Thirteen Days - Notes

Inside account from the President’s brother US Attorney Robert Kennedy of how the administration dealt with the Cuban missile crisis. When it was discovered in Oct 1962 that the Soviets were secretly putting nuclear missiles into Cuba.

The President decided not to attend all meetings of the committee set up to deal with the crisis so that discussion would be as unhibited as possible. ‘Personalities change when the President is present, and frequently even strong men make recommendations on the basis of what they believe the President wishes to hear.’

During all the deliberations all spoke as equals – there was no rank and they did not have a chairman. V unusual for the executive branch of Govt where rank usually v.important. As a result the conversation was uninhibited and unrestricted.

Barbara Tuchman’s book The Guns of August very influential for the President because it talks about how miscalculation caused WW1. Very clearly had this history in mind throughout the crisis – ‘the great risk in all of this is a miscalculation – a mistake in judgement’.

Decide to set up a blockage to prevent ships of the USSR from putting missiles on Cuba. No other choice but to act or likely he would have been impeached.

Betrand Russell wrote to the President criticising him for his warlike behaviour over the blockade. President replied ‘I think your attention might well be directed to the burglar rather than to those who caught the burglar.

Ambassador Stevenson publicly showed in the UN general assembly that the Soviets were lying about what was going on in Cuba by showing satellite images that clearly showed missile sites being built by the Soviets.

Very strong feeling that the combination of limited force and diplomatic efforts was not working and that there would end up being a direct military confrontation.

President continually stressed the need to understand the implications of every step. V aware that ultimately these were decisions made hour by hour that would affect the whole of mankind.

The lessons learned:

Time to work in secret – the debate disagreement and continued debate was essential to choosing the course of action that successfully resolved the crisis.

Diversity of opinion was critical to informing the President. There needed to be a devils advocate (a lesson Robert Kennedy bought from the Bay of Pigs Fiasco) to put the alternate point of view.

All relevant departments were represented and the President insured he was not insulated from points of view by rank or position. He heard from cabinet members but also from many others in their departments and from Ambassadors and former ambassadors. He wanted people who raised questions and who could be critical. Some key advisors were present simply because they had an ability to ask difficult questions that would make others defend their position. This was most necessary for getting into military advice.

The president ‘was distressed that the representatives with whom he met, with the notable exception of General Taylor, seemed to give so little consideration to the implications of steps they suggested.’

He was disturbed by the inability of the military to look beyond the limited military field. ‘This experience pointed out for us all the importance of civilian direction and control and the importance of raising probing questions to military recommendations.’