Untold Story of an Unsung Hero


Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen under the headline “HE SAVED THE WORLD: Kennedy went ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with the Soviets, but the man in between them, U Thant, deserves much of the credit for averting nuclear war” (22 October 2007, p.A12). A detailed study was published in the journal Diplomatic History (pdf available here).

The last week of October 1962 witnessed the world’s closest brush with nuclear holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis. On 22 October 1962, President John Kennedy shocked the world by exposing publicly the clandestine placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba and imposing a US naval “quarantine” around Cuba directed at all Soviet bloc ships. With the superpowers on a collision course, war seemed imminent. Cities tested their air raid sirens; school children practiced their bomb drills. Thankfully, one side backed down. After the crisis, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk euphemistically characterized it: “We went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, and the other guy blinked,” referring to Khrushchev’s decision to withdraw his missiles.

But this favourable result was not merely due to US military threats or even the Soviet leader’s common sense. There is another story hidden behind the nuclear showdown that transcends the contest of wills and that remains relevant today. A quiet unassuming UN Secretary-General, U Thant, actively mediated and helped resolve this nuclear confrontation. At the request of much of the UN member states he was able to push the leaders to step back from the brink to give diplomacy a change. His contribution was left unexplored for decades. US historians glossed over Thant’s part in the drama, depicting the conflict as a unilateral US victory achieved by Kennedy’s resolve and a strong military show of force, in which the US was willing to risk nuclear war. But both State Department documents and transcripts of tapes that Kennedy kept of his “crisis cabinet” meetings, as well as newly-unearthed UN archival documents, show that Thant’s mediation was vital in helping Kennedy and Khrushchev resolve their impasse. Indeed, Kennedy recognized the contribution but did not elaborate on it, simply saying: “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”

Shortly after the blockade took effect October 24, when a naval conflict and an escalation to general war seemed likely, Thant took his first initiative. He successfully appealed to Kennedy and Khrushchev to allow time to resolve the crisis peacefully. This breathing space proved critical in allowing both leaders to face down their hardliners. Khrushchev turned back many of his ships, but kept others steaming to Cuba so as not to appear to back down entirely. Thant’s initiative then prompted Kennedy to ask Thant to follow up with a more detailed appeal to Khrushchev to keep his ships away “for a limited time” so an agreement could be worked out.

Thant sent this second appeal as his own proposal so it would not appear as an American initiative. Coming as a request for moderation from the UN Secretary-General rather than as a demand from his adversary, Khrushchev readily accepted the proposal and used it to save face while keeping his remaining ships away. US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson later described Thant’s action to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “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.” Thant’s went on to assist the parties deal with the two main issues of the conflict, namely the missiles in Cuba and Cuba’s security concerns.

In these tense negotiations Thant again played an important role. As Kennedy feared the short-range missiles in Cuba were about to become operational, he was under enormous pressure to attack Cuba. The most peaceful solution he could foresee involved a freeze on all missile activity and prolonged negotiations. Members of his advisory council, the Executive Committee, pushed for military solutions, including a first-strike against Cuba. But Thant proposed a faster and more reasonable solution. He suggested that the Russians dismantle their missiles in exchange for an American guarantee that the United States would not invade Cuba. Thant advocated this solution publicly in televised Security Council debates, then privately to ambassador Stevenson. He even phoned Secretary Rusk to push the idea. Two days later this became the basis for the superpower agreement, accompanied by a secret commitment made though Attorney-General Robert Kennedy to remove US missiles from Turkey.

During the hottest phase of the crisis, after a US U-2 spy plane was shot down, Thant’s initiatives exerted a powerful pacifying influence, especially on John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dean Rusk. All three argued with their colleagues in favour of restraint rather than escalatory actions against Cuba. The President, in particular, cited Thant’s efforts as the basis for a hoped-for peaceful settlement, requiring some US restraint.

When agreement was finally reached and Castro threatened to upset it, Thant shuttled to Cuba at the end of October and convinced Castro to tone down his rhetoric. In support of Thant’s mission, Kennedy lifted the U.S. blockade and aerial overflights for two days.

Though Castro refused a UN supervisory force, which Kennedy and Khrushchev had agreed upon, Thant helped find a way to verify the missile removal. He facilitated high-level Soviet and American negotiations at the UN to work out a plan so that the returning missiles on Soviet ships could be viewed by US planes and ships.

Kennedy’s resolve played a role in this conflict, no doubt, but he also understood the need to give his opponent an honorable way out and how to use an internationally prominent and skilled mediator to do so. Kennedy made large concessions, including the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey, and exercised enormous restraint, even to the point of refusing to give orders to attack the gunners that shot down the U-2 plane.

For the United Nations, the Cuban missile crisis turned out to be one of its finest moments, thanks to the skill of U Thant, however unsung has been his role afterwards. It was the week that a UN Secretary-General helped the superpowers to pull back from nuclear annihilation. As America considers its options with regard to a nuclearizing Iran and other dangerous confrontations, it would do well to consider and recognize the helpful role that the UN and its Secretary-General can and did play forty-five years ago.


Walter Dorn is a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and Chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group. Robert Pauk is a research associate and a former Canadian military officer and UN peacekeeper.