Today's Lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis

“Thirteen Days,” a new film about the Cuban Missile Crisis, will soon be showing in many countries. Everyone should see it; not only for its dramatization of the past, but for insights into current events, especially the controversy surrounding America’s plans to establish National Missile Defense and the various regional disputes – India and Pakistan, Taiwan and China, North and South Korea – that may one day escalate into nuclear conflict.

On 16 October, 1962 President John F. Kennedy called together his closest advisors in the White House. Aerial photographs had revealed nuclear missile sites under construction in Cuba. The decisions taken and not taken over the following 13 days could have led to nuclear war. The film depicts what happened in the White House during those days. Audio tapes from Kennedy's presidency aided in making the film.

After the film’s debut in America, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard arranged for a panel to discuss the film and the crisis at its heart. Participants included: Robert McNamara, President Kennedy's Secretary of Defense; Theodore Sorensen, his close aid and speech writer; Ernest R. May, a professor of history at Harvard who has written a book about “The Kennedy Tapes"; and Graham Allison, a professor of political science at Harvard who, 30 years ago, wrote the classic study of the missile crisis “Essence of Decision.” Peter A. Almond, the film's producer also participated. Although the dramatization was criticized in some ways, the panel agreed that it portrayed the problems and pressures faced by President Kennedy exactly as they were.

What conclusions can be drawn today from the Cuban Missile Crisis? Theodore Sorensen summarized them in this way: