Nikita goes to Hollywood
by Mike Lee, New Zealand Political Review, Vol XI No.1, Autumn 2002
Nikita goes to Hollywood
(Hollywood adds new meaning to the term Theatres of War)
by Mike Lee
September 19 1959
"Lunch at Fox was very interesting. I've never seem such a large turnout of capitalistic movie luminaries as for Krushchev, chief of the Soviet proletariat This luncheon was Hollywood's political event of the year. I was not an admirer of Premier Krushchev but I was convulsed by Spiro Skouras' (the head of Twentieth Century Fox) attempt to engage him in debate. Skouras stood up after the toasts were exchanged and launched into a speech describing how his life demonstrated the virtues of the capitalist system. "I was poor boy from Greece", he said, "I came to America with nothing. Now I am head of Twentieth Century Fox" Krushchev listened to the translation, stood up and replied. "I was poor boy from Caucasus. I came to Moscow with nothing. Now I am Premier of Soviet Socialist Republic." Charlton Heston The Actor's Life -- Journals 1956 -- 1976.
In the last two or three years (prior to September 11) Hollywood had become increasingly interested in events of the middle 20th century.
Steven Spielberg's war movie Saving Private Ryan seemed to touch a chord, building on an end-of-century mood of nostalgia. Such was the impact of Private Ryan it inspired something of a fashion for realistic/heroic World War 2-era books and movies. Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers on the World War 2 exploits of the 101st Airborne became last year's block-buster television series. Why the popular culture would have become so interested in historic events like World War 2 is an interesting question.
In this country, this same mood is expressed in increasingly large turn-outs for Anzac Day ceremonies. (Commentators remark on the large numbers of school children now turning up for the dawn services, missing the point that the kids were being taken there by their former peace-nik parents).
This same mood is why baby boomer Americans began to refer to their parents as the `Greatest Generation'. The term was coined by TV personality Tom Brokaw who wrote a World War 2 genre best-seller of the same name.
To be fair to Francis Fukuyama, history, after the Cold War, if not actually ending did seem to pause for a bit -- as if in a lull between waves. At this point in time, it is difficult to assess the ultimate significance of the September 11 attacks, but up until then there was a noticeable public interest in an era when history did seem very much alive, was much more easy to make sense of, and was played out on a stage of heroic scale -- by a cast of millions.
Last year three major movies dealt with political events of the middle 20th century and the doings of the `Greatest Generation': Pearl Harbour; Thirteen Days, and The Enemy at the Gates.
The over-hyped, big budget Pearl Harbour was basically standard American girl meets boy fare against a standard interpretation of the events which brought the U.S. into the Second World War. Despite the movies' technical excellence (especially the depiction of the Japanese bombing raid), the predictable story line and wooden acting meant that Pearl Harbour was . . . well, a `bomb'.
If the Greatest Generation lived in heroic times, we their kids, growing up in the Cold War lived through pretty exciting times ourselves. No more so than October 1962 when the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles secretly installed in Cuba and aimed at the United States brought the world to the very brink of a Third World War. Few old enough to remember the time can forget the feeling of impending doom that accompanied the reports of a looming nuclear war between the world's two super-powers.
The movie Thirteen Days covers those dramatic days more or less in the formula of a TV docu-drama. Apart from a few dramatic flourishes and the exaggerated role of `special aide to the President' Kenneth P. O'Donnell, it is pretty much a faithful record of events -- of course from the American point-of-view.
Thirteen Days has a New Zealand connection in Director Roger Donaldson who though an Australian made his name directing successful Kiwi films like Smash Palace and who lives here when not in Hollywood.
Donaldson and screen writer David Self chose Kenny O'Donnell, one of President Kennedy's most trusted advisers, as the character to take the audience "into the room", as sort of silent witness to the dramatic events and the marathon policy debates in the Kennnedy White House. And in a movie with no sex, they sensibly chose proven box-office drawcard Kevin Costner to be O'Donnell. Costner with a crew-cut and Boston accent plays his usual engaging role as All-American Everyman. Unknown, Bruce Greenwood received critical acclaim for an elegant performance as JFK, along with good support from baby-faced Stephen Culp as the President's brother, Robert and a compelling role by Kevin Conway as General Curtis Le May. Robert Kennedy was to play a key role in the crisis and the movie's title Thirteen Days comes from a memoir he wrote shortly before his death in 1968.
The film itself was generally well received by critics and historians in the U.S. President George W. Bush even invited Ted Kennedy along to the White House for a special viewing.
The opening credits role over a nightmare vision of fusillades of launching missile, and thermonuclear mushroom clouds -- to reinforce, I guess, the movie's subtitle -- "You'll never believe how close we came".
The story begins on October 16th 1962, when National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy presented President Kennedy with a series of U-2 spy plane photos revealing that the Soviets had installed medium-range ballistic missiles on the island of Cuba. These were unmistakably identified as offensive nuclear weapons capable of hitting major U.S. cities including Washington DC some five minutes after launch.
Kennedy and his advisers were stunned. Prior to detection, the Soviet leadership had consistently denied any intention of placing offensive weapons in Cuba let alone nuclear weapons. Discovery of the missile sites set-off the biggest world crisis since World War 2.
When the President announced the situation to the nation in a dramatic TV address on October 22, the impact was instantaneous. Within hours, supermarkets in the U.S. ran out of supplies, churches were filled, and everywhere especially in Europe and America, people prepared for the worst. Here in New Zealand the NZ Broadcasting Corporation was jolted out of its 1950s somnolence to start putting out radio news bulletins every hour (and it was to find that there was plenty more news over the next few years to keep that routine going).
Thirteen Days closely follows the debates that went on in at the highest levels of the American state. ExComm (short for Executive Committee of the National Security Council) was the body which met virtually in continuous session throughout the crisis. Kennedy had apparently decided after the Bay of Pigs disaster (an enterprise undertaken solely on the advice of the heads of the CIA and the military Joint Chiefs) to take counsel from the widest possible range of opinion.
The movie portrays Kennedy, and his brother, his Attorney-General and allies such as Robert McNamara Secretary of Defence grasping for a solution while resisting intense pressure from the military, and senior establishment figures notably Dean Acheson, (a former Secretary of State for President Truman) for pre-emptive airstrikes, followed by a full-scale invasion of Cuba. As it happened, Kennedy had just that summer read Barbara Tuchman's classic The Guns of August -- a study of the events and decisions that led to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
With the memory of general mobilisations -- which once set in motion were impossible to call back -- obviously still in his mind, Kennedy believed the belligerent measures his generals were advocating would inevitably draw a response from the Russians which would progressively escalate into a full nuclear exchange. Kennedy was more right than he realised -- we now know what the Americans did not know, that the Russians had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba and would have used them had they been attacked by invading American forces.
The movie spends much time in the White House cabinet room and oval office but time to time it escapes from these rather claustrophic confines, for instance to take a spectacular, 450 mile per hour tree-top surveillance flight over Cuba (I found myself gripping the arm-rests of my seat).
Other times we are out on the on the blue Caribbean as the U.S. Navy attempts to enforce Kennedy's `quarantine'. In one dramatic encounter with a Soviet tanker `Grozny' a US destroyer "clears its guns" over the Russian in violation of the President's no shooting orders -- leading to a remarkable screaming match between Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and chief of Naval staff Admiral Anderson in the Pentagon situation room. The movie reaches its dramatic climax in the celebrated debate of the United Nations Security Council.
Some bits of the movie are pure fiction, again this comes down to O'Donnell's role, particularly the conspiratorial conversation between O'Donnell and an airforce pilot Commander William B. Ecker prior to his Cuban surveillance flight.
Donaldson and screenwriter Self demonstrate that while Kennedy convened Ex-Comm to advise him he sensibly manipulated the consensus to an outcome he wanted -- a `quarantine' of Cuba rather than military action.
An important and controversial sub-theme of this movie is the tension between Kennedy and the military. This has been criticised by some historians as mythology -- however Donaldson and Self based much of the dialogue on transcripts of White House tape recordings. Long before Nixon, Kennedy had installed a taping system in the White House.
Transcripts of the tapes were recently released and published in 1997 in a book by Ernest May and Philip Zelikov, The Kennedy tapes -- inside the White house during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These transcripts do reveal real and quite deep-seated tensions between Kennedy and his senior military advisers.
In a famous meeting early in the crisis on October 19 when Kennedy met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff there was this exchange between the president and Airforce General Curtis Le May. The ferocious Le May who organised the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, who had offered to "delete" Chinese cities with nuclear weapons during the Korean War and most infamously "to bomb Vietnam back to the stone-age", was pressing the President hard for authorisation for airstrikes.
Le May: "So I see no other solution. This blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don't see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich" (pause) . . . (This is clearly a jibe at Kennedy's father Joseph P. Kennedy the pro-appeasement World War 2 U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain).
Le May: "I think that a blockade, and a political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty weak response to this. And -- I'm sure a lot of our citizens would feel that way, too. You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr President."
Kennedy: "What did you say?"
Le May: "You're in a pretty bad fix"
The transcript indicates that here Kennedy made "an unclear, joking reply". Self interprets Kennedy as saying "Well if I am, you're in there with me General Le May." After he left the room, unbeknown to the Generals, Kennedy left the tape running. The following revealing remarks were picked up as the Chiefs discussed the meeting.
Shoup: (Marine General) "You pulled the rug right out from under him Goddamn."
Le May: (With a chuckle) "Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean?" (unclear)
Shoup: " I agree with that answer, agree a hundred percent, a hundred percent. He (President Kennedy) finally got around to the word "escalation". That's the only the only goddam thing that's in the whole trick. Go in and out and get every goddamn one. Escalation that's it".
Le May: "That's right".
Shoup: "You're screwed, screwed. Some goddamn thing, some way that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit friggin' around . . ."
Despite the revealing disclosures of the mad-headed belligerence of the U.S. military, the crisis is purely seen from the American side. And perhaps a reason for its widespread appeal in America was its popular theme of `America as Innocent Victim' (a deeply held sentiment amongst Americans, as we have been recently reminded). There is no mention of the American provocations against Cuba such as notorious Operation Mongoose (which was presided over by Robert Kennedy in his earlier cold warrior incarnation). These certainly would have provided good grounds for the Soviets to believe that the U.S. was building up for another invasion. Though we get glimpses of sweating Soviet expeditionary force officers and hairy Cuban comrades frantically bull-dozing missiles sites out of the jungle -- we don't get to see Kennedy's opposite number, the man who ordered the missiles into Cuba, Nikita Krushchev.
In many ways Kennedy's dialectical opposite, Krushchev, like the society he represents is an enigmatic, mysterious presence looming menacingly in the background, as Kennedy and the members of `Excom' struggle to divine his motives and his intentions.
For Krushchev was living up to his reputation as number one bogey-man of the Cold War -- apparently in spite of (or perhaps because of) the Hollywood lunch. It was a reputation Krushchev seemed to relish and deliberately cultivate.
On one unforgettable occasion in 1960 he took larikinism in politics to a new height by hammering his shoe on the table at the UN. Bristling with nuclear rockets, and shouting "we will bury you" Krushchev was the ultimate 1950's night mare. Who can forget the terrifying Time Magazine cover during the Missile Crisis, with what appeared to be a furious Krushchev, finger jabbing out of the magazine rack and behind him the orange mushroom cloud of an exploding hydrogen bomb.
The Enemy at the Gates
And it is Krushchev or rather a brilliant cameo portrayal of Krushchev by British actor Bob Hoskins who steals the show in another historical movie, Enemy at the Gates. Set exactly 20 years before the Missile Crisis, Enemy at the Gates based on William Craig's 1973 book of the same name, depicts the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which in the end was decided in the streets of Stalingrad. Here the Second World War, many would say the future of civilisation itself, was decided.
The story-line is based on the true-life exploits of a Russian `Noble Sniper' Vassili Zaisev, a former shepherd boy from the Urals, whose lethal art made him a propaganda star of the Red Army. Zaisev was credited with at least 149 Kills at Stalingrad.
The storyline culminates in the famous duel between Zaisev, played by British actor Jude Law, and the man the Germans sent to kill him `Major Koenig', played by American star Ed Harris. The duel is reportedly based on a true life episode in which a SS marksman Colonel Heinz Thorwald was dispatched to Stalingrad from the sniper school in Berlin, to eliminate the top Soviet snipers, especially Zaitsev. The Soviets were tipped-off to Thorwald mission by a prisoner. The movie reaches its dramatic climax as each man stalks the other through the ruined city.
However, as usual in historical movies, there is some debate about how "true life" this famous duel really was. The episode is recounted in Allan Clark's Barbarossa but later researchers such as Antony Beevor (author of the 1998 best-seller Stalingrad) have cast doubt on it, suggesting that the legendary duel was a creation of Soviet propaganda.
Of Zaitsev and the rest of his lethal exploits there is no argument, and neither is there argument about the key role in the battle for Stalingrad played by the other former peasant boy Nikita Krushchev.
Krushchev was ordered to Stalingrad by Stalin himself and as commissar to the military command was tasked with the political management of the battle. Up until Stalingrad, the Red Army had been on the strategic defensive, losing (with the exception of the brief mid-winter offensive in front off Moscow) virtually every major encounter with the Germans. At Stalingrad the Second World War struggle between the totalitarian powers reached its violent climax. In the rubble of the model city of cubist architecture, so new and attractive Stalin named it for himself, savage fighting went on for four months, street by street, and building by building. Men fought hand-to-hand in cellars and in attics in a pitiless struggle where the front line often ran between two burnt-out rooms.
Probably because of its name, the city became something of an emotional fixation with both Hitler and Stalin. As the Germans poured more and more troops in (believing mistakenly that the Soviets had no more reserves), the Soviets fed just enough men across the Volga to hold on, while all the while building up forces on the flanks of the massive German salient.
Perhaps the most riveting scene in the movie was at the beginning when Red Army reinforcements debark from trains on the opposite side of the Volga. As the doors of the wagons slide open the troops see with horror their destination -- a true vision of hell -- the city of Stalingrad in flames across the river. As one German officer wrote at the time. "Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell, the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure".
Nikita Sergeevich Krushchev was born in to a peasant family 1894 in the Caucasus. He was apprenticed as a metal fitter -- working in factories and mines before becoming a Bolshevik in 1919, soon after which he joined the Red Army and fought in the civil war against the Whites. In 1921 his wife died in the famine caused by the civil war. After this Krushchev rose through the bureaucracy, successfully negotiating the murderous political minefield which was Stalin's Russia.
Early in the War Krushchev was credited with the remarkable logistical achievement of relocating Soviet industry behind the Urals. But it was in Stalingrad that Krushchev was to gain the national fame which eventually launched him to the top. Stalingrad must have been a searing personal experience for anyone involved in it. Krushchev himself suffered what must have been a bitter personal loss, his oldest son was killed in the fighting.
When the Russians finally trapped the whole German 6th Army (nearly 300,000 men) in Stalingard it was the turning point of the War and indeed world history. For the Russians, the long road and bloody from Stalingrad ended in Berlin. The commander in Stalingrad, General Chuikov, a street-fighting expert, was the man who captured Berlin and took the German surrender. From then on, it appears, those two binary opposites Stalingrad and Berlin were inextricably linked in the Russian mind.
The terrible experience of Nazi invasion and what a close-run thing it had been, gave rise to an almost obsessive dread amongst the Russians that Germany must never be allowed to rise again. This was the over-riding tenet of Soviet Cold War policy.
Which is why Berlin was the flash-point of tension for much of the Cold War -- particularly during the fifties and early sixties. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin was set deep within the Soviet occupied zone and was itself divided between the Soviet and the Allied occupying powers.
As Premier of the Soviet Union, Krushchev wanted an agreement with the Allied powers which would have enabled him to conclude a peace treaty with the communist Soviet-satellite East German state -- with Berlin as its capital (thus formally ending World War 2). This would effectively permanently divide Germany thus preventing it from ever becoming a threat again (something the French tried to do after the Great War)
In the summit meeting between Krushchev and Kennedy in Vienna in 1961, Krushchev threatened the American president over Berlin. Krushchev would not have been alone in his obsession about a revanchist Germany. At the time of the Missile Crisis, along with Krushchev, virtually the whole of the Soviet High Command had been involved in the fighting at Stalingrad. This included Krushchev's Minister of Defence, Marshall Malinovsky, the Commander of Ground Forces, Marshal Chuikov, the Minister in Charge of Strategic Missiles Marshall Biryuzov, the head of the airforce and even the head of the Soviet navy (who had organised the Volga flotillas).
Krushchev, was a remarkable character who, though he was aware of and indeed participated in the excesses of Stalinism, apparently maintained a genuine idealistic belief in socialism as the ultimate saviour of humanity.
But always at heart a Bolshevik, he was contemptuous of what he called "bourgeous democracy" and was once quoted memorably as saying "We have a monolithic society, why therefore found another party? That would be like putting a flea inside your shirt". Ironically had he lived in a democratic society, he might have easily have become a successful populist politician. In one famous incident during an arty garden party in Moscow Krushchev verbally assaulted modern artists, reportedly causing poetess Margarita Aliger to swoon!
Though to have risen to the top he clearly had the ruse paysan or peasants cunning, he was also by all accounts something of a gambler who worked on gut instinct. Two of his aides agreed that the word Russian word azartnyi meaning "reckless" or "hot-headed" best described him. What has become subsequently clear is that at the time of the Missile Crisis Krushchev alone had control of the Soviet government.
Scholars to this day debate why Krushchev put the missiles in (the Soviets called the operation `Operation Anadyr') -- and puzzle why he did it secretly. There are three reasons thought most likely. To readdress the strategic superiority of American nuclear weapons, to head-off a possible American invasion of Cuba and to exert leverage over Berlin. It appears that there was a method to Krushchev's madness. Apparently Krushchev's plan was to unveil the existence of the missiles in November (after the congressional elections which he hoped Kennedy's Democrats would win) and publicly sign a treaty with Castro. He also planned, probably during a UN speech planned at the same time to renew his ultimatum over Berlin. With the missiles poised in Cuba, Krushchev was confident he could face down the Americans and carry through to success his German policy and forever lay the German demon.
Krushchev's high risk gambit failed, chiefly because American technology in the form of U2 surveillance uncovered his plan before it was ready. But not completely, in return for withdrawing the missiles Kruschev extracted an assurance from the Americans that they would not invade Cuba, and an off-the-record pledge made through Robert Kennedy that U.S. Jupiter missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey after a reasonable interval.
On October 27 when Krushchev made his broadcast about withdrawing the missiles the centurys' third major conflagration had been averted -- with only one casualty, an American U2 pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, whose plane was shot down by a Russian commander in violation of Kruschev's orders.
After that having pulled back from the very brink the two Super Power leaders began to move towards peace. Kennedy's commencement address to the American University six months after the Missile Crisis was a significant US policy departure designed to end the Cold War.
Kennedy pointed out that Russia and America "almost uniquely among the major powers" had never been at war with each other. Seeming to have grasped the deep motives and hidden fears driving the Soviet leadership he went on to say:
"No country in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least twenty million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including nearly two-thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland -- a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago."
Soon after a nuclear peace ban treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was signed, a `hot line' set up between the two leaders and it seemed the 17 years of bitter Cold War began to thaw (which may not have been greeted with universal approval for those with a vested interest in its continuance). In the western press the previously feared and hated Kruschev began to be referred to in a genial, almost affectionate manner as "Mr K".
But it was unlikely that such a monumental crisis could pass so lightly. The Gods of War would need to be appeased with other sacrifices. Those other sacrifices turned out to be the protagonists themselves.
Just over a year later, (according interestingly enough, to both the official Warren Report account and the unofficial conspiracy theory), Kennedy was murdered by a gunman (or gunmen) obsessed with Cuba.
As for Krushchev, one years later his turn came when he was ousted in disgrace by his presidium rivals "You insisted that we deploy missiles in Cuba", one of his accusers rounded on him, "This provoked the deepest crisis, carried the world to the brink of nuclear war", (adding rather woundingly) "and even frightened terribly the organiser of this very danger!".
Kruschev lived out a peaceful retirement and died in 1971.
Thirteen Days, Rated PG-13.
Runtime: 145 minutes. Starring: Kevin Costner, (Kenny O'Donnell) Bruce Greenwood (JFK), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Steven Culp (Robert Kennedy), Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy), Michael Fairman (Adlai Stevenson), Kevin Conway (General Le May). Director Roger Donaldson. Screenwriter David Self. Available on Video/DVD.
The Enemy at the Gates,
MPAA Rating: R (for strong graphic war violence and some sexuality).
Running Time: 131 minutes. Cast: Jude Law (Vassili Zaitsev), Ed Harris (Major Konig), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Joseph Fiennes (Danilov), Bob Hoskins (Kruschev), Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud (Seven Years in Tibet, The Name of the Rose). Screenwriters: Jean-Jacques Annaud, Alain Godard (co-writer The Name of the Rose). Available on Video/DVD.
© 2002 New Zealand Political Review
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.