Carnegie Hosts “Thirteen Days” Premiere in Russia to Audience of Cuban Missile Crisis Veterans and Government Officials

Real-Life Participants of Crisis Discuss Lessons Learned:
Will World Leaders be able to Manage Nuclear Risk Today?

An audience of Cuban Missile Crisis veterans—including Robert McNamara, Theodore Sorensen, Anatoly Gribkov, Georgi Kornienko, and Fyodor Burlatsky—recently watched the exclusive, premiere screening of the movie “Thirteen Days” in Moscow, then traded viewpoints on what really happened, provided intriguing details on Soviet activities, and discussed lessons for the future. The webcast and transcript of the event, hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and its Carnegie Moscow Center, are now available at:

In addition to veterans of the October 1962 crisis, the 300 guests included Russian and Western government officials, think tank and business leaders, and graduate students in international relations and nonproliferation studies. Many applauded the movie for its glimpse into the decision-making process within the Kennedy administration, highlighting the crisis for new generations.

“Our larger purpose is to use the movie to help all of us—Americans and Russians—think freshly about the state of nuclear risk today,” said Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment. “Ideologies have changed; threats have changed; and the world has changed dramatically, but our nuclear force postures, strategies, assumptions, and our means of controlling risk have changed little or not at all. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the defining crisis of the Cold War. Understanding exactly what happened, how and why it happened, helps us evaluate how well or how poorly we are managing nuclear risk now.”

In the panel discussion following the film screening on April 11, 2001, real-life participants of the crisis emphasized how mistakes and misunderstandings on both sides were costly, nearly resulting in all-out nuclear war.

General Gribkov, who oversaw missile deployment in Cuba as deputy chief of the Main Operational Department of the Soviet General Staff during the crisis, thought the film was mostly correct, but noted faults. “The missiles were shown as being fueled, ready for launch, and very much in place—ready to be fired against the United States,” he said. “Let me state very clearly that not a single missile that was deployed in Cuba was in a vertical position.

Not a single missile. Not a single missile was fueled….It didn’t have any flight plan. The flight plan is the thing that actually guides the missile to its target. And not a single missile had a nuclear warhead attached.”

Robert McNamara, who served as U.S. Defense Secretary in the Kennedy administration, reminded the audience that the United States and Russia each have about 7,000 nuclear warheads directed at each other, with many on hair-trigger alert. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, “both sides made many, many mistakes, misjudgments, miscalculations based on misinformation,” he said. “In the end we avoided nuclear war solely—solely—because we were lucky.”

The biggest error during the crisis, McNamara said, was made by President John F. Kennedy’s military and civilian advisers who mistakenly believed that there were no tactical nuclear warheads on Cuba. Not until 1992 did McNamara learn from Gribkov at a Havana conference that the Soviet Union had tactical nuclear warheads on Cuba ready to confront a U.S. invasion force. “We didn’t know for 30 years that, had we attacked, we would have confronted” an array of nuclear weapons that the U.S. administration was not prepared for, he said.

Theodore Sorensen, Kennedy’s special counsel and speechwriter, pondered the “what ifs” of actions both sides might have taken: What if Kennedy had acceded to his advisers and launched a military attack on Cuba? What if Chairman Khrushchev had accepted Fidel Castro’s urgings to launch the missiles against the United States? Or what if the United States had retaliated against the shooting down of its U-2 plane? The answer: “We would not be here today,” Sorensen said.

On the current Bush administration’s plans for a national missile defense shield, Sorensen said: “I personally think that it would be a provocative, reckless act that would increase tensions, increase fears, sour relations not only between the United States and Russia, but between the United States and a great many other nations of the world.”

In addition to Gribkov, McNamara, and Sorensen, the panel discussion featured Georgi Kornienko, chief political adviser to then-Soviet Ambassador in Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, and Fyodor Burlatsky, a former adviser to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Alexander Fursenko, co-author of the book, One Hell of a Gamble, and Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the defense committee of the State Duma, provided enlightening commentaries.

During the open-floor session that followed, former Soviet military commanders and others took to the microphone. In an interesting revelation that has not received wide public attention, former submarine commander Vitaly Agafonov surprised some panelists and audience members with the statement that the four Russian submarines in his brigade were each armed with a nuclear torpedo.

“We had 22 torpedoes on each submarine, and we had one nuclear torpedo per submarine,” heading toward Cuba, Agafonov revealed. Listing the number of surface ships and aircraft carriers in the Soviet fleet, he noted that “comparing the combat capabilities of the Soviet fleet, the American fleet was more than 100 times in favor of the United States.” But, he added, “I must say that the Americans believed that the emergence of Russian subs off the shore of Cuba was an important factor tipping the balance of the situation in the region.”

To watch the webcast of the event or to read the transcript in English or Russian, visit: