Published on Sunday, January 28, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Watching '13 Days,' Worrying About Today
by Robert Kuttner
WATCHING the new movie ''Thirteen Days,'' I got really scared. What frightened me was not just the vivid memories from my childhood of October 1962, when we all huddled around the TV and wondered if the world would be blown up. What really terrified me was the thought of George W. Bush rather than John F. Kennedy as commander in chief during this kind of crisis.
For those who haven't seen the movie or read the history or were not born in 1962, here is the story line: The CIA discovers that the Russians have secretly moved offensive nuclear missiles to Cuba. They will be operational in two weeks, giving the Russians, for the first time, a first-strike capacity against the United States, dramatically tilting the strategic balance in Russia's favor.
The military wants to take out the missiles. But the Kennedy brothers grasp that a direct US attack on Russian soldiers and technicians in Cuba would kill hundreds of Russians and risk a nuclear war.
Historians say that, unlike Oliver Stone's historical inventions, this movie is essentially faithful to history, with the sole exception of having inflated the role of White House special assistant Kenny O'Donnell as a narrative device and vehicle for star Kevin Costner.
What happens next demonstrates the crucial role of presidential intelligence, grit, and leadership. Kennedy is still reeling from the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion the year before. The generals are openly contemptuous of him. But he needs to find a way to face down the Russians without triggering a nuclear war.
Much to the scorn of the generals and admirals, the Kennedys come up with a test of wills with lower stakes - a blockade of Russian ships bringing additional missiles to Cuba. Mercifully, the Russians blink first.
But there is still the problem of the missiles already in Cuba, sufficient to kill 80 million Americans. In the end, Bobby Kennedy cuts a deal with the Soviet ambassador to have the United States pull out antiquated offensive missiles from Turkey in six months. In exchange the Russians will dismantle their missiles in Cuba, the United States promises never to invade Cuba, and both sides will deny the existence of any such deal.
Kennedy never looked taller. But his triumph had required him both to be more clever and better informed than his generals and the hawks in his Cabinet and to have the nerve to face them down.
Fast forward to George W. Bush, and, sadly, this is no movie. Bush is more marionette than leader. He is the creature of political svengali Karl Rove, the tycoons from the Texas oil patch, and his Poppy's old boy network.
Worse, the generals are in charge, and their first priority is a new, costly, and unworkable missile defense program. The theory is that a missile defense, formerly known as Star Wars, would provide insurance against both an accidental missile launch from Russia or rogue states like North Korea or Iraq.
Technically, nobody has ever demonstrated that it is possible to design a missile that can reliably shoot down another missile. (It now comes out that the vaunted Raytheon Patriot antimissile missile, used against much slower incoming ground-based missiles in the Gulf War, in fact did not shoot down a single target.) You could conceivably design a workable system, but it would cost trillions. And it would need to be absolutely foolproof or blam!
More important, the Russians are now talking about putting their whole nuclear arsenal on a lower level of alertness if we will do the same but not if the United States goes ahead with a missile defense, which they correctly regard as destabilizing the balance of power.
And our closest allies, the Europeans, think the whole idea is nuts.
Vice President Cheney (the de facto president), national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell are all gung-ho on missile defense.
Powell, a former military man, has a kind of unnuanced, Wilsonian conception of foreign policy - either stay out of foreign entanglements or blow the other guy to smithereens.
The Democrats in Congress have few real experts on this one, and even the Clinton administration was half committed to a missile defense. So just imagine President Bush, in a new missile crisis, facing down his own expert keepers. Not bloody likely. Rather than the hair-raising happy ending of ''Thirteen Days,'' we would more likely get the lunatic finale of that other '60s classic, ''Dr. Strangelove.''
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company