Victor Bloom MD
In November of 1962 there were 13 days in which the fate of the world stood in balance. The movie, "13 Days" is a dramatization of a historic time when the world could have been catapulted into nuclear war--- if sane men had not kept their heads. When the Cold War was at its height, the two super-powers, the USA and USSR were poised for massive retaliation in the case of a 'first strike' from either party. We had a policy of 'no-first-strike,' but we didn't trust what the 'Russkies' would do. Kruschev promised to 'bury' us. He pounded his shoes on the table at the United Nations. He was the symbolic Russian Bear.
We had the edge on the sheer number and destructive power of ICBM's with missle silos throughout the western United States and B-52's which were constantly in the air, loaded with atomic bombs, as a nuclear 'deterrent' ("massive retaliation"). In addition we had nuclear submarines armed with inter-continental missles with nuclear warheads with targets in the heart of the Russian mainland. At the same time we had a nuclear base in Turkey, close to the Russian border. They were worried about us. We were worried about them. The situation was called nuclear 'brinksmanship' and we experienced a precarious balance of terror. In a way it was psychological warfare, but the results could have been devastating.
In the middle of all this, with schoolkids learning "duck-and-cover," adults were building nuclear shelters, in which some stored weapons, as well as food and water, in the event of a nuclear attack. We learned that residual radioactivity would have to be avoided for months. Institutions had disaster drills and nuclear shelters, also equipped with survival supplies. It seemed beneficial to have a plan, although most people realized that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, there would be great devastation, chaos and disorganization. Wealthy people bought yachts and private airplanes for quick evacuation, if necessary, and forwarned.
Then we learned that our U-2 spy planes discovered mid-range nuclear missles in Cuba, which were secretly brought in and rapidly set up for attack. President Kennedy spoke to the nation by radio and TV and warned of imminent danger, and said everything would be done to prevent war. Armed forces were mobilized to bomb and possibly invade Cuba, despite vivid memories of the failed "Bay of Pigs" invasion, in which Kennedy took responsibility. He had trusted the advice of the military high command, which promised unqualified success. This horrible mistake informed Kennedy not to necessarily believe the recommendations of the military brass, the admirals and generals.
The movie showed the great concentration of the top minds of government, brought together to deal with this tense and dangerous situation, "The Cuban Missle Crisis, " which lasted 13 days. The long meetings of the civilian and military leaders brought vital and heated discussions, with marked differences of opinion between the civilian and the military leaders. As would be expected, the military argued for armed attack, bombing the missle installations. Further facts came in that there were more missles than were thought to be present at first, and that they had an extended range. The range was such that in the event of a massive missle attack from Cuba, 80 million American civilians could be killed.
The group dynamics of this conference of experts consisted of a marked split between the doves and the hawks as to how to proceed. The dramatization showed that the Kennedy brothers and Robert MacNamara argued for a non-violent resolution, while the top generals and admirals wanted to get rid of the threat by force. The doves had to be firm, but wanted to avoid a war which could escalate to mutual destruction. They thought of their families and, in seclusion, wondered if they would ever see them again. They intuited that their counterparts in the Soviet Union also had families and felt the same way. Nobody really wanted mutual destruction. Everybody remembered the horrors of WWII and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Finally, Kennedy called for a 'quarantine,' which was really a 'blockade,' which was in truth, an act of war. Our navy would prevent further missles from being delivered and turn other ships from Russia back to where they came from. War could have resulted from a confrontation, and sure enough, one navy vessel fired a warning shot over the bow of a Russian transport. When Kennedy heard about this, he was furious, having given orders to avoid a military confrontation. The admiral was equally angry, stating he knew how to conduct a blockade--- the navy tradition went back to John Paul Jones! When he left the room and slammed the door, MacNamara could not believe his ears; the admiral was quoting ancient history, and was obviously out of touch with this new era.
Just as president Truman had to fire General Douglas MacArthur, president Kennedy had to remind the military brass that he was their Commander-in-Chief. The founders of our constitution brilliantly concluded that a civilian, the chief executive officer, voted on by the American people, had to be the one to declare war and control the military.
And so we are still here. The Russians blinked first, but we eventually had to promise to give up our bases in Turkey, if Cuba could not be a base for the Soviets. The ultimate wisdom of our civilian leaders prevailed, and our checks and balances worked to peacefully resolve this dangerous and historic situation.
Interestingly, the newly elected president Bush invited the Kennedy family to come to the White House to view the film with them. The children of Bobbie Kennedy came, and saw how their father and uncle saved the world. Laura and George W. Bush served hot dogs and hamburgers. Ted Kennedy, of all people, was said to have been charmed by the Bush's hospitality, informality and friendliness. Hope remains that our country and the world continue to resolve conflicts peaceably and that there will be no World War III.