Film Study Guide


In the fall of 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union found an unexpected opportunity to expand its communist influence into America's backyard. The new government in Cuba, headed by Fidel Castro, was feuding with the United States, which prompted Castro to open his nation's doors to Soviet military intervention. The Russians, anxious to firmly entrench communism in a country less than 100 miles from the United States, responded enthusiastically. The Soviet Union proceeded recklessly to install guided missiles in Cuba with the capacity to deliver hydrogen warheads to both North and South America.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 16, President John F. Kennedy was presented with photographs, taken by an American U-2 spy plane, revealing the clandestine Soviet missile sites. Immediately, the President created an Executive Committee of the National Security Council (Ex Comm) to handle the situation. On the advice of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade—a "quarantine" of Cuba—to prevent any further arms build-up.

While a fleet of American warships moved south to form the blockade, additional military preparations were underway. B-52s, armed with hydrogen bombs, filled the skies at all times; additional bombers, also loaded with nuclear weapons, were dispersed to airfields around the globe. Several Polaris submarines carrying nuclear missiles were dispatched toward the coast of Russia. America's Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (located on Cuban soil) was reinforced. Further, "Operation Scabbards," the top-secret invasion of Cuba with 90,000 troops, was scheduled for October 30.

In a brief televised address on the evening of October 22, the President informed anxious American citizens that the Soviet Union was preparing offensive missile sites in Cuba. Kennedy publicly called on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to dismantle the missile bases and immediately remove all weapons capable of striking the United States. Khrushchev balked, calling Russia's action a defensive measure against potential Cold War attacks launched by the United States.

For several days the world teetered on the brink of nuclear disaster as the two military superpowers squared off. Kennedy and Khrushchev exchanged calculated correspondence, government advisors feverishly issued recommendations, military commanders readied their troops for nuclear war, and both heads-of-state searched their mind and soul for purpose to their next action.

On October 27, several events accelerated the crisis. FBI agents learned that Soviet officials in New York City were burning documents. A U-2 plane was shot down over Cuba. Work on the missile sites was notably hastened. Another Khrushchev letter arrived in Washington with tougher demands than before. By nightfall, the prevailing tone was foreboding; war with Russia seemed ready to commence.


The high drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow in the movie Thirteen Days, released in 2000. It features Bruce Greenwood as President John F. Kennedy, Steven Culp as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Dylan Baker as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Michael Fairman as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson. The film's central character is Special Assistant to the President Kenneth P. O'Donnell, played by Kevin Costner. Predictably, his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis is overstated.

The title of the film is copied from Robert Kennedy's 1967 book, a compilation of his personal recollections and diary entries about the event. The filmscript is drawn from several books (Kennedy's not included), historical documents, Oval Office tapes, and interviews with O'Donnell conducted in the 1970s. As a result, Thirteen Days presents a generally accurate, but definitely Hollywood-enhanced account of the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis.

The movie's most apparent chief flaw is the inflated status of Costner/O'Donnell. O'Donnell and Robert Kennedy were close friends, dating back to 1947 when they crossed paths at Harvard University; both were football players and members of the debate team. During the 1950s, O'Donnell served as an election campaign operator for the Kennedys. His loyalty and skillfulness earned him a position within JFK's White House administration. Even though O'Donnell was apparently involved in some minor policy-making decisions from time to time, and despite the fact that he and Bobby Kennedy were the President's closest confidants, O'Donnell's actual part in the October Crisis was negligible. Indeed, the younger Kennedy mentions O'Donnell just three times in his entire book, none of which come at particularly significant junctures.

The other major distortion in Thirteen Days is less specific, but more important overall. Dean Acheson, based on his experience as Secretary of State under President Harry S Truman, was summoned before Ex Comm meetings to provide insight concerning Khrushchev's Cold War philosophy and to offer conjecture about Russia's actions in the days ahead relative to its placement of missiles in Cuba. A hard-liner who openly favored American military retaliation against the Soviets, Acheson later privately evaluated Kennedy's success in the crisis as "plain dumb luck." Acheson's sour grapes comment might not have been too far off the mark. The perception of Kennedy as cool, calm, and collected is the result of overbaked American pride. In fact, the American government's handling of the affair was anything but deft; accidents, near misses, and misinformation almost created doomsday.

The entire Cuban Missile Crisis has been often reduced to confrontation between Kennedy and Khrushchev, understood as a sort of potential modern-day gunfight at the O.K. Corral that was defused at the very last instant as both sides were about to draw their guns and blast away. This image of the crisis, so firmly planted in many Americans' minds, was unintentionally created by Dean Rusk, JFK's Secretary of State. When a preliminary report reached the White House on October 24 indicating the Russian ships had stopped dead in the water (apparently because of the imposed blockade), Rusk confided to a network television newsman, "We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." Rusk's allegoric stare down between Kennedy, representing law and order and everything right, and the cold and calculating Khrushchev, out to conquer the world and impose communism throughout, ended when the Soviet leader lost his nerve.

JFK's personal interpretation of what happened was understandably energetic; he told some close friends, "I cut his _____ off." The President's exuberance was justified, to a certain extent. He survived the threat of nuclear war (whether genuine or perceived) and in the process, America swapped places with the Soviet Union as the Cold War's bad guy. Still, in order to necessitate peace, Kennedy was forced to abandon his preoccupation with overthrowing the Castro regime and to dismantle American missiles in Turkey. The Soviets, on the other hand, gave up nothing (notwithstanding some injury to their global credibility). The Soviet attempt to position missiles in Cuba similar in fashion to what the United States had already placed in Turkey was an act of Cold War reciprocity. In other words, the move indicates recognition of military weakness on the part of the Soviet Union rather than serious hemispheric aggression. Khrushchev was well aware that nuclear war would be suicidal; evidence simply does not support the idea that the Soviets were designing war against the United States in 1962. Hence, the true analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis reflects artful deal-making, not sheer American omnipotence.

Thirteen Days is laced with bits of archival video, and quite a few pieces that have been made to appear like actual preserved footage. According to New Line Cinema spokesman Steve Elzer, "Every ship, plane, truck, and craft that moves in the film is absolutely authentic to the time period." The rating is PG-13. There is intermittent strong language, but hardly more than what one typically hears today at restaurants or ballgames.

Select the best response for each item according to information learned by viewing Thirteen Days, as well as through lecture and assigned reading.
  1. The most powerful nations to emerge from World War II were:
    1. the United States and the Soviet Union
    2. Great Britain and France
    3. Germany, Japan, and Italy
    4. the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and Germany

  2. Following World War II, the United States addressed communism on a global basis through a general policy known as:
    1. "brinkmanship"
    2. "containment"
    3. "détente"
    4. "glasnost"

  3. American foreign policy after 1945 was overwhelmingly shaped by:
    1. trade agreements with Europe
    2. cultural exchanges with South America
    3. actions of the NATO countries
    4. conflict with the Soviet Union

  4. In 1947, the United States successfully resisted communist expansion into:
    1. Greece and Turkey
    2. Vietnam
    3. Cuba and Puerto Rico
    4. Korea

  5. All of the following matches of Secretaries of State and Presidents during the Cold War are correct except:
    1. Dean Acheson; under Harry S Truman
    2. John Foster Dulles; under Dwight D. Eisenhower
    3. Dean Rusk; under John F. Kennedy
    4. Henry Kissinger; under Jimmy Carter

  6. The most apparent worldwide symbol of Europe's Cold War division between communist East and free West was the:
    1. Berlin Wall
    2. Eiffel Tower
    3. Statue of Liberty
    4. Great Wall

  7. All of the following were direct results of the Cuban Missile Crisis except the:
    1. forced exile of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and establishment of a democratic government much more friendly to the United States
    2. United States removal of antiquated Jupiter missiles from Turkey
    3. installation of a telephone "hot line" connecting Washington and Moscow, allowing for instantaneous communication between the White House and the Kremlin in the event of another Cold War showdown in the future
    4. agreement by 34 nations, Russia and the United States included, to the Test-Ban Treaty, which barred all atmospheric nuclear testing

  8. The Russian leader during the Cuban Missile Crisis was:
    1. Leonid Brezhnev
    2. Valerian Zorin
    3. Nikita Khrushchev
    4. Andrei Gromyko

  9. All of the following events occurred during JFK's presidency except:
    1. invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs with the intent to overthrow Fidel Castro's government
    2. formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) including Canada, the United States, and ten Western European nations as a security alliance to deter possible communist military aggression
    3. Soviet cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in a space vehicle
    4. erection of the Berlin Wall by the communist East German government to prevent East Berliners from fleeing to West Berlin

  10. The CBS television news anchor man shown often throughout Thirteen Days is:
    1. Ted Sorenson
    2. Walter Cronkite
    3. Tom Brokaw
    4. John Scali

  11. Kevin Costner/Kenneth O'Donnell says all of the following lines during the course of Thirteen Days except:
    1. "Don't get shot down" to U-2 pilot Major Rudolf Anderson
    2. "You're beautiful" to Jacqueline Kennedy
    3. "Stick it to them; the world has to know we're right" to Adlai Stevenson
    4. "I was ready to knock that SOB across the room" to the President

  12. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara presented President John F. Kennedy with three response options to the Soviet deployment of missiles to Cuba. McNamara's choices did not include:
    1. ordering a surprise bomber attack against Soviet bases in Cuba, followed by an invasion of land forces
    2. applying heavy diplomatic pressure to persuade the Soviet Union to withdraw the missiles
    3. creating a naval blockade of Cuba to halt the flow of missiles
    4. warning the Soviet Union in no uncertain terms that nuclear war was imminent unless its missiles were immediately removed from Cuba

  13. President John F. Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis accomplished all of the following except:
    1. preserved world peace by avoiding an immediate threat of nuclear war
    2. restored America's national honor in the wake of recent international humiliations
    3. gave rise to internal forces opposed to communism in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania
    4. silenced many critics of United States actions in the Cold War

  14. Not surprisingly, the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously favored strong military action to resolve the Soviet implantation of offensive missiles in Cuba. The general who assured the President, "My boys will get those red bastards" (and later, during the Vietnam War, advocated bombing Cambodia "into the Stone Age") was:
    1. Curtis LeMay
    2. Walter C. Sweeney, Jr.
    3. Maxwell Taylor
    4. Earle Wheeler

  15. All of the following major American cities were thought to be well within range of the Soviet missiles planted in Cuba except:
    1. Denver
    2. Chicago
    3. Seattle
    4. New York

  16. Besides the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most noticeably disgruntled Ex Comm member about JFK's reluctance to authorize a military attack on Cuba was:
    1. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
    2. United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson
    3. former Secretary of State Dean Acheson
    4. Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson

  17. Secretary of State Dean Rusk's speech on October 23 convinced 19 of the 20 member nations of the Organization of American States (OAS) to support the United States plan to quarantine Cuba. The lone abstention was:
    1. Paraguay
    2. Colombia
    3. Uruguay
    4. Peru

  18. All of the following facts are logical clues to viewers of Thirteen Days that the movie role of Kevin Costner/Kenneth O'Donnell has been generously enhanced from actual history except:
    1. Costner, the most recognized Hollywood actor appearing in Thirteen Days, plays the part of O'Donnell, the movie's central character
    2. most of the Ex Comm members, including O'Donnell and both Kennedys, are no longer living
    3. Robert Kennedy's first-hand version of the event only mentions O'Donnell three times, none of which are particularly instrumental in solving the crisis
    4. listed among the film's sources of historical documentation are taped interviews with O'Donnell himself

  19. The scene in Thirteen Days involving Kenneth O'Donnell most likely to have actually happened shows O'Donnell:
    1. giving a private pep talk to the President, who was especially frustrated at a key juncture in the crisis
    2. tossing around a football with the Kennedy brothers on the White House porch
    3. telephoning a U-2 pilot in the midst of the conflict
    4. stepping between the President and Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, during heated infighting, as a gesture to LeMay that he should temper his remarks

  20. It was a combination of elements that allowed the Cuban Missile Crisis to conclude peacefully. In this regard, all of the following factors were crucial except the:
    1. clearheaded judgment and steady nerve of President John F. Kennedy, coupled with his uncanny ability to remain one step ahead of every Soviet action
    2. Soviet Union's realization that its nuclear weaponry was unarguably inferior to that of the United States; all-out war would have meant certain annihilation of Russia
    3. masterful Cold War surgery performed by Adlai Stevenson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in which the Soviets were discredited in front of a worldwide audience
    4. dual pledge by United States not to invade Cuba and to dismantle its Jupiter missiles in Turkey

  21. When evaluating JFK's actions concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis, historians:
    1. widely agree that Kennedy acted appropriately
    2. sharply disagree on the global impact of the incident
    3. generally concur that the President made matters worse by his decision to quarantine Cuba
    4. consider Kennedy to have acted with courage and resolution

  22. All of the following are fictional books about nuclear holocaust brought on by Cold War aggression except:
    1. The Postman, by David Brin
    2. Break on Through, by James Morrison
    3. Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank
    4. On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

  23. The President when the Cold War came to an end was:
    1. Jimmy Carter
    2. Ronald Reagan
    3. George Bush
    4. Bill Clinton

  24. Even with the Cuban Missile Crisis safely tucked away in history, America's interest in Cuba nevertheless remains high due to all of the following factors except:
    1. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is located on Cuban soil, much to the obvious displeasure of the Cuban government
    2. Cuba's political ideology continues to clash with that of the United States
    3. the relatively small distance separating the two countries
    4. Cuban naval vessels have occasionally harassed United States shipping throughout the Caribbean and Gulf water regions

  25. The movie Thirteen Days is best described as a/an:
    1. chronological trip through John F. Kennedy's term as President
    2. acutely fictional story of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis
    3. parallel film version of Robert Kennedy's book, also entitled Thirteen Days
    4. fairly accurate account of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Choose two of the following. Your response should be 2-4 typed, double-spaced pages and include a list of sources used (minimum of two required).
  1. Compare the Cold War philosophies of the United States and the Soviet Union. How were these ideologies reflected in the formation and purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact?

  2. In what ways did the presidential administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson maintain the policy of containment developed during President Harry S Truman's administration?

  3. Select any three of the following events and describe the impact of each on the Cold War—Berlin Airlift; U-2 incident; Bay of Pigs invasion; Cuban Missile Crisis; invasion of Afghanistan.

"We're eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked."