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Sergei Khrushchev

Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis.

06:53

Other segments from the episode on January 12, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 12, 2001: Interview with Tom Blanton; Interview with Sergei Khrushchev; Interview with Steve Reich; Review of the film "13 days;" Commentary on Mejla Hlavsa.

Transcript

DATE January 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Blanton discusses the Cuban missile crisis
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new movie "13 Days," starring Kevin Costner, dramatizes the Cuban missile
crisis, the most frightening crisis of the Cold War. Our film critic, Henry
Sheehan, will review it later. First we're going to hear about the secret
history of the crisis.

It began in October of 1962, when the CIA learned that the Soviet Union had
secretly moved nuclear missiles into Cuba. President Kennedy and his aides
first considered the possibility of air strikes on the missile sites but
decided instead to begin a naval blockade of Cuba. We knew America and the
Soviet Union came close to nuclear war that October, but we didn't realize how
close until the early '90s, when secret documents from the crisis, including
letters by Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, were made public. This was
largely the result of a six-year-long Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed
by the National Security Archive. Tom Blanton, the director of the archive,
collected the documents in a book that was published in 1992. I spoke with
him then and asked: How close did we come to nuclear war?

(Soundbite of 1992 FRESH AIR interview)

Mr. TOM BLANTON (Director, National Security Archive): The new documents on
the Cuban missile crisis show that we were much, much closer to a nuclear
exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States then even the
decision-makers at the time thought. And the key to this has been the
revelations from the Soviet side that they had tactical nuclear warheads in
Cuba and that if the United States had invaded Cuba to take out the missile
sites for the larger ballistic missiles, the local Soviet commanders would
have used those tactical nukes. And as Robert McNamara, Kennedy's secretary
of Defense, said, `What would have been the result? Well, the Americans would
have responded in kind and the end would have been utter disaster.'

GROSS: When you say the local Soviet commanders had...

Mr. BLANTON: In Cuba.

GROSS: So it wasn't even Khrushchev's call. It was just local commanders'
call.

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly. And I think that is the real point of what all these
new documents have come to and what all the former officials on both sides
have now realized, which is one of the reasons that it got so dangerous was
because it was, in a sense, out of control. From the United States' side, we
interpreted everything that happened in Cuba as a direct line to the Kremlin.
We had a very exaggerated notion of the centralized control on their side, so
that if they shot down a reconnaissance plane, which they did at the height of
the crisis, in Washington, President Kennedy and his advisers thought that
must have been ordered by the Kremlin. And from the Kremlin's side, they
thought that everything we did was ordered by Washington. So when the
Strategic Air Command went on its second highest level of alert--I mean, the
highest level is war--the Strategic Air Command general did it in an open
channel and the Soviets thought, `Oh, Kennedy must have ordered that. They're
about to go to war.' This is a classic case of why crisis management is such
a myth, that we now find out things were spiraling out of control. And if
there's one underlying psychological dynamic that brought the settlement
about, I think it was the realization by both Khrushchev and Kennedy that they
didn't have so much control as they had thought.

GROSS: So had we invaded Cuba, we probably would have been under nuclear
attack. How close did we come to invading Cuba? Is there new information
about that in the recently declassified documents?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, there's a conflict between--among the president's advisers
and their ex post facto reconstruction of the crisis. Secretary McNamara and
the national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, both say that President Kennedy
would have cut a deal and stopped short of an invasion, but if you look at the
military plans, the CIA plans, all the things that were really under way, and
put yourself in the shoes of the Cubans or the Soviets, they foresaw an
invasion coming long before the missiles actually got to Cuba. It's one of
the reasons they put them there. And they were in a position where they had a
lot of incentives to do some pre-emptive actions. So we came very close in
the sense that neither side was in control anymore, in the sense of
centralized control, and that there were tactical nukes on the ground, but I
think that Bundy may have a point that both Khrushchev and Kennedy were very
scared of any such final military action. But for the first few days of the
crisis, a military invasion was the first item on pretty much most of the
American advisers' lists, including Bobby Kennedy's.

GROSS: Who were the people in the administration that argued most forcefully
for invading Cuba to get rid of the Soviet missiles?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, there's a wonderful story about how the Kennedy
administration brought in some of the old wise men to advise them in this hour
of crisis. One of those was Dean Acheson, who had been secretary of State
under Harry Truman and one of the architects of the whole containment policy
against the Soviet Union. Supposedly Acheson said at one of these high-level
meetings of what was known as the ExCom, the executive committee of the
National Security Council, just the closest top advisers--Acheson said, `Of
course we've got to take them out.' And somebody asked him, `Well, Mr.
Acheson, how would the Soviets respond to that?' And Acheson said, `Well, I
suppose they'd have to take out our missiles in Turkey.' And then that person
said, `Well, what would we have to do in response to that?' And he said, `Oh,
well, to support our NATO alliance and back up our ally, Turkey, we'd probably
have to attack some of the Soviet missiles maybe in the Soviet Union.' And
the person said, `Well, what happens then?' And Acheson said, `Well,
hopefully by then cooler heads would prevail,' which sort of made the bigger
point that we all needed the cooler heads to prevail from the start as opposed
to at the finish.

GROSS: Is there a new understanding, as a result of these documents, of the
Soviet motives for bringing missiles into Cuba in the first place?

Mr. BLANTON: I think that's the--those are some of the most extraordinary
revelations because, as a result of a six-year-long Freedom of Information Act
lawsuit, we at the National Security Archive finally forced the State
Department in January of this year to release Khrushchev's own letters to
Kennedy and Kennedy's responses. A few of those had been released previously,
but the government was still withholding these on the grounds that it was
sensitive foreign government information. A key adviser to our whole project,
a professor at American University, Phil Brenner, had the idea of just going
to the new Russian government and getting a little diplomatic note from them
saying, `Hey, we wouldn't mind if those letters came out.' And between that
note and our lawsuits, State department finally released, and now we have
these extraordinary missives, some of them obviously personally written or
dictated by Khrushchev just because of the emotional content and the very
personalized appeals that he makes.

There's one really extraordinary one on October 26th to President Kennedy that
has a really amazing plea from Khrushchev that puts very strongly the Soviet
claim that they weren't taking the offensive by putting these missiles in
Cuba. From their point of view, these missiles were defensive. They were
simply a match for the fact that the US had missiles in Turkey. Supposedly at
one point Khrushchev was walking around in his garden at his dacha on the
Black Sea with some foreigner and pointed across the Black Sea to Turkey and
said, `There are US missiles over there right now pointing right at us, right
at this garden.' So, in a sense, one of their motives had to be giving
Americans a little taste of their own psychological medicine.

But here's Khrushchev's words to Kennedy, and I think it's a remarkable
statement and you can read this fellow's personality and I think that's the
most amazing thing about these new releases. Here's what he said. This is in
the middle of this letter on October 26th. He said, `But, Mr. President, do
you really, seriously think that Cuba could launch an offensive upon the
United States and that even we, together with Cuba, could advance against you
from Cuban territory? Do you really think so? How can that be? We do not
understand. Surely, there's not been any such new development in military
strategy that would lead one to believe that it's possible to advance that
way. And I mean advance, not destroy. For those who destroy are barbarians,
people who have lost their sanity. We are sane people. We do understand and
assess the situation correctly. How could we then allow the wrong actions
which you ascribe to us? Only lunatics or suicides, who themselves want to
perish and before they die destroy the world, could do this. But we want to
live and by no means do we want to destroy your country. We want something
quite different, to compete with your country in a peaceful endeavor.'

GROSS: Tom, how much do you trust those sentiments?

Mr. BLANTON: Clearly they're self-serving, because Khrushchev is attempting to
persuade Kennedy not to--to back off of these harsh actions. Kennedy had
announced a quarantine. He had accused the Soviet Union of outright
deception, of lying directly to him. And, in fact, Kennedy was correct. The
Soviets had lied directly to the US about the placement of these missiles in
Cuba, and I think, in a strange way, Castro said he had urged Khrushchev to
put the missiles there in--not in secrecy. Because if he did it openly, the
US would be faced with an open international parallel. `You've got missiles
in Turkey. We're gonna put missiles in Cuba.' But to do it in secret opened
yourself up to exactly the accusation that Kennedy made, the bad faith. It
was a major, if you will, psychological blow for Kennedy to be able to make
that accusation and have it stick.

GROSS: Did you feel like you learned anything new about how frightened people
in the Kennedy administration were about the possibility of nuclear war?

Mr. BLANTON: Very much so. There's an extraordinary quote from, for
instance, Dean Rusk, who was the secretary of State, at the time when the US
had set up the quarantine line to keep the Soviet ships from steaming to Cuba
with more missiles and supplies. Kennedy announced the quarantine. The Navy
went out there. A bunch of Soviet freighters were on their way and then the
first ones stopped dead in the water. And Rusk is said to have said, `We were
eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fellow just blinked.' There was this
sense of crisis. McNamara said, one of the mornings of the crisis--I think it
was the morning of October 28th--after the U-2 pilot had been shot down over
Cuba and the Americans interpreted that as an order from the Kremlin to
escalate this thing--when McNamara woke up, he said he looked around and he
was amazed because he was still alive.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the Cuban missile crisis with Tom Blanton, the
head of the National Security Archive.

How do these newly released documents revise our understanding of how the
missile crisis was ended?

Mr. BLANTON: Publicly the story that we heard was Khrushchev backed down,
he's pulling the missiles out, and Kennedy is saying, `Look, we've got no
intention to invade Cuba as long as we can verify that there aren't these
missiles there.' What we now know, from the documents and the interviews that
these documents have generated with former officials, is that Bobby Kennedy
carried a secret message to the Soviets saying, `Look, really, we're willing
to take the Jupiter missiles out of Turkey that you're so worried about, but
we can't do it publicly because it undermines a NATO ally. But we can assure
you that early next year we'll go ahead and take them out because they're
obsolete anyway.' And so there was a classic secret, diplomatic negotiation
that the American public was never told about, but that was the underlying
factor in Khrushchev, I think, being willing to accept the deal, back down and
lose face. Afterwards, Khrushchev wrote a long letter to Castro, which is a
fascinating post-mortem on just what Khrushchev thought had occurred. Castro
felt sold out by Khrushchev because Khrushchev had backed down.

GROSS: Well, also, didn't Khrushchev not bother to consult Castro...

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly.

GROSS: ...before reaching this agreement?

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly. And Castro at one point sent a very hot-headed letter
to Khrushchev when Castro thought the US was about to invade in the middle of
the crisis. And the text of the letter sounds almost like Castro's saying,
`Use them or lose them.'

GROSS: Well, actually, let me quote from that.

Mr. BLANTON: Sure.

GROSS: Castro wrote, "If they actually carry out the brutal act of invading
Cuba, in violation of all international law and morality, that would be the
moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear, legitimate
defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be."

Mr. BLANTON: That's right. And there you see some of the problem about using
the word `defensive weapons,' because Castro's saying, if US invades, that is
with conventional weapons, use the nuclear weapons, which would clearly be a
major escalation. And yet--it's a good thing that the invasion didn't happen.
It's a very good thing that the tactical nukes weren't used, and it's a very
good think the nuclear exchange didn't happen, but it wasn't skill and crisis
management and it wasn't brinksmanship eyeball to eyeball. It was luck in
many respects and a secret diplomatic deal.

GROSS: But isn't the secret diplomatic deal part of the brinksmanship and
skill?

Mr. BLANTON: No, because I think the lesson of brinksmanship is you can play
chicken with the other guys. And, in fact, we didn't play chicken with the
other guys. In fact, we offered them a secret deal under the table and didn't
tell the public about it, so they could go back to their hard-liners and say,
`Look, we achieved something.' In public it looked like we were playing
chicken. And a lot of scholars and policy-makers ever since have said the
lesson of the missile crisis is be tough and be strong. And if you draw that
kind of lesson, then what you need to do with your military policy is talk
tough, have a lot more guns than the other guy and go eyeball to eyeball with
him and he'll blink. In fact, that's not the real story of the missile
crisis. The real story is, `Find out a deal that the other guy would accept
that would help him save face and give him some of what he wants and get out
of the crisis through a diplomatic negotiation, not brinksmanship.'

GROSS: Something else that emerges from these formerly classified documents
is that Kennedy didn't want a settlement that would compromise the United
States' efforts to overthrow Castro.

Mr. BLANTON: That's the most remarkable, I think, of the brand-new documents
just released this year under this Freedom of Information lawsuit that we
brought against the State Department and that is, Kennedy's letters right at
the time that Khrushchev backed down seemed to make an almost explicit pledge
that the United States would no longer consider an invasion of Cuba. And what
we see after October 28th, when Khrushchev backed down, is a watering down of
that pledge and now we have a lot of the internal documents about why. And we
have some of these State Department documents and studies that say, `Look,
let's put real strong conditions on any new invasion pledge. Let's say we'll
only pledge if we can get UN verification that there are no more missiles
there.' Well, of course, I think they knew that the Cubans would never allow
such a thing--what a violation of national sovereignty, etc. So they put
conditions on that they thought wouldn't be filled and that way--and some of
these documents say explicitly, `That way we keep the option open for doing
whatever we need to do in the future about Castro.'

And ultimately, by November 20th--and that's one of the other pieces of news
out of these documents, that the crisis wasn't just 13 days. They called it
13 days because that allowed it to end right before the midterm congressional
elections that year, and the Kennedys were nothing if they weren't political
and very politically astute. So they declared the crisis over. In fact,
though, tensions continued on well into November over the remaining Soviet
bombers and other nuclear-capable items in Cuba and it wasn't till November
20th that the crisis really ended. And the crisis ended without any firm,
unconditioned pledge from the US. In essence, Khrushchev backed off. He got a
highly conditioned pledge which said `verification' and these other--and `Cuba
can't take aggressive action in the hemisphere,' so Khrushchev didn't get
nearly what he thought he was getting. The US kept its options open to
continue to go after Castro, which they did, but the Jupiters did ultimately
come out of Turkey.

GROSS: Now this new book on the Cuban missile crisis includes letters between
Kennedy and Khrushchev, between Khrushchev and Castro. And I just found myself
amazed, as I was reading these letters, to think that in the middle of this
crisis that could have easily led to nuclear war, that Kennedy and Khrushchev
were writing letters to each other. I mean, and--What?--mailing them air
mail?

Mr. BLANTON: Well, some of them came through Teletype.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Mr. BLANTON: Some of them came by cable.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BLANTON: But one of the--that's one of the most fun stories. I think the
Soviet ambassador, Dobrynin, at one point said that it was the most
remarkable sort of Stone Age communication because they would get their cable
in code, translate it from code into Russian or English, call a messenger, who
would ride up on a bicycle to the Soviet Embassy, give it to the messenger.
The bicyclist would, you know, head down 16th Street to the White House,
deliver the letter. That's--this whole little episode and some of the
eight-hour delays in getting letters through led to two things. One, when
Khrushchev made his proposal to withdraw the missiles, he did it over the
radio, so there wouldn't be any delay. And, second, they installed what
became known as the hot line.

GROSS: Oh, I see. The hot line wasn't installed until after.

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly. How dangerous to have an eight-hour lapse at a time in
which you've got anti-aircraft batteries shooting down planes and invasion
forces massing and ships coming head-to-head in the Caribbean and just--what a
notion that you could have these letters being slowly Teletyped out and
handed by bicycle messengers to each side.

GROSS: Absolutely. I know. And then, you know, the hot line became such an
important part of Cold War iconography...

Mr. BLANTON: Exactly.

GROSS: ...in the '60s.

Mr. BLANTON: But it was a very smart thing.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. BLANTON: I mean, that way you could have that kind of direct
communication.

GROSS: Do you question the government's motives for keeping these documents
classified for so long?

Mr. BLANTON: I do question their motives in the sense that I think it was
more--it was bureaucratic inertia certainly that keeps this stuff classified
for 30 years. But it's also the precedent that is set. We argued that they
should release this stuff because no other event of the Cold War shaped our
whole nuclear policy and our interpretation of Soviet intentions more than the
Cuban missile crisis. I mean, that really fed, I would argue, a lot of the
Vietnam syndrome, the sense that you had to be tough with the Russians and
they would back down. You had to go eyeball to eyeball. And I think that's
sort of what we tried to do in Vietnam and it was a failure. So I think we
see the government's motivations in this as protecting their own ability to
make the decisions without criticism and without input from outside. There's
a bureaucratic tendency to sort of cover your rear and not have your mistakes
exposed to the public.

And there's a--the other excuse they gave was if they release this, they'd be
violating the communications with a foreign government. Well--so it really
helped when the Russian government said, `Hey, we should release this.'

GROSS: Well, Tom Blanton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Blanton, recorded in 1992, after he edited a book collecting the
secret documents of the Cuban missile crisis. He's the director of the
National Security Archive in Washington, DC.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, the nuclear scare from the Russian point of view. We hear from
Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador during the Cold War, and Sergei
Khrushchev, son of the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Henry Sheehan
reviews the new film "13 Days," and we remember Czech musician Mejla Hlavsa,
leader of the band the Plastic People of the Universe.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Sergei Khrushchev discusses the Cuban missile crisis
and what it was like growing up the son of Nikita Khrushchev
TERRY GROSS, host:

The name Khrushchev once signified American fears about the Soviet Union.
After all, it was Nikita Khrushchev who was the Soviet premier during the
Cuban missile crisis. It was Khrushchev who vowed to bury us. But his son
Sergei Khrushchev became a US citizen 1999. That year I spoke with Sergei
Khrushchev about growing up in the Soviet Union during the nuclear scare.

(Soundbite of 1999 FRESH AIR interview)

GROSS: Do you think your father believed there would ever be a nuclear war,
even during the Cuban missile crisis? Did he think that it might come to war?

Mr. SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV (Son of Nikita Khrushchev): Each politician helped
calculate all possibilities, including a nuclear war, but he did everything to
prevent this war. I think it is one of his biggest achievements. During his
reign, his 10 years, from '53 to '64, he, working together with President
Eisenhower and President Kennedy, turned the road from war to peace, because
in '53 we were really close to the war, and then even through all this crisis
we just went not to the war, but from the war, toward the peace; or, as he
called peace, resistance.

GROSS: What was it like when you were the son of the premier of the Soviet
Union? What--how did that change your life? What are some of--were there any
privileges that came along with that status, or responsibilities?

Mr. KHRUSHCHEV: It's very similar, in many ways. No difference in living in
Kremlin, 'cause we never lived physically in Kremlin, but really this was--are
you living in a white house or in the Windsor Palace in England? Because you
have privileges, of course, more than others, but we had not so many. We had
no bodyguards, no limousines. We used subway when we went to the university
and the tram cars. But from other side, of course, you have to calculate
everything, because you are under such--how do you say?--surveillance of the
people. It was no freedom of media. It was no paparazzis in our country.
They will not make--I don't know--your topless photographs and publish anyway.
But it will be rumors, everything the same, as my parents told, `All the time,
you have to remember that you are Khrushchev, have the name Khrushchev, and
what you are doing it will just be transformed in the rumors about your father
and your family.'

GROSS: You know, in the United States the image of your father, Nikita
Khrushchev, was as someone who was very loud, very unpredictable, something of
a peasant. And I'm wondering if that angered you, if you knew what the
American image of him was and how you felt about it.

Mr. KHRUSHCHEV: Well, you know, I think what I'm working with are trying to
present the real image, because if you are on the opposite side and you are
feeling that people are your enemies, you are trying to make this image useful
for you, as bad as possible. And sometimes it's misunderstanding between the
different cultures. And sometimes my father exploited this image, threatening
the opposite side. You know, he used--and we think he's unpredictable, can do
everything; and he'd many times use it in his speeches and his sometimes
negotiation, even in his interview, because I remember when he gave the first
TV interview. And he was very nervous, because before it was on the paper, so
you present him questions and then he give you answers, and he can change
everything what he want. And with you on the screen, you cannot change. And
when they prepared the next room to his office in Kremlin, and he just walk in
his office, his assistant told him who was there. And then he make his
decision. He open the door to this room where was the American crew and he
began to shout, `You know, you Americans all the time you're trying to find
the worst things. You're asking such bad questions and all others.' And they
were so surprised, sit looking at him and then he did this for about five
minutes. Then he stopped and turned back, went to the door and closed the
door. And then they were so scared that they didn't ask any questions that he
didn't like. So he knew this--about this image and he tried to use it for his
favor.

GROSS: In the United States, people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s had
these nuclear bomb drills where in school we were taught to hide under our
desk in case of a nuclear bomb. There were fallout shelters all over. Was
there an equivalent in the Soviet Union? Were children being trained in what
to do if there was a nuclear attack?

Mr. KHRUSHCHEV: Yes. It was very similar. We were trained in school; also
in each governmental office. Dumas took care of the shelters. It--maybe half
of money spent on these shelters and the buildings. But, you know, the nature
of the people are different, as I told. All the time you lived protected by
the two oceans. You have never enemies. And our people, through the
different wars in this century--two World Wars and the civil war and several
small wars, so we was not so much serious of all these drills. They
(unintelligible) drills at school when they told us about the nuclear
explosion; that you have to cover something with the white. And it was just a
joke that you had to cover yourself with the white blanket and then slowly
move in the direction to the cemetery. And I asked, `Why slowly?' `Because
you mustn't create panic.'

GROSS: Oh. Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet premier Nikita
Khrushchev, recorded in 1999.

Coming up, a review of the new movie about the Cuban missile crisis, "13
Days." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Minimalist composer Steve Reich on his work
TERRY GROSS, host:

Just one more thing about the Cuban missile crisis before we review "13 Days."
Political crises sometimes affect popular culture in surprising ways. For
example, composer Steve Reich was thinking about the Cuban missile crisis when
he was creating one of his formative works, his 1965 piece, "It's Gonna Rain."
Here's an excerpt of our 1999 interview.

(Soundbite of 1999 FRESH AIR interview)

GROSS: This is a tape manipulation piece. What principle were you working
with in this piece?

Mr. STEVE REICH (Composer): Well, I guess, really, the bottom-line principle
was that sometimes when people speak, they almost sing. And there's no better
example of that than a black Pentecostal preacher who's really--it's
impossible to say if they're singing or speaking. It's hovering between the
two of them. And this was a young man who called himself Brother Walter who
was in the, let's see, Union Square Park of San Francisco in '64, late '64
when I recorded him. And he's talking or laying it down about the flood in
the Bible and Noah and the ark; and you've got to remember that the Cuban
missile crisis was in '62. And a lot of us were thinking that, you know, this
was something hanging over everyone's head--especially in San Francisco at
that particular period in the early '60s, that kind of thinking was rampant,
that we could be so much radioactive dust in the next day or two. So this
seemed very appropriate for the time in history when I was living and I was
playing with tape loops on a technical level. Tape loops are little bits of
tape that are spliced together back then so that they just go around and
around and around and repeat themself. And when you take a bit of speech like
`It's gonna rain,' the way he says it, you really begin to hear the music of
what he's saying and what he says increasingly blended together so it's hard
to separate them.

And then there are actually two loops of his voice going--starting in unison
and then one slowly creeps ahead of the other and then gradually you begin to
hear it as a round, or can. And that's exactly what happens in this piece.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is Steve Reich's "It's Gonna Rain," originally
recorded in 1965.

(Soundbite of "It's Gonna Rain")

Unidentified Man: ...(unintelligible) He said, `After a while, it's gonna
rain after a while. For 40 days and for 40 nights and the people didn't
believe him and they began to laugh at him and they began to mock him and they
began to say, "It ain't gonna rain."' It's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's
gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna
rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's
gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna
rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's
gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna
rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's
gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain, it's gonna
rain, it's gonna--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's gon--it's gon--it's
gon--it's gon--it's gon--it--it--it--it--it--it--it--it--it--it--rain--
it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--
rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--it--rain--
gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--
gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--
gonna--gonna--gonna--gonna--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's
gonna--it's gon--it's gon--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's gonna--it's
gonna--it's gon--it's gon--it's gone--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--
rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain--rain...

GROSS: Steve Reich's 1965 composition, "It's Gonna Rain."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film "13 Days" and its telling of the Cuban missile crisis
TERRY GROSS, host:

The Cuban missile crisis is getting played out in movie theaters. "13 Days"
stars Kevin Costner as President Kennedy's political aide, Kenny O'Donnell.
Costner is also one of the film's producers. Henry Sheehan has a review.

HENRY SHEEHAN:

Throughout "13 Days," director Roger Donaldson returns again and again to
shots of the movie's three main protagonists, President John F. Kennedy, his
brother, attorney general Robert Kennedy, and his long-time political adviser
Kenny O'Donnell. Whether the three are gathered in the Oval Office or huddled
together on a White House porch, their intense discussions are marked by
glances that each of the men shoot off into an unseen distance. They are
clearly under siege and, given the way the scenes are shot, we are under siege
with them.

What lurks in that unseen distance, of course, is the Cuban missile crisis,
the nuclear armed confrontation that began in October 1962, when a high-flying
U-2 spy plane took pictures of Russian missiles being set up on Cuban soil.
But "13 Days" comes up with another foe for the Kennedys and their loyal
friend, O'Donnell, a cabal of their very own Cabinet secretaries, military
chiefs and security aides. This group, made up of historical figures such as
Dean Acheson, Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis LeMay and national security
adviser McGeorge Bundy, want the Kennedys to respond to the Cuban crisis with
force, whether or not that leads to all-out nuclear war. The Kennedys, on
their part, want to find another solution, short of catastrophe but far from
appeasement.

(Soundbite of "13 Days")

Unidentified Man #1: I can tell you right now I don't see any way around
hitting them.

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER ("Kenny O'Donnell"): Well, if we hit them, kill a lot of
Russians, they'll move against Berlin. All right, they attack Berlin, that's
NATO, and we're at war.

Unidentified Man #2: We're damned if we do, but if we don't, we're in a war
for sure somewhere else in six months.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, if there are alternatives that make sense, and I'm
not saying that there are, then we need them and we need them fast.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, what about Congress? Now I think we may need
to start letting key people now. And they're all scattered across the country
for the campaign.

Unidentified Man #1: We can get Congress back.

Unidentified Man #3: We're going to need to get the UN staffing and warmed
up. What about the allies?

Unidentified Man #2: We can't start worrying about everything. Right now
we've got to figure out what we're gonna do before we worry about how we're
going to do it.

SHEEHAN: The choice, obviously, was the now famous blockade, a show of force
that immediately stopped the flow of missiles into the island and demonstrated
US resolve.

Some White House veterans of the crisis have levied criticism against the
movie for elevating the role of O'Donnell, who is the movie's central focus,
when, in fact, he was peripheral to the crisis. That may be true, but
O'Donnell is a handy figure for an audience, partly because he wasn't in the
middle of things. He was a sharp observer keeping an eye out for his boss'
political interests and, in explaining those interests to Kennedy, he
simultaneously explains them to the audience.

O'Donnell is played by Kevin Costner, which naturally gives his figure a heft
that other characters played by lesser-known actors don't have. Bruce
Greenwood plays JFK and Steven Culp, brother Bobby, with efficient and
appealing impressionism, though they disappear within the pop culture contours
of their characters. The same can be said of Dylan Baker's Robert McNamara,
Kevin Conway's Curtis LeMay or just about anyone else in the movie. Only
Costner supersedes his character, playing not so much a Boston-bred political
strategist so much as a familiar Costner type, the ordinary family man called
upon to serve in extraordinary circumstances.

The movie's other historical distortion has garnered less comment. By
limiting itself to the 13 days when the Kennedy administration formulated and
carried out its blockade plan, the movie oversimplifies the situation.
Castro, for example, is barely mentioned and Cuba itself is dealt with as a
mere launching pad rather than as an ongoing Kennedy sore point.

Costner's presence and the movie's episodic limitation of events brings us
back to those recurring shots of the two Kennedys and Costner huddled
together. They look for all the world like two Earp brothers and Doc Holliday
as depicted in many movies, including one starring Costner. They don't make
Westerns much anymore, but you can't kill a genre so linked to the country's
idea of itself. "13 Days" duplicates the action of a Western in the way it
automatically identifies with its three heroes in its constrictions of time
and space and with a narrative structure that depicts both a big enemy without
and deadly rivals within. And it's a pretty good Western. The acting is
uniformly solid, and Donaldson and screenwriter David Self have done a good
job of integrating military action scenes with the desktop confrontations.
"13 Days" is so entertaining, in fact, that you might not even notice how it
slips so easily into national myth-making.

GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Milo Miles remembers the founder of the Czech band the
Plastic People of the Universe, Mejla Hlavsa. He died last week. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Plastic People of the Universe and leader Mejla Hlavsa,
who died last week
TERRY GROSS, host:

Mejla Hlavsa helped change the course of Czechoslovakian history with his band
the Plastic People of the Universe. He died January 5th of cancer. He was
49. Vaclav Havel was a longtime friend and supporter who credited Hlavsa and
his group with keeping dissident culture alive under Communist rule. Music
critic Milo Miles has this appreciation.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering; music)

MILO MILES reporting:

In many ways, the rock 'n' roll of the Plastic People of the Universe was very
peculiar. It was music where Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground loomed as
big, or bigger than, The Beatles. The sun didn't shine very much in Plastic
People's songs. The jokes were sardonic. The dreams were small and savored
quickly. It was Franz Kafka meets Bugs Bunny. Yet there was nothing passive
or escapist about the music bassist and composer Mejla Hlavsa and his
companions made. They were ferocious in the shadows.

Hlavsa formed the group just a month after the Russian invasion crushed the
independent spirit of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, but he always insisted
the Plastic People were simply free-expression purists. They wrote only one
song with overt political content. They never intended to be dissidents or
spend most of their existence as an illegal band, playing word-of-mouth gigs
in barns while the secret police hid in the woods outside.

Harassment from officials was constant after the Plastic People lost their
state license in 1970, but the big bust came in March 1976. Some 27 people
were arrested, and two members of the band were sentenced to jail terms:
Artistic director Ivan Jirous and saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec. This
crackdown inspired the formation of a formal human-rights movement called
Charter 77. Future Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel was a key member.

The weary band split up in 1988, and for several years Hlavsa led the group
Pulnoc, a harsher, harder-rocking outfit with a female singer that echoed his
old fascination with the original Velvet Underground. Pulnoc recorded one
album for Arista. It's out of print and, indeed, Plastic People albums have
always been very hard to find in this country. Two of the best, if you come
across them, are the debut, "Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned,"
B-A-N-N-E-D, and their knockout reunion release, "1997." All the music played
here is from that album.

The band did a short tour of the US after they got back together. When I saw
them perform in 1999, they were clearly charter members of the worldwide
community of anarchist hippies, a bunch who would stand apart anywhere they
were. The determined bass lines, free-form sax, dissonant folk fiddle and
gnashing guitar blended into the sound of liberated spirits who demanded
respect but expected nothing. They were dangerous because their authoritarian
state said they were. They were dissidents because free expression is always
a political act. Now the Plastic People of the Universe are gone forever, but
they leave in triumph.

GROSS: Mejla Hlavsa died last Friday in Prague. Music critic Milo Miles
lives in Cambridge.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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