October 15, 2012
Fifty years ago Tuesday, on Oct. 16, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was told that a U-2 spy plane had spotted something menacing in Cuba. It was the first of a dramatic 13-day crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
A few days later on Oct. 22, Kennedy’s dramatic televised announcement shocked the world: the Soviet Union was installing missiles in Cuba and the U.S. was instituting a blockade of the island. The superpower navies were about to collide, and an escalation to general war with nuclear weapons was a definite possibility.
Premier Nikita Khrushchev wisely decided to withdraw his missiles. Historians often glorify the role of Kennedy’s resolve and American military might in bringing this about, but recent sources indicate that the UN’s unassuming secretary general, U Thant, played a crucial role in helping mediate an end the crisis. In fact both Kennedy and Khrushchev encouraged his involvement.
Thant ultimately was lauded by the two leaders for his contribution as well as by many newspapers of the day. Kennedy even told New York Times Magazine: “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.” However, history books have not been so generous.
Though rarely recognized as such, Thant served as a crucial mediator. His first task was to de-escalate the world-threatening crisis and create a space for negotiation. He began on Oct. 24 by appealing for a Soviet suspension of arms shipments and U.S. suspension of the quarantine. This would allow time for negotiations to resolve the crisis peacefully.
Though this message was initially criticized by both Soviet and American officials, Kennedy directed the state department to ask Thant to send another message to the Soviets “to give them a way out.” Specifically, Kennedy wanted Thant to ask the Soviets, as his own proposal, to stop their ships for a few days so preliminary talks could be arranged under UN auspices.
Thant sent his second appeal on Oct. 25. Coming as a proposal from the UN secretary general rather than an ultimatum from the American president, it was accepted by Khrushchev and indeed he used it to save face while withdrawing his ships.
Adlai Stevenson, U.S. ambassador to the UN during the crisis, later lauded Thant’s action. “At a critical moment — when the nuclear powers seemed set on a collision course — the secretary general’s intervention led to the diversion of the Soviet ships headed for Cuba and interception by our Navy. This was the indispensable first step in the peaceful resolution of the Cuban crisis.”
Thus Thant enabled the superpowers to end their naval standoff and focus on the essence of the conflict: the missile sites under construction and the pending attack on Cuba. There again Thant fostered caution.
The recorded deliberations of Kennedy’s top advisers, called the ExComm, reveal the powerful influence for restraint Thant was having. His initiatives for negotiations were used by Kennedy and Dean Rusk to prevent hawks from pushing the U.S. to invade Cuba. Both the president and his secretary of state argued with their colleagues that sufficient time needed to be given to Thant’s initiatives. Khrushchev too was influenced by Thant, and sought his “mediation” in a cable to Kennedy.
Like a good mediator, Thant also proposed solutions. When Kennedy was under enormous pressure from the military brass to attack Cuba before the Russian missiles were deemed operational, Thant proposed that the Russians would dismantle all their missiles immediately in exchange for an American guarantee that it would not invade Cuba. Thant advocated this solution publicly, then specifically insisted on it with Stevenson. Two days later it became the final agreement, accompanied by a secret commitment by Kennedy to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.
Thant flew to Cuba to mollify Castro, the third party in the conflict, who might otherwise have upset the arrangements. While Castro refused a follow-on UN supervisory force, Thant was able to get first-hand accounts of missile dismantling.
Back in New York, he offered his good offices to find other ways to verify missile removal. Soviet and American negotiators wrestled with the issues in the UN Secretariat building as Thant shuttled between the conference rooms. They agreed that U.S. ships and aircraft could come into proximity with departing Soviet ships to count the missiles.
Much has been written about how this conflict was resolved. Kennedy’s strength certainly played a role but so did his understanding of the need to give his opponent an honourable way out and of how to use an intermediary to achieve that.
Thus it is appropriate, on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, to give U Thant credit for his remarkable contribution to averting the unthinkably horrific — nuclear doomsday. The humble Burmese diplomat who epitomized quiet diplomacy deserves no less.
Walter Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and chair of the department of security and international affairs at the Canadian Forces College.
Robert Pauk is a retired Canadian military officer who served in UN peacekeeping operations.