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TV Review: Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War

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Marking the 50th anniversary of what many consider the most dangerous 13 day period in the history of mankind, PBS will be broadcasting Cuban Missile Crisis—Three Men Go to War on Tuesday, October 23. Using information from numerous declassified documents released by Soviet, American, and Cuban official sources over recent years, the documentary offers an extensive account of the events of those 13 days from the point of view of many of the political and military figures most directly involved in the crisis, as well as commentary from historians and academics. It is as complete and objective a film study of the crisis as has yet been available. Moreover, it is a dramatically compelling portrayal of nations and their leaders on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

Contemporary footage of nuclear explosions, school children diving under their desks in standard bomb drills, and people emptying store shelves to stockpile supplies make clear the terrors facing this nation. Oddly, there seems to be no similar shots of what was happening in Russia at the time, and the film from Cuba, other than some footage of anti-American protesters and soldiers ready to defend the homeland, indicates an eerie calm on the island. Newsreel photos of the various leaders give a good indication of what was at stake.

As the title indicates, the film focuses on the three central figures in the crisis—President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. It explains Khrushchev’s reasoning for the secret erection of missile launching sites on the island nation so close to the US. It details Kennedy’s reaction to the discovery of those sites and his quandary over how to counter the Soviet threat. It points out Castro’s determination to risk Cuban annihilation rather than give in to what he considered American Imperialistic bullying.

Among the talking heads on the American reaction are presidential speech writer and advisor to Kennedy, Ted Sorenson, intelligence officials like Dino Brugioni, who took part in analyzing photo evidence about the missile sites, and Brigadier General Gerald McIlmoyle, a U2 pilot who flew missions over Cuba. There are also voice recordings of presidential advisors and cabinet members like Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, and tough talking General Curtis LeMay.

The Russian perspective is developed through commentary from KGB officials and Soviet army officers, as well as Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Russian Premier and author of Khrushchev on Khrushchev—An Inside Account of the Man and His Era and Director of Russian Programs at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., Svetlana Savranskaya. The Cuban perspective, perhaps given the least emphasis, is mainly represented by academics.

In the end the documentary makes clear that faced with the possibility of all out nuclear war, rational human beings like Kennedy and, as it turns out Khrushchev as well, were unwilling to pull the trigger. In some sense, it would seem to support the theory of mutually assured destruction that fueled the stockpiling of nuclear weapons back in the day. When the real possibility of using those weapons was clear, both sides shrank from the brink. On the other hand, it turns out that fanatical true believers like Castro were quite willing to risk not only themselves but the rest of the world as well in the name of their beliefs. There is a lesson here for nuclear powers today.

In the end, a secret agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev, in which Kennedy promised to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey if Khrushchev would first take down the Cuban sites and keep the deal secret, was brokered, and the crisis was avoided. Although a recent report on PRI’s The World: Latest Edition indicates that there were some missiles in Cuba that the U.S. never knew about and that they were left even after the agreement. Nonetheless, the crisis was over.

Secrets of the Dead “The Man Who Saved the World,” a second program on the crisis, is scheduled to run immediately following on October 23. It tells the story of a Russian submariner who refused to fire a nuclear missile (shades of Andre Braugher).

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