must have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just didn’t want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the [Kennedy] family.” Powers more truthfully told the commission, “My first impression was that the shots came from the right and overhead, but I also had a fleeting impression that the noise appeared to come from the front in the area of the triple overpass. This may have resulted from my feeling, when I looked forward toward the overpass, that we might have ridden into an ambush.”

Thirteen Days is most valuable for reopening for a wide audience the question of civilian control of the military, a topic as important today as it was in 1962. The heart of the film is JFK’s confrontation with his Joint Chiefs, particularly General Curtis LeMay, who at the time was U.S. Air Force chief of staff. Not content with incinerating cities in Germany and Japan during World War II, LeMay subsequently headed the Strategic Air Command and wanted to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the USSR. He helped inspire not one but two characters in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove, Sterling Hayden’s General Jack D. Ripper and George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson.

Kevin Costner as Kenny O’Donnell.

The most stunning revelation in The Kennedy Tapes is the exchange between LeMay and JFK on October 19, which is recreated on screen. The insubordinate general angrily reminded Kennedy that “we made pretty strong statements about the [unclear] Cuba, that we would take action against offensive weapons. I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too. You’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President.”

Kennedy responded incredulously, “What did you say?”

LeMay repeated, “You’re in a pretty bad fix.”

The Kennedy Tapes reports that Kennedy then made “an unclear, joking, reply.” According to RFK’s Thirteen Days, which incorrectly ascribes LeMay’s remark to another general, the president retorted, “You are in it with me.” The film’s JFK says, “Well, maybe you haven’t noticed you’re in it with me.” The departing LeMay (played by Kevin Conway) fumes, “Those goddam Kennedys are gonna destroy this country if we don’t do something about this.” No wonder the actual President Kennedy worried at one point in that crisis, “Suppose Khrushchev has the same degree of control over his forces as I have over mine?”

Khrushchev’s own anxiety over the situation, expressed in his moving letter to Kennedy on October 26, receives insufficient emphasis in the film. The Soviet leader wrote: “If you have not lost command of yourself and realize clearly what this could lead to, then, Mr. President, you and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut. What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dread forces our two countries possess.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s famous comment, “We are eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked,” referred to the Soviets, but he could have been describing JFK’s relationship with the Chiefs. After Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for a secret deal to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade Cuba, Kennedy wrote him, “I think that you and I, with our heavy responsibilities for the maintenance of peace, were aware that developments were approaching a point where events could have become unmanageable.”

The turning point of the crisis was Robert Kennedy’s meeting with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on October 27, delivering an ultimatum from the president while offering the other terms as olive branches. As reported by Khrushchev in his 1970 autobiography Khrushchev Remembers, the scene was considerably more dramatic than the one in the film, which chickens out at this critical moment of revelation by having Dobrynin, not RFK, bring up that some in the U.S. military “wish for war.”

Military build-up in Cuba as depicted in Thirteen Days.

According to Khrushchev, what RFK told Dobrynin was: “The President is in a grave situation, and he does not know how to get out of it. We are under very severe stress. In fact We are under pressure from: our military to use force against Cuba…Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the President is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating this conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.”

Kennedy’s friend Paul B. (Red) Fay Jr., the under secretary of the navy, had a similarly chilling conversation with JFK in the summer of 1962. It took place the day after Kennedy finished reading Seven Days in May the popular novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II about an attempted military coup against a fictional president. “It’s possible,” Kennedy told Fay. “It could happen in this country, but the conditions would have to be just right. If, for example, the country had a young President, and he had a Bay-of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. Maybe the military would do a little criticizing behind his back, but this would be written off as the usual military dissatisfaction with civilian control. Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, `Is he too young and inexperienced. The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment.

“Then, if there were a third Bay of Pigs, it could happen.” Kennedy added defiantly, “But it won’t happen on my watch. He felt so strongly about Such a threat that he regarded Seven Days in May as “a warning to the nation” and in 1963 allowed director John Frankenheimer to shoot scenes for the film version in the White House. A full-page ad for the film appeared in. the New York Times on the day of the president’s assassination.

The American public, unaware of the trade of the missiles in Turkey, generally considered the Cuban Missile Crisis an unalloyed Kennedy triumph, but from the viewpoint of the Chiefs it was a failure of presidential will, “another Bay of pigs.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara recalled in 1987, “After Khrushchev had agreed to remove the missiles, President Kennedy invited the Chiefs to the White House so that he could thank them for their support during the crisis, and there was one hell of a scene. LeMay came out saying, `We lost! We ought to just go in there today and knock `em off.'”

Some have suggested that the nuclear test ban treaty with the USSR in. 1963 may have been regarded by military leaders as the “third Bay of Pigs,” requiring a violent seizure of power to ensure U.S. superiority over the USSR. LeMay was not alone in his advocacy of a first strike. At a July 1961 meeting of the National Security Council, the Chiefs outraged JFK with a presentation suggesting that the rates of missile production in the two countries would allow a “window of opportunity” in “late 1963” for a “surprise” U.S. nuclear attack on the USSR.

Kennedy’s most eloquent statement on the danger of nuclear war was his speech at American University in Washington on June 10, 1963, which Khrushchev described as the greatest speech ever given by an American president. Part of that speech is played over the ending of Thirteen Days: “What kind of a peace do we seek? I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living. Not merely peace in our time, but peace in all time. Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man…. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

Khrushchev was equally eloquent when he reflected to Norman Cousins shortly after the crisis, “What good would it have done me in the last hour of my life to know that though our great nation and the United States were in complete ruins, the national honor of the Soviet Union was intact.?”

Both leaders paid dearly for their principled restraint. Khrushchev was deposed by his Presidium colleagues in October 1964, eleven months after Kennedy was murdered. Indira Gandhi observed, “Kennedy died because he lost the support of his peers.” Those who continue to believe that a coup d’état can’t happen in this country are ignoring not only the truth about November 1963 but also the events surrounding our last presidential election. ♦

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