It was a time, in Khrushchev’s memorable phrase, “when the smell of burning hung in the air.” Robert Kennedy’s account of those thirteen days in 1962 from October 16, when he and his brother were presented with proof that the Russians were secretly building long-range missile bases in Cuba, until October 28, when the Kremlin agreed to dismantle them—shows the view from the inside by one of the key participants. Written with economy and directness, Thirteen Days is a valuable historical document with all the elements of a thriller.
This short, terse memoir—bloated by the publisher with superfluous introductions, photographs, and documents—does not, of course, tell the whole story of the missile crisis. There is a good deal about the events leading up to the crisis that is gone over too lightly or deliberately clouded over. The clash of personalities and ambivalent motives is muted and the tone rather detached. But behind the measured prose we see the spectacle of rational minds swayed by passions and the euphoria of power, governmental machinery breaking down into the struggle of individual wills, and decisions affecting the future of humanity made by a handful of men—the best of whom were not always sure they were right. A disturbing description of decision-making in the nuclear age, this posthumous work also offers a revealing glimpse of an enigmatic man who might have bridged the gap between the old politics and the new.
We have come to take the balance of terror so much for granted that it is hard to imagine any situation in which the two super-powers would actually use their terrible weapons. Yet more than once during those thirteen days it seemed as though the unthinkable might actually occur. SAC bombers were dispersed to airfields throughout the country and roamed the skies with their nuclear cargoes. At one point President Kennedy, fearful that some trigger-happy colonel might set off the spark, ordered all atomic missiles defused so that the order to fire would have to come directly from the White House.
The first showdown came on the morning of October 24, as Soviet ships approached the 500-mile quarantine line drawn around Cuba. “I felt,” Robert Kennedy wrote of those terrible moments, “we were on the edge of a precipice with no way off…. President Kennedy had initiated the course of events, but he no longer had control over them.” Faced with this blockade, the Russian ships turned back, and the first crisis was surmounted. No more missiles could get into Cuba. But what of the ones already there that Russian technicians were installing with feverish haste? President Kennedy was determined that they had to be removed immediately, and on Saturday, October 27, sent his brother to tell Soviet ambassador Dobrynin “that if they did not remove those bases, we would remove them.” The Pentagon prepared for an…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.