Robert F. Kennedy in 1964

The constructed history of Robert F. Kennedy

The case of his book "Thirteen Days "

19 minutes to read
Stefan Voeten


In this paper Voeten examines how Robert Kennedy's autobiographical Thirteen Days is a constructed version of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The narrative was told by Kennedy in a way that was perceived to be beneficial for him.


"Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it." - Robert F. Kennedy


Robert Francis Kennedy, often affectionately called Bobby, was for many people a beacon of hope after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and his older brother John F. Kennedy. When Robert Kennedy was running for president in 1968, it seemed he was going to live up to this status, by giving speeches articulating hope for a better world, and yet not distancing himself from the common man, for example, by reflecting on his bad temper with the joke: "I am not ruthless. And if I find out who has called me ruthless I will destroy him." (Schlesinger, 1978, p. 150) All this lasted until he was also assassinated on June 6, 1968, which, according to some, expanded the myth around his persona.

During his presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy wrote a book called Thirteen Days (Kennedy, 1969). This book, which was published posthumously, is about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and his role therein. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a now-legendary event during the Cold War starting when the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, their new-found ally, which, together with the reaction of the United States, brought the world to the brink of an all-out nuclear war. According to Howard Stern, if there is anything that has shaped myths around the Cuban Missile Crisis - and its actors - it is Thirteen Days (Stern, 2012). As an actor deeply involved in the plot, Kennedy was not without self-interest when he wrote his account of this critical moment in world history. And yet, Kennedy’s book has been massively influential for our understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis for over forty years.

How can we read Robert F. Kennedy’s self-narrative work Thirteen Days work as an autobiographical construction?

According to Jerome Bruner, an autobiography or self-narrative is "a story by which we tell about our lives" (Bruner, 1987, p. 691). According to this, Thirteen Days can certainly be counted as a self-narrative. Now, according to Bruner, one task of scientists is to contribute to something new by examining "how people put their narratives together when they tell stories from life, considering as well how they might have proceeded" (Bruner, 1987, p. 709). And this is exactly what I want to examine in this essay with Robert Kennedy's self-narrative. My guiding question will be: How can we read Robert F. Kennedy’s self-narrative work Thirteen Days as an autobiographical construction?The story of an event converted into the story of a life, in other words.

I will investigate this, firstly, by conducting a historical analysis of Thirteen Days. What is fact? What is fiction? And how is this presented? With this, the reader will also get a good grasp on the content of Thirteen Days. Secondly, I will analyse how this self-narrative sits with Bruner's observations, which provide a good frame to examine whether or not and how a narrative is constructed, and what the implications of this can be. Thirdly, I will discuss what truths, even if they were unintended, can be found in this autobiographical narrative. 


How does Thirteen Days compare to history?

To answer this question I will mostly be using Howard Stern’s book (Stern, 2012), in which he wants to declassify the myths around the Cuban Missile Crisis, because he could make use of the newest and most reliable evidence: The ExComm Tapes. These tapes are the recordings of the meetings that were held by the ExComm, a temporary committee consisting of President John F. Kennedy and his ministers and advisers with the goal of dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I will contrast Stern’s book to that of Robert Kennedy (Kennedy, 1969). Where possible, I will also include Michael Dobbs’ book (Dobbs, 2009), whose structuring of the narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a thriller would be an interesting research object in itself, but that’s just a side note.

The biggest change to the historical narrative that Robert Kennedy made according to Stern is that he describes himself in Thirteen Days, alongside his brother, as a dove, which is someone who stands for diplomacy and does not want any reckless military interventions, while in fact Robert Kennedy was, in sharp contrast to his brother, one of the most aggressive hawks, which is someone who does want military action (Stern, 2012, p. 34-35).

When the idea of an airstrike on the missiles in Cuba is brought up, Kennedy hints in Thirteen Days  tothe fact that he said "You’re gonna kill an awful lot a people, and we’re gonna take an awful lot a heat on it". Kennedy fails to mention that he added an even more aggressive suggestion: "there was a more effective option (…) which is the invasion" (Stern, 2012, p. 42).

Kennedy also leaves out in Thirteen Days that he said: "we should just get into it, and get it over with and take our losses if he wants to get into a war over this" (Stern, 2012, p. 43) or that he was even willing to "stage an incident that would justify military intervention: ‘’You know, sink the Maine or something!’’ " (Stern, 2012, p. 44).

When the idea of a blockade of all trade to and from Cuba is brought up, Kennedy himself says: "I supported McNamara’s position in favour of a blockade. (…) I couldn’t accept the idea that the United States would rain bombs on Cuba, killing thousands and thousands of civilians." (Kennedy, 1969, p. 29), whereas Stern shows that the tapes recorded Kennedy pressing for an invasion as "the last chance we will have to destroy Castro" (Stern, 2012, p. 37, 45) and describing a blockade negatively: it would be like "closing the barn door after the horse is gone" (Stern, 2012, p. 46).

According to Kennedy, the most dangerous moment of the Cuban Missile Crisis was when a Soviet ship was approaching the blockade around Cuba. The Americans were on the verge of firing at this ship, which would possibly start a nuclear war. At this moment Kennedy raises the tension in his book by bringing up the questions: "Was the world on the brink of a holocaust? Was it our error? A mistake? Was there something further that should have been done? Or not done?" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 54)

But luckily, John Kennedy had the nerve to wait long enough before firing and eventually the Soviet ship turned around, just in time. Robert Kennedy dramatizes this even further by saying: "everyone looked like a different person. For a moment the world had stood still, and now it was going around again." (Kennedy, 1969, p. 55) With these dramatic self-reflective statements Kennedy also implies that he was against anything risky, like a military intervention. But according to Dobbs this moment never happened. Based on the new evidence, both American and Soviet, he concludes that the Soviet Union had recalled their ships already on the day before, and that the Soviet ships were already at 450-mile distance from the blockade at the moment Kennedy describes (Dobbs, 2009, p. 88-91).

And again contrary to Robert Kennedy’s narrative, Stern describes that even after this, Kennedy kept acting like a hawk: "it would be better to grab a ship believed to be carrying missiles, even if it had turned around" (Stern, 2012, p. 47). Kennedy himself, on the other hand, describes that at that moment, he was relieved that there might come a diplomatic agreement now: "I had a slight feeling of optimism as I drove home from the State Department that night, (…) it had the beginnings of some accommodation, some agreement." (Kennedy, 1969, p. 69) But Stern proves that Kennedy’s attitude had still been that of a hawk. Even on the last day of the Cuban Missile Crisis when it is all almost over, he said: "I’d like to take Cuba back, (…) that would be nice" (Stern, 2012, p. 52).

In Thirteen Days, Kennedy is able to portray himself as a dove, whereas he actually was a hawk, as Stern shows us, because he gives himself someone else’s role, that of Dean Rusk. According to Stern, Rusk was the man who most often attended the meetings and was the only one who dared to oppose Robert Kennedy’s hawkish arguments (Stern, 2012, p. 38). But in Kennedy’s narrative, Rusk is conveniently left out: "Dean Rusk (…) had other duties during this period of time and frequently could not attend our meetings" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 36). The rare occasion that Rusk was at a meeting according to Kennedy, he is described as leaning more towards military intervention than diplomacy (Kennedy, 1969, p. 120), whereas Stern argues that Rusk had a vital role in the diplomatic solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis (Stern, 2012, p. 68-90).

According to Stern, a personal dislike of Kennedy towards Rusk lays at the heart of this changing of roles. Kennedy blamed Rusk partially for the failure of the operation in the Bay of Pigs, but mostly didn’t like his lack of media flair that both Kennedys did have. This led Robert Kennedy also to stating things such as Rusk having "a complete breakdown mentally and physically during the Cuban Missile Crisis" (Stern, 2012, p. 70), of which there is no evidence whatsoever.

So, important for creating the historically inaccurate and yet credible story that Thirteen Days is, is that Kennedy leaves out things that contrast to him being a dove, mixes other facts up to his advantage, like the role of Dean Rusk, and dramatizes the story. Also, what is important is that Kennedy got his befriended historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard E. Neustadt and Graham T. Allison to work with him on the book and say things such as "Robert Kennedy led the fight against military intervention" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 11) and imply that Robert Kennedy had always been against military action, even more so than his brother John Kennedy (Kennedy, 1969, p. 118-122). The statements of these historians give Robert Kennedy’s narrative more credibility. Later in this paper, I will talk more about the credible aspects of Thirteen Days.


How does Thirteen Days relate to Jerome Bruner’s theory on constructed self-narratives?

In this section I will analyse Thirteen Days according to the theory of Jerome Bruner. This will show whether and, if so, how this narrative is constructed and what the implications of this construction can be.

Kennedy leaves out things that contrast to him being a dove, mixes up other facts to his advantage, and dramatizes the story.

Bruner uses concepts from literary theory to analyse self-narratives. The first notion he uses is that of Sjuzet, which could be explained as the way the story is organised (Bruner, 1987, p. 696). This has already been explained for Thirteen Days in the previous section. It became clear that Kennedy leaves out things that contrast to him being a dove, mixes up other facts to his advantage, and dramatizes the story. He also uses historians who support his claims, which adds to the credibility of the story.

The second notion is the Fabula, which is the mythic aspect or the theme of the story (Bruner, 1987, p. 696). In Thirteen Days Kennedy uses the Sjuzet and other notions for some particular themes. Firstly, he wants to show that he was a dove, instead of a hawk, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Secondly, he wants to portray himself as a wise, sensible, man, who is capable of admitting mistakes and seasoned by and experienced with complicated events. An example of how he tries to show these two things is the following: "Was the world on the brink of a holocaust? Was it our error? A mistake? Was there something further that should have been done? Or not done?" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 54)

Kennedy presents himself here as a cautious man who is able to self-reflect. The third theme that is important in Thirteen Days is the unity between Robert and John Kennedy. John Kennedy was popular, very charismatic, and after his assassination almost became a martyr. Showing the unity between the two brothers would be very beneficial for Robert Kennedy’s campaign. Robert Kennedy does this by having a picture of himself and his brother on the cover of Thirteen Days. Another example of this presented unity is when many members of the ExComm argue for an air strike on Cuba and Robert Kennedy supposedly slips a note to his brother which says: "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 25), even though there is no evidence of this actually happening. Furthermore, Robert Kennedy suggests with this unity with his brother, who was proven to be calm and favoured diplomacy. He aims at suggesting that he shared that position, which Stern (2012) proves to be false.

The third notion is the Genre. The genre of Thirteen Days is that of a memoir. This is mainly important in that, memoirs make it easier to make up certain happenings or organise them in another way, which Kennedy does, because memoirs are often about one’s own experiences and are by definition subjective, which can be seen in the use of writing in first person, or in Kennedy frequently stating his opinion.

Another notion is the Agent, the protagonist (Bruner, 1987, p. 698-699), which is very interesting in this case. John Kennedy, as the President of the United States at that time, was the one making the decisions and thus the protagonist during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Thirteen Days however, it is Robert Kennedy who is the protagonist, which makes sense because these are his memoirs. But he makes his role in this story so big that it seems as if he is even more important than John Kennedy had been. According to Stern, Kenneth O’Donnell, a confident of the Kennedy’s who read the first draft of Thirteen Days, reportedly remarked to Robert Kennedy "I thought Jack was President during the missile crisis", to which Kennedy replied: "He’s not running, and I am" and "Jack wouldn’t mind" (Stern, 2012, p. 35).

The notion of the Trouble, the drama in the story (Bruner, 1987, p. 698-699), is obvious in Thirteen Days as it was an important event in history. But as was shown, Kennedy dramatizes this even further. Examples of these dramatizations have been mentioned before. Another example of ways in which he tries to raise the tension is when he says that some members of the ExComm "because of the pressure of events, even appeared to lose their judgement and stability" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 27). However, according to Stern, this was not the case (Stern, 2012, p. 37).

Bruner’s last notion is the Scene, with which he means the setting (Bruner, 1987, p. 702). This notion can be found in the fact that Kennedy explains the severity of the historical setting by using dramatizing statements, as was shown before. What is also very of influence on the setting here, is how Kennedy opens his chapters, which he does with a quote from that particular chapter. An example is: "This would mean war" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 70). By opening the chapter with this quote a very grim and lively setting is created. Another example is: "I met with Dobrynin" (Kennedy, 1969, p. 50). With this, Kennedy creates a setting that puts emphasis on him being very active, and thus important, during the crisis.

All this gives quite a clear picture of how Kennedy constructs his self-narrative in Thirteen Days. According to Bruner, the following can be seen with self-narratives: "Given their constructed nature and their dependence upon the cultural conventions and language usage, life narratives obviously reflect the prevailing theories about "possible lives" that are part of one's culture." (Bruner, 1987, p. 694).

This version, this ‘possible life’, has become part of American culture, because many believe Kennedy’s version of history and of himself to be true.

If we apply this to Thirteen Days, we see the importance of cultural influences in the fact that the goal of writing this memoir and constructing a different version of history was that Kennedy was running for president and could use some positive publicity. The means for constructing this story, the language usage, have been explained above. This led to Thirteen Days becoming a ‘possible life’, because Kennedy constructed another version of himself in history, a version that is credible. Taking all the previous things into account, it is very plausible to say that Thirteen Days was, as Stern puts it, a way to "manipulate the history of the missile crisis to Robert Kennedy’s perceived political advantage" (Stern, 2012, p. 34).

This version, this ‘possible life’, has become part of American culture, because many believe Kennedy’s version of history and of himself to be true. This can be seen in that historians still use Thirteen Days as the template on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Stern, 2012). Even more telling may be the way that is still being spoken about Kennedy. Barack Obama said about Kennedy that "he was able to look us in the eye and tell us that (…) hope would come again" and that he could "inspire even the most apathetic observers of American life" (Obama, 2005). Ronald Reagan stated:  "He aroused the comfortable, (…) exposed the corrupt, remembered the forgotten, inspired his countrymen and renewed and enriched the American conscience" (Drummond Ayres, 1981).

Others described Kennedy as followed: 

"Robert F. Kennedy boldly faced tough problems and challenged the comfortable and complacent"

"Robert F. Kennedy was a man of passionate conviction, carrying a message of change, and for the forlorn and dispossessed of America, a message of hope",

"Robert F. Kennedy brought courage to everything he did as he experienced public life he was bound to act", Robert Kennedy [had a] deep loyalty to family" (Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, 2015),

"he galvanized the best values in the hearts of our nation’s citizens and gave America’s soul the chance to again firmly believe in our capacity to bring hope, peace and joy to our global family" (Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, 2015).

In most of these quotes Kennedy is described as a beacon of hope, which is connected to all kinds of positive qualities that are ascribed to him. These qualities are the same as Kennedy constructed for himself in Thirteen Days: assertive, active and quick-witted, and yet wise and calm in the moment of peril, always forming a strong union with his older brother. This indicates that people, at least in the United States, now remember Kennedy mostly the way he was in Thirteen Days, and not as the hawk advocating for military actions that he actually was. Bruner states that is an effect of constructed self-narratives.

Eventually the culturally shaped cognitive and linguistic processes that guide the self-telling of life narratives achieve the power to structure perceptual experience, to organize memory, to segment and purpose build the very ‘events’ of a life. In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives. (Bruner, 1987, p. 694)

Now it may be clear that in memory, Robert Kennedy has become his narrative from Thirteen Days. This is very exemplary for self-narratives: they are more than the ways of telling and the ways of conceptualizing, but they could even be ‘recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory’ (Bruner, 1987, p. 708). And that is exactly what Thirteen Days did. It structured people’s experience on the Cuban Missile Crisis and on Robert Kennedy himself.


Is there any truth to be found in Thirteen Days?

It could now be said that Robert Kennedy in his autobiography constructed a narrative that changed historical facts to his advantage. But does this mean that there is no truth at all to be found in Thirteen Days? No. As Stanley Fish said: "Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not" (Fish, 1999). This exact thing can also be said of Robert Kennedy.

Firstly, the way he constructed himself in Thirteen Days reveals a truth about his personality. Both Schlesinger (1978) and Hilthy (1997) describe Kennedy as someone who wants to control everything aggressively, which he showed when he managed the campaigns of his older brother where he frequently clashed with both journalists and co-workers. This leads Hilthy (1997) to calling him the "brother protector" (Hilthy, 1997). This aggressive control over managing the way the public perceives someone is also shown in the construction of his own identity in Thirteen Days.

Secondly, Thirteen Days contains a version of the truth on the Cuban Missile crisis, namely that of the US at the time. The Americans couldn’t afford to suffer a defeat during the Cold War, so this event is presented as a victory, which it definitely was in terms of publicity. But the story would look very different from the point of view of the Soviets, or the Cubans, something Dobbs (2009) demonstrated. This is what Bruner meant with the mind being never free of precommitment: there is no innocent eye. You always face hypotheses, versions or expected scenarios (Bruner, 1987, p. 709). Because of this, people in the US were very much prepared to accept this story as their version of the truth: it was plausible in their context.

Thirdly, Kennedy could not use all information because some of it was still classified at the time. He could not reveal certain things, even if he wanted to, which he probably didn’t. This insight gives an idea of how the US government tried to regulate information during the Cold War.

This is what Bruner meant with the mind being never free of precommitment: there is no innocent eye.

Fourthly, the embracement of Kennedy as an icon of hope, and as a consequence, accepting the characteristics he ascribes to himself in Thirteen Days, says something about the US in the sixties. Where the assassination of John Kennedy made the nation come together in mourning, the assassination of Robert Kennedy shortly after that of Martin Luther King showed signs of a nation falling apart. His death increased the fear and anger in the tumultuous time of the early Vietnam War. Exactly because of this, there remains a feeling of ‘what might have happened’ if Robert Kennedy would have survived and become president (, 2015). This feeling increased when Richard Nixon became president, keeping American forces in Vietnam until 1975, whereas Robert Kennedy was against the Vietnam War (Pitt, 2014). This hectic and tumultuous context made people very willing to accept the narrative of Thirteen Days and with it, Robert Kennedy as an icon of hope and change. The positioning of Kennedy as the calm, wise and yet assertive man in this narrative strengthened the feeling of the US in the sixties and seventies of what could have happened if he had lived.

These truths that can be found in Thirteen Days also show that self-narratives are "…highly susceptible to cultural, interpersonal, and linguistic influences" (Bruner, 1987, p. 694). The cultural context wherein Thirteen Days functioned, enabled the narrative to be accepted as the prevailing view on Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Constructing history in the context of elections

We have seen that Robert F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days leaves out facts that he can’t use for his narrative, mixes other facts up, and dramatizes the story to make it a more compelling narrative. We also saw that all the techniques he used, worked together to convey three themes: (1) Robert Kennedy favoured diplomacy during the crisis (2)Robert Kennedy always formed a loyal union with his brother, and (3) Robert Kennedy had been seasoned and experienced by events like this in which he showed to be wise and self-reflective. In turn, these three themes convey one important message: Robert Kennedy is not only a very capable, but even the ideal candidate for the presidency of the United States of America.

The historical analysis as well as the analysis according to the theory of Jerome Bruner showed that Kennedy constructs in Thirteen Days his own version of history in a way that was perceived to be beneficial for him. It also became clear that this narrative, which is a possible life, became part of American culture and that it structured citizen's thinking about the Cuban Missile Crisis and Robert Kennedy himself.

Even though the historical facts in Thirteen Days may not be entirely accurate, this does not mean that there is no truth to be found in it. Thirteen Days contains truths about the aggressive controlling personality of Kennedy, the US's version of the truth on the Cuban Missile Crisis, a truth about how the US government dealt with information during the Cold War, and it shows a truth about the tumultuous time in which Kennedy was assassinated, which led, in combination with his narrative, to him becoming an icon of hope.

It can therefore be said that, although Thirteen Days is a construction of history by Robert Kennedy that changes important historical facts to his benefit, it also contains some important truths. All this showed how an autobiographical construction can work, whereby my research question has been answered.

Robert Kennedy once said: 

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." (U.S. Congress, 1966, p. 12430)

This quote is quite fitting in the light of this analysis. Because Kennedy actually did bend his narrative, in a way that was beneficial for him, and for a long time this version of the truth was granted as fact, as history. At the same time there can also be found some truths in Thirteen Days, which mirror a history of his generation and times.



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