As a graduate student at London’s School of Oriental & African Studies back in early 1999, I used to earn some extra money as a private tutor for 15-18 year olds.
The Great Reform Act of 1832… the rise of Hitler… the deposition of James II and so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. All featured on my tutorial chopping board.
But the topic which stood out most for me was ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962’.
A teenage boy - son of a Russian General.
That's as close a personal connection as I can muster to the turbulent events of 1962.
Robert Kennedy's personal connection, on the other hand, was of a rather different order. As the brother and close confidante of President John F Kennedy, he had more than just a front-row seat. He had a principal role on stage.
'13 Days’ is his personal account of the Crisis, written in 1968.
It’s short. You can pick it up and read it in little more than an hour. The prose is refreshingly direct, concrete and concise. It reads more like an executive summary for a screenplay than a memoir.
But beyond the history and politics, what insights can be gleaned?
1 The Importance of Diverse Views
The protagonists in this real-life drama were, without exception, male.
What’s more, they operated under extreme pressure and on limited sleep. How often have great decisions of state - not to mention business or family matters - been taken in such circumstances…
Despite this, the need for diversity of viewpoint was recognised. The President insisted on hearing from people with conflicting views, people who questioned, who criticised. Even as the clock ticked down, meaningful time was set aside for discussion and debate. As Robert Kennedy writes:
“Conversations were completely uninhibited and unrestricted. Everyone had an equal opportunity to express himself and to be heard directly. It was a tremendously advantageous procedure that does not frequently occur within the executive branch of the government, where rank is often so important."
When attempts were made to exclude certain individuals from participating in meetings with the President because they held a different point of view, JFK would consciously enlarge the meeting!
By contrast, Robert Kennedy wryly notes, at the time of disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion the previous year, there had been virtual unanimity.
2 It’s All in the Timing
At a dramatic meeting of the UN Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronted the USSR Ambassador, VA Zorin head-on.
“All right, Sir. Let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no? Don’t wait for the interpretation. Yes or no?”
Zorin does wait for the translation.
But in those moments of silence, the damage is done. The audience reacts. Stevenson leans forward and smiles. Still in silence.
That takes serious discipline.
Click here to view original footage of the exchange here.
3 The Need for Time to Think
In a 21stC world of shrinking attention spans and non-stop, frenetic activity in the glare of 24/7 media – whether broadcast or social – how often do we get the chance to invest in quality thinking?
“The time that was available to the President and his advisors to work secretly, quietly, privately, developing a course of action and recommendations for the President, was essential… The fact that we were able [also] to talk, debate, argue, disagree and then debate some more was essential in choosing our ultimate course.”
Above all, the President plays the role of supreme listener. Only then, having heard all the arguments, did he take the decisions needed.
4 Empathy for the USSR
Robert Kennedy could hardly be more explicit.
“The final lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country’s shoes. President Kennedy spent more time trying to determine the effect of a particular course of action on Khrushchev or the Russians than on any other phase of what he was doing. What guided all his deliberation was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev, not to humiliate the Soviet Union."
Hardliners among the Joint Chiefs and Congress repeatedly called for more aggressive, military action against Cuba. Specifically, they advocated pre-emptive airstrikes to destroy the part-built missile installations. But the President sensed that the best interests of the American people required an appreciation of the Soviet point of view.
After all, if the USA were to attack Cuba, what response would that trigger from the USSR?
“Miscalculation and misunderstanding and escalation on one side bring a counter-response.”
Had the President taken a different approach, one can only wonder at the consequences.
There have been many books written on military and political strategy and tactics: Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art Of War’ and Von Clausewitz’s ‘On War’ to name just a few of the more well-known.
What Robert Kennedy’s volume may lack in literary finesse, he more than compensates for with clarity, concision and accessibility. His is a fresh, vivid account which brings to life one of the more portentous fortnights of the last century.
It merits a read.