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UNSUNG MEDIATOR: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis
It is good, Mr. President, that you have agreed to have our representatives meet and begin talks, apparently through the mediation of U Thant, Acting Secretary General of the United Nations. Consequently, he to some degree has assumed the role of a mediator and we consider that he will be able to cope with his responsible mission, provided, of course, that each party drawn into this controversy displays good will.76
— Chairman Khrushchev to President Kennedy, October 27, 1962
From October 26 to 28, negotiations intensified. In New York, Thant was playing a significant role in developing proposals for a settlement between the United States and Soviet Union and also attempting to bring about a change in Castro’s position.77 In Moscow, October 26 was the day that Khrushchev dictated his long letter to Kennedy outlining a peaceful settlement.78 In Washington, the October 26 ExComm morning meeting focused on ideas of how to proceed now that the situation at sea seemed stable. Most members of the administration believed the most likely avenue to a settlement was through intense negotiations probably lasting several weeks and taking place in New York under UN auspices. The U.S. precondition to these negotiations was a freeze on the construction at the missile sites in Cuba so that they remained inoperable. The Americans were not aware that some of the nuclear weapons were already operable.79
To head the U.S. delegation (the “UN Team” as it was called in Washington), Kennedy appointed John McCloy, a former assistant secretary of war in World War II and a former World Bank president. He was an inﬂuential Republican of great renown. Kennedy had asked McCloy to assist Stevenson, ostensibly to make the U.S. negotiating team in New York more bipartisan, but the real reason for including McCloy was that he had a reputation for being a tough negotiator. The administration feared that Stevenson was a weak one.80 The U.S. and Soviet negotiating teams are pictured in Figure 4.
ExComm was exhausted after eleven grueling days of crisis, and though an agreement was suddenly reached on October 28, it could not be predicted even hours beforehand. Indeed the ExComm discussions for October 26 and 27 indicate a dearth of faith that the Soviets would halt construction on their Cuban missile sites. All U.S. calls that they do so, even temporarily, had been futile. For many ExComm participants, the only hope for a cessation of missile activity lay in negotiations involving Thant’s good offices.81
Figure 4: Secretary-General U Thant stands with the main negotiators at the UN talks to resolve the Cuban crisis. In first row (left to right) are: John J. McCloy (head of U.S. delegation) and U.S. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson; U Thant; Soviet deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Kuznetsov (head of Soviet delegation), and Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin (Photo date: November 20, 1962; UN Photo/MH).
Numerous excerpts from the ExComm discussions at this time clearly indicate how much Thant’s efforts were providing hope to the U.S. side. When discussion on the morning of October 26 turned to the question of whether the United States should prohibit POL (petrol, oil, and lubricants) from entering Cuba, thus tightening the quarantine and escalating the crisis, Secretary Rusk wanted to wait in order to give Thant more time. Rusk categorically stated, “I think that there would be some advantage in having a real shot at the U Thant talks for 24 hours before we consider putting on the POL. We really need to have another round there.”82
Similarly, when discussion turned to another form of escalation, using ﬂares for night surveillance of Cuba, Secretary Rusk again objected, citing interference with Thant’s efforts. Rusk said, “I wonder really again, on the nighttime reconnaissance, whether we ought to start that tonight, until we’ve had a crack at the U Thant discussions.”83
In discussing conditions for talks with the Soviets, Secretary Rusk emphasized the United Nations again:
There has to be a UN takeover of the [as]surance on the [missile] sites, that they are not in operating condition . . . Now, this is going to be very difficult to achieve, because the other side is going to be very resistant to UN inspectors coming into Cuba . . . this will involve a considerable effort on the part of the Secretary General, even if the Soviets and the Cubans accept it. He would have to have a UN observer corps, in Cuba. It would have to include up to 300 personnel at a minimum, drawing from countries that have a capacity, a technical capacity, to know what they’re looking at and what directions must be taken to insure inoperability.84
Secretary Rusk also thought that the United Nations might later conduct a land-based quarantine “but that ours must remain in position until the UN has an effective one in position . . . They could establish, at the designated Havana ports, inspection personnel to inspect every incoming ship.”85
Following the October 26 morning meeting, Kennedy returned a phone call to the British ambassador, David Ormsby-Gore, and told him that the Soviets were pushing ahead to finish the missile sites and that the United States could not wait much longer.86 At an intelligence briefing later that afternoon, it was concluded that the Medium Range Ballistic Missiles in Cuba were becoming fully operational and readied for imminent use.87 Apparently, the ExComm did not know that some missiles were already operational.
Late in the afternoon of October 26, Ambassador Stevenson met with Thant in the secretary general’s thirty-eighth floor UN office. He explained the U.S. position. If the Soviets agreed to no further arms shipments to Cuba, no further work on the missile sites, and rendered the existing missile sites inoperable in forty-eight hours, then there could be two or three weeks for negotiations.
Stevenson and Thant discussed possible arrangements for verification, but Thant did not think the Soviets or Cubans would accept the U.S. demands, especially regarding measures to keep the missiles inoperable. Nevertheless, Thant emphasized that a deal could be reached by trading an American guarantee of the territorial integrity of Cuba for the dismantling and removal of all Cuba’s missile sites and offensive weapons.88 Thant said he derived his idea from comments made by Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos from before the start of the crisis. On October 8, in a speech to the General Assembly, Dorticos had enunciated the general notion that “were the US able to give us proof . . . that it would not carry out aggression against our country, then . . . our weapons would be unnecessary and our army redundant.”89 It appears that Thant had converted communist propaganda into a practical solution to the present crisis.
Historians Ernest May and Philip Zelikow have stated that Thant’s proposal to trade the missiles in Cuba for a U.S. noninvasion pledge may have been suggested to Thant by Khrushchev through a Soviet official, probably KGB, in New York.90 If this is true, then we have not only a case of Kennedy using the mediator to present proposals to his opponent to render them more palatable, but also of Khrushchev making the same use of the mediator. It would indicate that Khrushchev, wanting a way out of the crisis that would protect Cuba, utilized Thant to test the viability of a proposal.
Whatever the Soviet involvement, Thant saw that this idea offered a quick and simple solution to the crisis and tenaciously pressed it. After advancing it to Stevenson, he even telephoned Secretary of State Rusk directly to press the idea with him. This time he described it as trading a verified standstill that met all U.S. conditions only for American agreement not to attack Cuba during the two or three weeks of negotiation on a final settlement.91 This formula, first made public by Thant two days earlier in his Security Council speech,92 and now being vigorously advanced by him as a potential solution, would soon become the backbone of the settlement.
Another development convinced Kennedy that Khrushchev might accept such an agreement. On October 26, Alexander Fomin, a KGB operative whose real name was Alexandre Feklisov, met with John Scali, an ABC journalist with State Department contacts. Scali reported to Rusk that the Soviets were interested in removing all offensive weapons in Cuba for an American pledge not to invade it,93 which was basically what Thant had proposed to both Stevenson and Rusk.
Rusk told the president, who at 6:30 pm that evening mentioned the possibility to British Prime Minister Macmillan. The latter seized upon this idea with enthusiasm, stating that Cuba might be made like Belgium, an inviolable country by international guarantee. He further suggested that Thant “go [to Cuba] with a team and ensure that the missiles were made inoperable” and even remarked “I am quite sure that Hammarskjöld would have done such a thing.”94 Prime Minister Macmillan reiterated this idea in a written message: “If no settlement can be reached out of U Thant’s present conversations, U Thant should make a proposal to the Security Council and/or to the [General] Assembly informing them that he intends to go to Cuba himself, with a suitable team, to see the situation and to secure the immobilization of the missiles and the stopping of further work on the sites to allow discussion to open.”95
All this added momentum to Rusk’s earlier idea in the ExComm that Thant should establish a UN observer corps in Cuba. Two days later, on October 28, Thant did in fact announce a trip to Cuba. Prime Minister Macmillan, during the aforementioned discussion with the president, offered to immobilize Britain’s nuclear Thor missiles under UN supervision during the same period to help “save the Russians’ face.”96
October 26 ended for ExComm with the receipt of a cable from Khrushchev that suggested a settlement similar to what Thant had proposed, basically a U.S. noninvasion pledge in exchange for a Soviet missile withdrawal. Khrushchev also restated that he accepted U Thant’s earlier proposals regarding the non-shipment of armaments to Cuba during a period of negotiations.97 Khrushchev’s message, backed by Fomin’s remarks to Scali and Thant’s confidence and persistence in presenting this suggestion not only to Stevenson but also by phone to Rusk, enabled the ExComm participants to retire that night with cautious optimism.98
October 27 was replete with reversals and turns. It began for ExComm with concern about a ship under Soviet charter, the Grozny, which was approaching the quarantine line. President Kennedy decided to deal with the Grozny by asking Thant to convey a message to the Soviets telling them exactly where the quarantine line was being drawn.99 Then came news that shattered the optimism created by Khrushchev’s proposal of the night before. Reuters was now broadcasting that Moscow had announced it would withdraw Soviet missiles from Cuba if the United States withdrew its rockets from Turkey.100 This shocked ExComm, since Khrushchev’s proposal of the night before had made no mention of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey. The Americans were now not sure what Moscow’s real proposal was. Certainly part of the dilemma concerning the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey was that the Turks would not acquiesce.101 They had rejected earlier attempts to extract the missiles in April 1961.102
Throughout the discussion about this dilemma, Kennedy consistently leaned toward including the Jupiter missiles in the deal. He said, “In the first place, we last year tried to get the missiles out of there [Turkey] because they’re not militarily useful, number one. Number two . . . to any man at the United Nations or any other rational man, it will look like a very fair trade.”103
Confusion in ExComm about the real Soviet offer was resolved with the arrival of a “new” cable from Khrushchev. He hailed the beginning of talks “through the mediation of U Thant.”104 Unfortunately, Khrushchev then proposed exactly what the Americans wished he would not, a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and American missiles from Turkey along with an American pledge not to invade Cuba and a Soviet pledge not to invade Turkey.105
Shortly after receiving this message, ExComm learned that the Turkish government had sharply rejected the Soviet proposal.106 There followed more bad news. The Joint Chiefs of Staff made a formal recommendation to the president that he order a massive air strike against Cuba on October 28 or 29 and prepare to invade.107 Also, a U-2 was missing, and other American pilots reported being shot at over Cuba.108
These developments increased the confusion in ExComm. Did the new demand in Khrushchev’s last letter indicate that he had been overruled in Moscow?109 News came from New York that Zorin had just told U Thant that Khrushchev’s first cable was to reduce tension, but the second contained the substantive proposal.110 President Kennedy’s immediate response was to prepare a message to Thant asking if he could get assurances from the Soviet Union that work on the missile sites had ceased. He wanted this message, which was sent to Stevenson for transmission to Thant that day, to state that discussion about Turkey could not be undertaken until work on the bases in Cuba halted and they were rendered inoperable.111
Discussion in ExComm about Khrushchev’s new proposal for a missile trade was arduous. Many objected to any linkage between the missiles in Cuba and Turkey, but Kennedy consistently refused to dismiss it. He stated, “We don’t want the Soviet Union or the United Nations to be able to say that the United States rejected it,”112 and “this trade has appeal. Now, if we reject it out of hand, and then have to take military action against Cuba, then we’ll also face a decline [in the NATO alliance].”113 He also said, “I’m just thinking about . . . 500 sorties and . . . an invasion, all because we wouldn’t take the missiles out of Turkey.”114
Discussion also focused on the question of how to respond to Khrushchev’s two proposals. It was decided to accept the proposal outlined in Khrushchev’s earlier cable of October 26, which called only for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal of its missiles from Cuba, with no reference to Turkey.115 This approach ignored Khrushchev’s most recent cable of October 27, which added the removal of the U.S. missiles in Turkey to the bargain.
Discussion on this matter was interrupted by the terrible news that an American U-2 had been shot down over Cuba and its pilot killed.116 There was considerable support for knocking out a Soviet SAM (surface-to-air missile) site, but Kennedy did not give the order, and a decision was postponed to that evening.117 Robert Kennedy and Sorensen left the meeting and wrote the final version of the letter to Khrushchev, which the president approved.118 It made no mention of the missiles in Turkey. The president’s brother, Robert, was to personally deliver the letter to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that evening.
What happened at that meeting between Robert Kennedy and Dobrynin remains a romanticized part of the crisis. It is now known that Robert did offer, on behalf of the president, to remove the U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey, though with the provision that this be kept an absolute secret from all parties.119
Even most participants in ExComm did not learn of this aspect of the deal, and the same secrecy was demanded of the Soviets. Robert made it clear to Dobrynin that any Soviet reference to the U.S. assurance to remove the missiles from Turkey would make it null and void.120
The next morning the Soviets broadcast their acceptance of the noninvasion deal121 over Radio Moscow. Clearly news of much heightened U.S. military readiness was a factor in Khrushchev’s thinking. On October 26, he learned that the Pentagon had moved U.S. forces from DEFCON 5, peacetime status, to DEFCON 2, just one away from war, and that U.S. hospitals had been ordered to prepare to receive casualties.122 Khrushchev acted quickly to defuse the situation. He sent instructions to accept Thant’s proposal to avoid a confrontation at the quarantine line and dictated his long letter to Kennedy proposing a peaceful solution based on a U.S. noninvasion pledge for a withdrawal of Soviet missiles.123 Oddly, on the next day, October 27, Khrushchev came to believe that he could get more out of the United States and changed his proposal to include the Turkish missiles in the deal.124 But then, on October 28, he again became deeply concerned about an American invasion. An American U-2 had been shot down over Cuba, and Castro was reporting that an invasion was almost inevitable. Castro even seemed to be calling on the Soviets to launch a nuclear first strike on the United States.125
All this alarmed Khrushchev and on the morning of October 28 he told the presidium that they were “face to face with the danger of war and of nuclear catastrophe, with the possible result of destroying the human race . . . to save the world, we must retreat.”126 Ironically, he told them this before the report arrived from Dobrynin about his meeting with the president’s brother the night before. Dobrynin’s ominous description of his discussion with Robert Kennedy reinforced Khrushchev’s decision, as did the assurance that the U.S. missiles would be withdrawn from Turkey.127
It is evident that both Khrushchev and Kennedy were affected by their perceptions of their opponent’s resolve. Yet the parties employed Thant as a mediator to convey proposals to their opponent as his own, to save face, and to provide support. Perhaps one of the strongest testimonies about the faith that Kennedy had in Thant lies in what became known as the “Cordier maneuver.” By this scheme Kennedy, on October 27, instructed Secretary Rusk to secretly contact Andrew Cordier, then at Columbia University in New York, to pass him a statement calling for the trade of Cuban for Turkish missiles. Cordier had served as a former American under secretary general at the United Nations and was familiar with its workings. He was to give the message to Thant after a signal from Rusk, notably in the event of a Soviet rejection of a covert trade of missiles. The message requested Thant to propose the missile trade at the United Nations.128 This would have made it much easier for Kennedy to publicly accept trading the Turkish missiles, for it would have been seen as part of a UN proposed agreement backed by world opinion, which also would have made it more difficult for Khrushchev to reject. This indicates not only how far Kennedy was prepared to go to avoid war, but also how creatively he intended to use the mediator to propose a solution at the United Nations and achieve a peaceful outcome.
In any case, the Cordier maneuver proved unnecessary. On October 28, Washington received the news of Khrushchev’s acceptance of the U.S. proposal. Tensions still remained as the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent a memo to Kennedy interpreting Khrushchev’s statement as an effort to delay U.S. action “while preparing the ground for diplomatic blackmail.” They recommended an air strike the next day followed by an invasion unless there was “irrefutable evidence” that dismantling had begun.129
On the same day, October 28, Thant announced he would go to Havana to try to secure Castro’s consent in the establishment of a UN mission to verify the dismantling of the missile sites. Kennedy responded by lifting the quarantine and overﬂights of Cuba for the period of the secretary general’s visit to promote the success of his mission, and many newspapers worldwide lauded Thant for his constructive role in resolving the crisis.
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76. FRUS 11: 258.
77. U Thant sent a cable to Castro on October 26 stating he had received encouraging responses to his appeal to the United States and Soviet Union for negotiations, and urging that construction of the missile installations in Cuba be suspended during these negotiations. Castro replied with a cable the next day inviting U Thant to visit Cuba. See Ramses Nassif, U Thant in New York, 1961–1971: A Portrait of the Third UN Secretary General (New York, 1988), 31.
78. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 685.
79. General Anatoli Gribkov and General William Y. Smith, Operation Anadyr:US and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis (Chicago, 1994), 4 and 63.
80. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 440.
81. Stevenson outlined the U.S. preconditions to such negotiations at the morning ExComm meeting of October 26. See May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 462–63.
83. Ibid., 449.
84. Ibid., 454.
86. Ibid., 472.
88. Ibid., 478.
89. This part of President Dorticos’s speech is quoted in Thant, View from the UN, 464.
90. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 685. See also Max Frankel, High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 2004), 133–34.
91. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 478.
92. Nassif, U Thant in New York, 29.
93. See Alexander Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, “Using KGB Documents: The Scali-Feklisov Channel in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, no. 5 (Spring 1995): 58.
94. The telephone conversation between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Macmillan on the evening of Friday, October 26, is printed in May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 480–484. The passage in which the prime minister suggests U Thant might go to Cuba and makes the comparison to Hammarskjöld is on page 481.
95. Ibid., 484.
96. Prime Minister Macmillan’s letter to President Kennedy is reprinted in Ibid., 484–85.
97. Khrushchev’s letter to Kennedy of October 26 is reproduced in FRUS 11: 235–41.
98. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 491.
99. Ibid., 493.
100. Khrushchev’s letter to Kennedy of October 27 outlining the new proposal is reproduced in FRUS 11: 257–60.
101. A telegram from the U.S. embassy in France to the Department of State on October 25 stated that “Turkey regards these Jupiters as symbol of Alliance’s determination to use atomic weapons against Russian attack on Turkey . . . Fact that Jupiters are obsolescent and vulnerable does not apparently affect present Turkish thinking.” See “Telegram from the Embassy in France to the Department of State,” FRUS 11: 213.
102. Ibid., 214.
103. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 498.
104. See Khrushchev’s letter in FRUS 11: 258.
105. Ibid., 258–59.
106. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 517.
107. Ibid., 519.
108. Ibid., 520.
109. Ibid., 509. Llewellyn Thompson mused that Khrushchev had written the earlier cable of October 26 himself and sent it without clearance.
110. Ibid., 524. Thant was sent courtesy copies of the cables between the leaders.
111. Ibid., 529.
113. Ibid., 530.
114. Ibid., 548.
115. Thompson suggested this at ibid., 545–46. Stevenson had already recommended in the earlier ExComm session that the U.S. should “not consider the Turkish offer as reported in the attached Reuters dispatch as an alternative or an addition to the Khrushchev proposal in his letter [of October 26].” Ibid., 502. Stevenson’s rejection of the missile trade now is of interest because at the beginning of the crisis he proposed it.
116. Ibid., 570–71.
117. Ibid., 603.
118. The actual letter is reproduced in FRUS 11: 268–69.
119. Ted Sorensen, who edited Robert Kennedy’s book Thirteen Days after his assassination, admitted years later in 1989 that he had twisted the truth. He said Robert Kennedy’s “diary was very explicit that this [the missiles in Turkey] was part of the deal; but at that time it was still a secret even on the American side, except for the six of us who had been present at that meeting. So I took it upon myself to edit that out of his diaries.” See B. J. Allyn, J. G. Blight, and D. A. Welch, Back to the Brink: Proceedings of the Moscow Conference on the Cuban Missile Crisis, January 27–28, 1989 (Lanham, MD, 1992), 93. This finally proves that the U.S. side did explicitly agree to remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey as part of the deal, even if it was with the insistence that it be kept a secret from all parties and remain a personal undertaking by Kennedy to Khrushchev.
120. McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the first fifty Years (New York, 1988), 433.
121. Khrushchev’s letter of acceptance of the U.S. proposal of October 28 is reproduced in FRUS 11: 279–83.
122. Fursenko and Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 262.
123. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 685.
124. Fursenko and Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 274–75.
125. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 688.
126. Fursenko and Naftali, One Hell of a Gamble, 284.
127. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 689.
128. James G. Blight and David A. Welch, On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Reexamine the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1989),83–84, 173–74.
129. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 635.