Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Cuban Missile Crisis in Thirteen Days
Janell Cinquini
US History 1945-present
Time Frame:
Two 90-minute periods
Soviet Union versus United States

Grade Levels:

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • Use of lecture/film with primary documents to increase student understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  • I want students to understand the intensity of the time as the threat of nuclear war was real and not an abstract idea.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Oregon State Social Studies Standards for High School.

  • SS.HS.HS.05.20 Understand the impact of the Cold War on individuals, groups, and nations.
  •    SS.HS.SA.06 Propose, compare, and judge multiple responses, alternatives, or solutions; then reach a defensible, supported conclusion.
  • SS.HS.CG.08 Understand how various forms of government function in different situations.


2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world

6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions

7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)




Benchmark 3: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Cold War (1945-1990).

4. (A) evaluates the foreign policies of Kennedy and Johnson during the Cold War (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Wall, Vietnam War, Peace Corp).

Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.

1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.

2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.

3. (A) uses primary and secondary sources about an event in U.S. history to develop a credible interpretation of the event, evaluating on its meaning (e.g., uses provided primary

4. (A) compares competing historical narratives in United States history by contrasting different historians’ choice of questions, use of sources, and points of view, in order to demonstrate how these factors contribute to different interpretations.

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
  • Thirteen Days – video with Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.

Map of Western Hemisphere – on wall?  Or for each student individually


Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
Full description of activity or assignment.

This lesson will fit in during my Cold War unit so students will already have a background in the containment policy and with Truman’s policies (including the Korean War) during his time.


PowerPoint Presentation – PowerPoint covers the material regarding the Cuban Revolution and their relationship with the USA and the USSR prior to the Missile Crisis.  It includes information on the Bay of Pigs.  Students will take notes and ask questions as needed during the presentation. (See attached)


After PowerPoint, students will receive a document packet including the documents listed above.  It is also possible to hand out the documents individually as they arrive in the film.  But, for time’s sake, I would hand them out in a packet.  Plus, students often glance through them ahead of time and it can peak their interest.


Start the film of Thirteen Days pausing as necessary to introduce main players.  (The film does do this with subtitles, but sometimes it helps to clarify what their roles are.)


Pause the film at critical points that the documents will help clarify.  Have the students examine the documents and see what information that they can gather from them. They can recall the film clip or supplement their information to understand the importance of the documents.


I suggest the following points…


Situation Explained                                                             (13:13-17:12)

ExComm Meeting #1 – Options are Discussed (19:45-23:10)

Blockade brought into discussion                                    (26:25-27:50)

JFK Leaves Chicago/Update meeting                 (38:40-41:30)

Address to the Nation                                             (50:30-52:20)

Stevenson Addresses the UN                               (1:28:15-1:32:25)

Khrushchev Letter #1                                             (1:43:45-1:44:45)

Khrushchev Letter #2                                             (1:46:40-1:49:30)


As I pause the film, I also add information that the film might not cover adequately. 


Since the lesson will take 2 days, I will assign a short 1-page paper between the two days to have the students look deeper at what is going on.  Depending on where in the film the class is will determine what question would be best.  I might even let the students choose from multiple options.


Possible ideas include –

Was Kennedy correct in letting the American people know what was going on?

What risks was Kennedy taking in choosing the blockade?

What can we learn about the USSR’s power structure from Khrushchev’s letters?

Why was Cuba so important in the scheme of the Cold War?

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

Informal assessment – As we pause the film and examine the documents, I will ask questions of the students and evaluate their understanding of the situation Kennedy is facing.  Also, student discussion can be monitored as well.


Formal assessment – Students will write the one-page response paper between class periods.  It will be evaluated on completion, understanding of the relevant facts, and thoughtfulness.  Also, there is a question on the Cold War exam that covers the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It states, “Explain the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and their importance to the story of the Cold War.  What did we learn from this crisis?”