Book Review: »Thirteen Days«

Robert F. Kennedy. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 1968. For thirteen days in 1962, from October 16 until October 28, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it became known, is likely as close as the world has ever got to total annihilation.

When American spy planes discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile sites in Cuba, President Kennedy was livid - the news came as a slap in the face after the efforts the new administration had been taking to try to establish better relations with the USSR. The Soviets were preparing sites for medium range ballistic missiles that could be used for a nuclear strike on the United States and potentially cost the lives of millions of Americans. Thirteen Days provides the reader with the ultimate behind-the-scenes account of the days that followed, as Kennedy and his advisors debated furiously back and forth as to what measures should be taken. Written by the President’s brother, Bobby Kennedy, it is a given that the memoir does not serve as an objective account of the crisis, but as JFK’s closest confident, most trusted advisor, and a principal player in the drama himself, Bobby provides the reader with an unparalleled insight into the top-level strategic thinking and action at the time of the crisis.


Soon after the president was handed the reconnaissance photos highlighting Soviet activity in Cuba, he assembled a group of advisors, which came to be known as EXCOMM (Executive Committee of the National Security Council), to help him navigate his way through the crisis. Thirteen Days describes the group’s daily meetings, with the president portrayed as a calm, collected leader who would keep his opinion to himself so as to allow free debate among his advisors. EXCOMM met daily to discuss the possible military and diplomatic responses to the Soviet’s move, and the range of opinions – from immediate air strikes to no response at all –  were incredibly varied and in a constant state of flux. The book is written in a clear, concise manner so that even non-politicos are not left feeling overwhelmed or confused. Kennedy never had a chance to put the final touches to his work, as he was assassinated before he was able to rewrite the first draft, but the book does include a foreword by Arthur Schlesinger, an afterword by two other prominent historians and a documents section, which lends the book a weightier and more analytical feel.


The Cuban Missile Crisis, too, reached a more rounded conclusion in the end. The world was able to breath a gigantic sigh of relief when on October 28, Khrushchev relented and agreed to turn his ships carrying more arms back and to remove the missiles already stationed on the island. In exchange, the US promised not to invade Cuba (and to remove its nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey – though the latter deal was a closely guarded secret for decades thereafter.) While this did not spell the end of the Cold War, it acted as an impetus for the first tentative steps towards détente.