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TERENCE SMITH: Potential nuclear war is a familiar subject for Hollywood. But this year the crisis portrayed is fact, not fiction. It is a dramatization of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
ACTOR [in video clip]: We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked. (Laughs)
TERENCE SMITH: “Thirteen Days,” a January release from New Line Cinema, describes the moment when U.S. intelligence discovered a threat close to home.
ACTOR: What is it?
ACTOR: On Sunday morning, one of our U2s took these pictures. The Soviets are putting medium-range ballistic missiles into Cuba.
ACTOR: Good morning, gentlemen.
ACTORS: Good morning, Mr. President.
ACTOR: Our cities in the southeast, as far north as Washington, DC, are in range of these weapons and in the event of a launch, we’ll have only five minutes warning.
ACTOR: In those five minutes they could kill 80 million Americans.
TERENCE SMITH: In the movie, as in reality, President John F. Kennedy, his brother, Robert, and their advisers, were faced with a dilemma: How to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba without starting a nuclear war.
ACTOR: No, no, no. Now there is more than one option here. And if one isn’t occurring to us, it’s because we haven’t thought hard enough.
ACTOR: Bobby, sometimes there is only one right choice and you thank God when it’s so clear.
TERENCE SMITH: While the filmmakers based their account on tape recordings of meetings in the Kennedy White House and other records, they took dramatic license to increase the role of Kevin Costner’s character, political aide Kenneth O’Donnell.
KEVIN COSTNER: [in film clip]: I’ll be evacuated with the President.
ACTRESS: Great. And while you’re under a rock somewhere with the president, what am I supposed to do with our five children, Kenny?
KEVIN COSTNER: Honey, honey, we’re not going to let it come to that.
TERENCE SMITH: The film documents the central role played by Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, to ensure civilian control over the military. He wanted to avoid starting a war by accident.
ACTOR: What the hell was that? Firing on a ship means attacking a ship. We were not attacking that ship. We were firing over it. That was not the President’s intention when he gave that order. What if the Soviets don’t see the distinction? What if they make the same mistake I just made? There will be no firing anything near any Soviet ship without my express permission. Now is that understood, Admiral? Is it?
TERENCE SMITH: The film, which has grossed more than $30 million at box offices in the United States, is dramatizing the threat of nuclear war to a generation not even born at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
TERENCE SMITH: The film has provoked considerable discussion here in Washington on the continuing nuclear threat in the post-Cold War world. Joining us now to discuss it are Peter Almond, the producer of “Thirteen Days”; Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Cuban Missile Crisis; and Keith Payne, he’s director of a new study on US nuclear forces and arms control. He is president of the National Institute for Public Policy, a research organization. Welcome to you all. Peter Almond, why make this film? This is fairly well-worked ground, of course. Why make it and why make it now?
PETER ALMOND: I think that what my colleagues, in particular Armian Bernstein, who is head of Beacon Pictures, and I were looking at is how the men inside the White House contended with the enormous pressures and the stakes that were involved in the crisis. This really brought to a head the greatest potential consequence of the Cold War.
TERENCE SMITH: Were you attracted by the human crisis or by the great potential threat, as well?
PETER ALMOND: Well, I think, as some of the… An exchange in the film “Thirteen Days” says, that we feel like we… It’s Pearl Harbor. We almost caught them steaming towards our ships. And I think this is really one of the great international crises in world history. So both the inside White House personality dilemma, how these young, comparatively young men contend with the crisis, and the international scale of the crisis itself made it kind of… very tantalizing, as filmmakers, to tackle.
TERENCE SMITH: Mr. McNamara, you were there of course. Does this film have the ring of truth?
ROBERT McNAMARA: Peter showed it to me. After, he said, “What did you think of it?” with anticipation in his voice. And I said, “Peter, I think you did a fantastic job. If I had made it, it would be totally accurate historically — nobody would come to see it. You took a few liberties with history. I think it’s so dramatic the audiences will be huge. And you’re portraying an event that neither our nation nor the world yet understands. It’s one of the most important events in the history of the world.”
TERENCE SMITH: And the central thrust of the film?
ROBERT McNAMARA: The central thrust of the film is we came that close to nuclear war, and the film doesn’t really show how close we came.
TERENCE SMITH: Keith Payne, as somebody who works in the field of arms control, studies it, what’s your… what message do you take from this?
KEITH PAYNE: Well, there are a couple of messages. I think one of the most important messages is that on the other side, there may be ideological zealots in control. The movie does a wonderful job of showing the US side of the situation. What’s interesting is what was going on, on the other side. And we know, for example, what was going on, on the other side was that Castro and Che Guevara were recommending to Khrushchev that they actually use the weapons, use the missiles, use the nuclear weapons against the United States. So here we have a very serious crisis where at least one party, at the senior most levels of government, is advocating the use of nuclear weapons against the United States.
ROBERT McNAMARA: May I…
TERENCE SMITH: And you only just… Go ahead.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Because the film shows quite correctly, on Saturday night, the 27th of August, a critical moment…
TERENCE SMITH: October.
ROBERT McNAMARA: The 27th of October, 1962, the majority of Kennedy’s military and civilian advisors were prepared to recommend attack. At the time, the CIA said they did not believe there were any nuclear warheads there for the missiles. It wasn’t until 30 years later that we learned there were 162 warheads there, 90 for tactical use against an incoming attack and 60 for the missiles that were targeted on the US that, as was properly said, would have killed 80 million Americans.
TERENCE SMITH: And 30 years later, you said you discussed it with Fidel Castro.
ROBERT McNAMARA: I was there when we learned this from a Russian general…
TERENCE SMITH: There being Havana, during the conference.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Havana, exactly. Castro was chairing a meeting examining this. General Grabokov, when he retired, had been the commander of all Warsaw Pact forces and in 1962, as a young colonel, sent to Cuba on this venture. And he disclosed there were 162 warheads. I turned to Castro and I said, “Mr. President, I have three questions: Number one, did you know the warheads were there? Number two, if you did, would you have recommended they be used? Number three, if they were used, what would have happened?”
He said, “Bob, I did know they were there. I would not have recommended, I did recommend they were to be as used, as you said. What would have happened to Cuba? It would have been totally destroyed.” He said, “You and Kennedy would have done the same thing in the case of the US”
TERENCE SMITH: So he saw no other way out?
ROBERT McNAMARA: He would have pulled the temple down on his head.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
KEITH PAYNE: Let me follow up on that because Che Guevara specifically said that he was ready for martyrdom and ready for Cuba, as a country, to be a national martyrdom. And I think the response of Vice Premiere Makoyan on the Soviet side was very interesting.
He said, “we see your willingness to die beautifully. We don’t think it’s worth dying beautifully.” On one hand, you have Makoyan who was very deterrable in those circumstances. On the other side, you had some ideological and political zealots who were essentially beyond deterrence in that case.
ROBERT McNAMARA: But if I may…
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Let me ask Peter Almond this: As you can tell, this has spawned, this film has spawned all kinds of discussion about the nuclear threat today, in light of this crisis. My question is this: Is it your sense, from the reaction from the film, that there exists a generation today that has concluded that the nuclear threat has gone away?
PETER ALMOND: It’s apparent that, with the end of the Cold War, the public, and young people in particular, don’t have a sense of the immediacy, of the danger, of the risks of accident or of real mischief or of the serious terrorist involvement of nuclear materials. It’s gratifying that young people seem to respond to the film, to the large issues of the kind of political judgment that is required, whether it’s 1962 and President Kennedy or some present-day circumstance that could potentially face a leader, whether it’s here in Washington or elsewhere around the world. And I think that makes it a kind of compelling story for just an account of what these men faced in 1962 and what leadership today contends with.
TERENCE SMITH: Mr. McNamara, do you think people downgrade the nuclear threat now?
ROBERT McNAMARA: I do. I don’t think they understand that today, we, the US, have 7,500 strategic nuclear warheads. The Russians have 6,500. About a third of ours are on 15-minute alert, and they have a destructive power equal to 50,000 Hiroshima bombs. One Hiroshima bomb killed 180,000 people. And those are still on nuclear alert.
And I think the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Thirteen Days,” was the best managed foreign policy crisis of the last 50 years. But I want to tell you, we lucked out. At the end, events were slipping out of control on both sides. Both sides misjudged. We didn’t know the warheads were there. Castro was recommending they be used. And whether Khrushchev wanted them used or not, if we had attacked, we had 180,000 troops in southeastern ports ready to attack. And the majority of Kennedy’s advisers were recommending it.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Let me ask you both, what… Or all of you: What then, do we conclude? What should we do now? What two or three things would you do now, as a result of the history of this incident, this crisis?
PETER ALMOND: Well, I think… One of the key points that comes through just in the dramatic record of the crisis and the real historical record, and Senator Edward Kennedy made this point after looking at “Thirteen Days” with President Bush the other day, he said that “Thirteen Days” demonstrates the balance a leader has to bring between the military and diplomatic political options.
And what you see in “Thirteen Days” and in the Cuban Missile Crisis, is the continual insistence on this kind of coercive diplomacy balance that brought us through the crisis, where President Kennedy seemed at each turn to be looking for a way to step back from the brink of total war and to give the other side the opportunity to reflect on the options and join with the United States in finding a way out. And I think that lesson is number one for leaders today, for young people who might see the film as a kind of cautionary tale about what it takes to lead in the kind of ultimate crisis situation.
TERENCE SMITH: What lesson should we conclude for today?
ROBERT McNAMARA: The basic lesson is the indefinite combination of human fallibility is demonstrated in that film and nuclear weapons will lead to destruction of nations. And therefore, as first steps today, we should do what President Bush has proposed, unilateral reductions from the 7,500 that I mentioned to something on the order of maybe 1,500 and de-alerting the remaining force, to reduce the risk of accident or inadvertent launch.
TERENCE SMITH: Keith Payne, do you agree with that?
KEITH PAYNE: Oh, yeah. Let me add two points that that: One is that we need to understand that foreign leaders may think very differently than we do.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Yes.
KEITH PAYNE: We cannot assume that they are going to be reasonable, rational, as those qualities are defined in Washington.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Exactly.
KEITH PAYNE: We have to understand that they may think very much out of the box, and we need to prepare for that. And I think part of preparing for that is to make sure that we can deter an opponent as best we’re able. We need to understand them and their thought processes, as well as we possibly can, and then we have to understand that deterrence, no matter how far you think you… how well you’ve done on it, you have to be ready for its fragility and the fact that deterrents may fail.
So I would add onto what Secretary McNamara said, that we need to move toward defensive capabilities. And I’m convinced that the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it’s portrayed, is one of the strongest arguments to move forward with some sort of defensive capability for the United States, particularly ballistic missile defense.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, now, that’s a subject of argument. You probably disagree.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Well, I’m not going to disagree until I know what… I’ll call the architecture, the specifications of the ballistic missile defense that President Bush is thinking of is. At that point, I hope you’ll invite us back.
TERENCE SMITH: All right.
PETER ALMOND: I would say that we’ve just come back from showing “Thirteen Days” at Berlin at the film festival in advance of its European opening, and already, with the new administration’s comments on the missile defense, there is a kind of unease being expressed in the… certainly in the media in Europe and among people on encounters, that they feel a kind of potential destabilizing. And I would say they aren’t… it’s based in lack of information, and if I would say there’s one piece that is crucial, as we move towards a missile shield debate, it is simply that of information and communication of what that new step signifies in world affairs.
TERENCE SMITH: Your proposal on de-alerting, you would have to make that reciprocal on both sides.
ROBERT McNAMARA: And it would have to be verifiable.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
ROBERT McNAMARA: But that can be done. And I think the Russians are ready for it. And I am delighted the president is talking about it.
TERENCE SMITH: And is the US ready for reductions, as well, and de-alerting?
KEITH PAYNE: I can only suggest what President Bush said as candidate Bush and subsequently, that the United States, if following a study of the requirements, nuclear requirements and defense requirements, it looks like there are grounds for reductions, the United States will be quite willing to go ahead with reductions unilaterally, if necessary.
TERENCE SMITH: Peter, it sounds like you’ve started a debate that is not over and is going to go on. Thank you all three, very much.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Thank you very much.
KEITH PAYNE: Thank you.
PETER ALMOND: Thank you.