“I guess this is the week I begin to earn my salary.”–William Devane, as President John F. Kennedy, “The Missiles of October” (1974)
With the presidential campaign in the homestretch, much has been said about how the next president–Barack Hussein Obama or Mitt Romney–will handle unrest in the Middle East. And despite Obama’s recent “bumps in the road” gaffe, these events are serious.
In view of the burgeoning and imminent nuclear threat from Iran–clearly delineated recently at the United Nations by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu–either Obama or Romney will be on the hot seat. And there will be no place to hide.
To be sure, the rough-and-tumble of being president means dealing with huge crises and heavy lifting. Pushing, shoving and sharp elbows needed to get elected pale when compared to making life-and-death decisions for America in the Oval Office. For example, who can forget Hillary Clinton’s biting “3 a.m.” campaign ad in 2008 featuring sleeping kids, which took Obama to task for his inexperience. To wit:
“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. There is something happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call. Whether it’s someone who already knows the world leaders and knows the military. Someone who is tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It’s 3 a.m. and your children are asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?”
For stone-cold political junkies such as this writer, the back-and-forth of national and international politics often is the essence of such intrigue. One of the most memorable examples began 50 years ago this week and lasted 13 days–Oct. 15-28, 1962. I refer, of course, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly led to World War III.
As a devotee of vintage films, I love those detailing political machinations. So as we await the Nov. 6 election, let’s look back at “The Missiles of October” (1974)–one of the all-time best examples of what it means to be president. An incisive, behind-the-scenes retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this riveting TV docudrama is the peak.
But first, a quick review of the tense situation that came to light on Oct. 15, 1962. President John F. Kennedy was shown U-2 spy plane photos detailing hard evidence that the Russians were installing offensive missiles with nuclear warheads on Fidel Castro’s island of Cuba–the Communist stronghold a short 90 miles from our shores.
At that time, everyone was terrified that the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union would become hot. Both countries boasted tremendous arsenals of nuclear weapons and both–unlike the soft Obama–were led by strong men with frontline military experience: Kennedy and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev.
Thus, using Cuba as a staging area for an attack on the United States or invasion in the Western Hemisphere–despite Khrushchev’s insistence the missiles were defensive–could not be tolerated. JFK and the executive committee of the National Security Council met many times and he learned the missiles would be ready to fire in two weeks.
After serious and contentious debate, the president and his team voted to impose a naval blockade by warships–preventing Soviet vessels from delivering additional weapons and other military supplies. However, a blockade is often considered an act of war.
The next night, JFK addressed the nation on TV. He said there are Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba, he had imposed a quarantine of offensive weapons coming to the island and an attack on America would be met with a full retaliatory response against Russia.
Making “The Missiles of October” even more engrossing was casting lead roles with astounding look-alikes. Included were William Devane (JFK); Howard Da Silva (Khrushchev); Martin Sheen (Robert F. Kennedy); John Dehner (Dean Acheson); Dana Elcar (Robert McNamara); Larry Gates (Dean Rusk); James Olson (McGeorge Bundy); John Randolph (George Ball); and Michael Lerner (Pierre Salinger).
During its gripping 153 minutes, “The Missiles of October” recalled JFK’s anguish, Khrushchev’s gruff obstinacy, RFK’s loud outbursts, American military leaders pushing for bombing Cuba and sinking Russian supply ships, fierce infighting among American and Soviet decision-makers and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (Ralph Bellamy) unveiling incriminating reconnaissance photos of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba.
A highlight was Stevenson’s famous reply to his Russian counterpart’s comment that “You will have your answer in due course.” To wit: “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision.”
A day before the crisis was resolved, American Maj. Rudolph Anderson’s U-2 was shot down over Cuba by a Soviet surface-to-air missile, prompting an angry outburst by Khrushchev against his own military. Although outraged, JFK kept his cool.
In the end, of course, Khrushchev–in return for Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba–ordered that Soviet nuclear long- and medium-range missiles, surface to-air missiles and rockets be dismantled and destroyed. Khrushchev’s request that America’s obsolete Jupiter missiles in Turkey also be withdrawn was rejected by Kennedy.
“The Missiles of October”–illustrating a triumph of U.S. brinkmanship–is a must-see. As Secretary of State Rusk noted when Soviet ships turned back, “We went eyeball-to-eyeball, and I think the other guy just blinked.” And that’s the name of that tune.