Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, By Robert F. Kennedy (185 pages)
Cuba, the West Indies island ninety miles off Florida, was first of interest to the United States in the 19th Century. After being of interest to the slaveholding states in antebellum years, Cuba became the center of the Spanish American War in 1898.
Given its independence, the leadership retained close ties to the United States. Good relations were in jeopardy when Fidel Castro came into power in 1959. Castro’s forces overturned the U.S.-supported government in the name of communism. And, Castro’s power seemed more secure after the failed “Bay of Pigs” coup attempt in 1961 that the United States aided in.
Would the Soviet Union have a key base right off our shores? Cold War fears were aflame, including a U.S.-Soviet Union arms race. President Kennedy not only talked tough here, but during his presidential campaign worried about a “missile gap” with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s plans to have a nuclear missile base in Cuba just made things worse.
Thirteen Days is an insider account (Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy’s brother, was not only his attorney general, but a top advisor on all matters) of events in October 1962. During a tense thirteen-day stretch, the U.S. demanded that the Soviets remove their missiles from Cuba. This “Cuban Missile Crisis” was a key test for both sides, nuclear war was seen as possible.
Kennedy, running for president when this book was first published, also shows how the crisis provided basic lessons on handling diplomatic and military affairs. The intent also clearly was to show how a President Robert F. Kennedy would handle such matters.
Kennedy was assassinated before the book was completed. An afterword was added to further investigate such themes. And, the 1999 edition provides a new foreword by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian, who also was an advisor/speechwriter during the Kennedy Administration.
Favorite Quote From Thirteen Days
Robert Kennedy wrote this book not only to inform the reader of the events of a specific crisis. The book ultimately was seen as a case study of how the country should act in future conflicts.
Should I Read It?
This book is basically two short books in one. Some will find both worthwhile. Some might only be interested in one of them. But, it is useful that both are present.
The first half is a personal narrative of the events mixed with some personal analysis. This is done in a clear, down to earth way that should be good for the general reader. RFK also tries to provide the point of view of various participants here. It has a “you are there” vibe.
The inclusion of documents from President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev (Soviet Union) provides additional “color” though the rhetorical flourishes are not as easy to read.
The second half is more of an academic analysis of the events and their place in the current political and constitutional environment. You need not be a specialist to understand this portion, but it is in a different style. It is more “above the fray” and written by two political analysts.
Again, maybe you prefer that to a possibly biased account of a single participant who had political and other reasons (some of the material was classified) not to tell all.
The book is therefore a useful collection that provides things to various readers.
The 1999 edition of Thirteen Days has a new introduction by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., which allows an insider involved in the events to provide insights thirty-five years later.
A 1992 conference showed if anything the situation was more dangerous — according to a Soviet official in Cuba during the events, the Soviets had more troops in Cuba than previously thought and the arrival of the nuclear warheads (feared but never confirmed) had occurred.
Schlesinger provides a quick summary of the events involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, including Fidel Castro’s desire that the Soviet Union act openly. Not doing so gave the U.S. much more justification to claim the upper moral hand. RFK’s account of his brother is as calm and in control, as JFK’s subordinates were often more on edge, is confirmed.
Robert F. Kennedy’s (RFK) “Memoir”
The first portion of this book is an eighty page memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis that was written in the summer and fall of 1967. A portion discussing the ethical questions involved in “the shadow of nuclear destruction” was planned, but never written. The book is a rough draft.
The book is broken down into fourteen short chapters with eye-catching titles to get you into the flow of things (“Tuesday morning, October 16, 1962” is the first chapter; another is “I met with Dobrynin”). The book is written in the first person (“I” and “me”). The book also uses “Russia” or “Russian” instead of “Soviet Union” or “Soviet.”
The account starts with the President telling RFK that a U-2 (spy plane) has helped to confirm that Russia was placing missiles and atomic weapons in Cuba. The president formed a special committee of top officials to discuss the matter. The president had to make the final decision. But, the committee, which the president often left to debate alone, was a helpful tool.
Various options were discussed. A majority opinion settled on a naval blockade of Cuba. Nonetheless, some suggested military action, even though this might threaten usage of nuclear weapons. A naval “quarantine” to block further Russian military support was put in place.
RFK met with the Russian ambassador, who claimed there were no missiles in Cuba. The ambassador warned that any quarantine would not be honored by the Russians. Most ships did honor the blockage. Hard decisions had to be made regarding those that did not. It was judged that an overly strict approach was not warranted on a cost/benefit analysis.
Khrushchev ultimately sent two letters to President Kennedy. One was a “softer” letter that noted his concerns about the situation and offered a solution — if the U.S. would promise not to invade Cuba, the missiles would be removed. A more “hard line” letter followed insisting that the U.S. remove missiles from Turkey. President Kennedy agreed to the first, ignoring the second.
RFK ends with some lessons learned. It was important that different departments had a chance to privately talk, debate, disagree, and settle on the right path. Different perspectives and freedom of action is important. And, you had to keep in mind the perspectives of the other side. The interests and personalities on the Russian side had to be taken into consideration.
The second part is a forty-five page analysis by two political scientists regarding the wider political, military, and constitutional situation circa 1970, but with insights still useful today.
 The nuclear paradox. The U.S. and Russia, superpowers, could not truly “win” a nuclear war, but each must be willing to risk losing. Would both sides act rationally?
 New Checks and Balances. Traditionally, the major check on the war power of the presidency was Congress. But, that is much less likely in post-WWII America. Executive decision making is more likely to be checked by the president’s own department heads. The “dilemma of governance” today is how best to operate the resulting bureaucratic system.
 Constitutional Issues also arise regarding how modern presidents make decisions regarding war. Thirteen Days shows that the importance of secrecy, flexibility, uncertainty, and time sensitive decisions increase the president’s power vis-a-vis Congress. What limits are present? The complications of recent events, including the Vietnam War, are discussed.
- Address by President Kennedy to Nation (on Cuban Missile Crisis)
- White House Statement on Continuation of Missile Build-up In Cuba
- Second Letter From Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy [“hard line” letter]
- President Kennedy Letter to Chairman Khrushchev (reply to first letter)
- White House Statement (on agreed upon settlement of Cuban Missile Crisis)
- Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy (accepting JFK letter)
- Statement by President Kennedy on Receipt of Chairman Letter Khrushchev
- President Kennedy to Chairman Khrushchev (accepting Khrushchev reply)
- Address by President Kennedy on Cuba (11/2)
- President Kennedy’s Statement on Cuba (11/20)
Points to Ponder
The different people involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis saw things differently. They would also remember things differently. Consider this while reading the account of a single participant. Be on guard for how he might see things with certain biases, selectively discussing the events.
Robert Kennedy said that we should not only be concerned with “national security,” but act in a way that allows the world to “believe and respect us.” How idealistically did the United States act during these events? How much was the “thirteen days” a model for future actions?
About the Author of Thirteen Days
Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68) was a lawyer and politician.
RFK was assistant counsel to the Senate committee chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and gained national attention as the chief counsel of the Senate Labor Rackets Committee. He later was Attorney General during the Kennedy Administration and senator of New York.
RFK was assassinated while running for president in 1968.
He also wrote:
- The Enemy Within
- Just Friends And Brave Enemies
- The Pursuit of Justice
- To Seek A Better World
Richard Neustadt (1919-2003) was a political scientist specializing in the U.S. presidency. He also wrote Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership.
Graham Allison is an American political scientist. Allison is best known for the book Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. A long time Harvard professor, he also was Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton Administration.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007) was an American historian, special advisor to President Kennedy, and college professor. He is the author of many books.
Is Thirteen Days a Reliable Source?
Robert Kennedy was an insider observing the events. Kennedy wrote this account based on his “personal diaries and recollections” in 1967 (according to a note added to the end of the text).
There are no endnotes though an index is added. Thus, we should take this book with a grain of salt because it is a single person’s account without source material added. But, it provides an important perspective that can be used along with other materials to understand the events.
The afterword (which includes a short bibliography but basically no notes) is an analysis of the political and constitutional issues involved. It is written by two experts of American politics. The short forward (which includes endnotes) is also a reliable account by an expert and insider.