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A Game Theory View of the Movie “13 Days”

By Revati Goradia

Any Economics student has learnt the basics of Game theory, the numerous games involved, the prisoner’s dilemma, etc. I for one, always wondered how in God’s name could one apply this to the real world, it just seemed too theoretical. And then my Economics teacher told me about this movie called “Thirteen Days” and how watching that would help me understand the application of Game Theory in world history, and so I did. And that’s the story of how this I came up with this article.

The movie Thirteen Days is set in post World War II America where hostility and enmity could be smelt in the air above capitalist USA and communist USSR. The tension and continual antagonism between USA and USSR culminated in a number of pseudo battles throughout the Cold War, however the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was one time where the two countries were on the verge of going to war.

6f25a29b-d13b-40fd-9e82-9b50cd7d4062The plot – In the early days of October 1962, U.S. spy planes photograph the impending installation of Soviet missile sites in Cuba. While there is widespread agreement that the missiles must not be allowed, there is no clear way to ensure that. The military feels that their destruction followed by the invasion of Cuba is likely the only option. President Kennedy realizes however that to do so, would lead the Soviet Union to invade West Berlin with the result being an all out war. He pushes his subordinates, coordinated by brother Bobby (the US Attorney General and special advisor Kenney O’ Donald, to come up with an alternative solution. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposes a naval blockade of Cuba, which the U.S. initiates, with the backing of the Organization of American States. Throughout the 13 day crisis, the President and his inner circle struggle to rein those who would take unilateral action and through back channels, tries to communicate with the Soviet leadership and provide them with a face-saving solution to their mutual dilemma.

This movie is an eye-grabbing thriller that keeps audiences at the edge of their seat through the numerous games played throughout the course of the Thirteen Days of the Missile Crisis. The movie can be analyzed from a game theory viewpoint in the following manner:

There are two major conflicts between 3 key players.

1. The first being that between USA and the Soviet Union – with the Soviets continuing their missile buildup in Cuba and the US government trying to ensure that it stops in order to prevent a war.

Simply put, the chiefs wanted war because they believed the missiles posed a threat too great to risk whereas President Kennedy wanted to reach a peaceful solution.

2. The second being between President Kennedy and his advisors (Bobby and Kenny) and the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and the Navy – Simply put, the chiefs wanted war because they believed the missiles posed a threat too great to risk whereas President Kennedy wanted to reach a peaceful solution.
In Game Theory terms, USSR starts off with the dominant strategy of setting up nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba. This is a dominant strategy because they carry out this installation irrespective of the USA’s strategy or plans.

They began a large scale weapons build up in Cuba. This move by the key player USSR starts off a series of games between the two blocs because the USA viewed it is an imperative move to remove the missiles before they became operational.

The following were the number of games played between USA and USSR:

In the beginning the US government saw no option other than “hitting them” and this would lead to a series of moves by each player which would lead to war.

1. Uncertain Game – USSR’s missile buildup let to the US considering their retaliatory options which were air strikes against the missiles, larger air strikes against their missiles and defenses and a full fledged invasion (including OPPLAN 316, i.e. to remove Cuba’s then dictator Fidel Castro).
In the beginning the US government saw no option other than “hitting them” and this would lead to a series of moves by each player which would lead to war.

As Kenneth O’Donald (hereafter known as Kenny) pointed out “If we hit ‘em, kill a lot of Russians, they move against Berlin. If they attack Berlin that’s NATO and we’re at war.”

1. Non-cooperative Game – The Soviet Government played a sneaky game during the meeting on friendly US – Soviet relations with President Kennedy (hereafter known as JFK) and Andrei Gromyko, Soviet statesman. When asked by JFK about the missiles in Cuba he said “Our military assistance to Cuba is of a defensive nature only.” When JFK repeated to confirm what his statement was (“There are no offensive weapons in Cuba”– JFK), Gromyko replied saying “Premier Kruschev’s statement of September 13th remains the position of the Soviet Government. To that I have nothing to add.” Thus he made a very abstract statement and lied to the US government about not having missiles in Cuba.

1. Tit-for-tat Game – When President Kennedy contemplates the air strikes he brings out an important game that would have been played between the two blocs If they had gone ahead with the air strikes:

“Say one of those ships resists inspection, and we shoot out its rudder, and board… they shoot down one of our planes, in response. So we bomb their anti-aircraft sites, and in response to that… they attack Berlin. So we invade Cuba. [pause] So they fire their missiles… and we fire ours.”

1. Chicken Game – During the quarantine along the coast of Cuba, one of the most important games of the crisis was seen. When there was no sign of the ships stopping and the Russian submarine was underway, the navy was all set to fire up the torpedoes and launch ‘Azrac’ to force it to come up. Suddenly the two ships showed signs of slowing down, stopped and started turning around. Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s words expressed the game in its true sense when he said “We were eyeball to eyeball and I think the other fella just blinked.”

cold-war-quotes2. Cooperative Game – Another game between the two blocs can be seen when Secretary Kruschev is suspected to have sent a message through his informant Alexander Formin. This is the first time were both countries appear to be reaching a consensus. USSR would remove the missiles so long as USA pledges not to invade Cuba or assist anyone in doing so.

3. Cooperative Game – The final game between the two blocs was played when they reached a mutual consensus. USSR would remove the missiles so long as USA pledges not to invade Cuba or assist anyone in doing so. A covert addition to the condition was that USA would remove their Jupiter missiles from Turkey within the next 6 months but this news was not to be made public.
Thus a series of games were played between the two blocs that eventually led to the US government resorting to diplomacy for their solution.