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UNSUNG MEDIATOR: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis


Phase One: detection and decision

They [the Soviets] can’t let us just take out, after all their statements, take out their missiles, kill a lot of Russians, and not do anything. It’s quite obvious that what they think they can do is try to get Berlin.13
— President Kennedy in response to a call for military action by the Joint Chiefs of Staff including Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, who asserted that a U.S. military attack on Cuba would not provoke any Russian response.

From October 16–22, 1962, Kennedy embarked upon six days of secret deliberations with his principal advisers in ExComm.14 To ensure the Soviets did not learn that the United States knew about the missiles, the president even kept an appointment with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 17. Gromyko asserted that the only assistance the Soviet Union was providing to Cuba was for agriculture, plus a small amount of “defensive” arms. Kennedy reiterated his earlier statements that serious consequences would arise if the Soviet Union placed missiles or offensive weapons in Cuba, but Gromyko assured him this would never be done.15

ExComm divided along two lines. The “hawks” advocated an immediate air assault and invasion of Cuba while the “doves” called for negotiations and concessions. Gradually, the compromise position of a “naval quarantine” became Kennedy’s preferred option. It involved force but still allowed negotiation and a Soviet missile withdrawal without hostilities. The word quarantine was used because a naval blockade was, in international legal terminology, an act of war that required a declaration of war.16

During that week of secret deliberations, many of the Americans expected the United Nations to play a role in the crisis, though not necessarily its secretary general. They confined the United Nations to, firstly, a forum in which the United States would win the battle of world opinion and, secondly, an agency that would provide reliable observers to verify a possible Soviet missile withdrawal. On numerous occasions during that first week, the United Nations was discussed in ExComm. As early as October 20, Kennedy stated that at the United Nations, the United States should identify the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba as “subterranean” in nature.17 Two days later, on October 22, Secretary of State Dean Rusk said the United States should get UN teams to inspect all missile activity in Cuba.18 Kennedy thought the United States should initially frighten the UN representatives with the prospect of all kinds of actions and then, when a resolution was proposed for the withdrawal of missiles from Cuba, Turkey, and Italy, the United States could consider supporting it.19 Adlai Steven- son proposed that the United States take the initiative by calling a UN Security Council meeting to demand an immediate standstill of missile construction in Cuba.20 Secretary Rusk wondered aloud whether it would be better to move first in the United Nations or the Organization of American States (OAS). He thought American action at the United Nations should be aimed at removing the missile threat while the objective in the OAS should be to persuade other Latin American countries to act with the United States.21 When Ambassador Stevenson read from a list of problems he foresaw in the United Nations, Secretary Rusk reiterated his view that the U.S. aim should be a standstill of missile development in Cuba inspected by UN observers and then negotiation of other issues.22 Attorney General Robert Kennedy stated the United States should take the offensive rather than defensive at the United Nations, especially since the Soviet leaders had lied about the strategic missile deployment in Cuba.23

Because the ExComm envisaged some roles for the United Nations in the crisis, Kennedy gave Secretary General Thant advance warning about the Soviet missiles in Cuba two days before the president’s address to the nation and the world. What the president and his advisers did not anticipate, however, was how significant a role Thant would play. Not even Adlai Stevenson, a friend of Thant, anticipated the extent of Thant’s intervention and mediation. As the crisis evolved, the new secretary general made appeals to the parties, offered proposals, transmitted messages, visited Cuba, and performed other intermediary functions that served a vital role in resolving the conflict.


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13. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 179.

14. Robert Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York, 1969), 23.

15. Ibid., 39–41.

16. International legal questions relating to the quarantine are summarized in Lester H. Brune, The Missile Crisis of October 1962: A Review of Issues and References (Claremont, CA, 1985), 96–97.

17. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 201.

18. U.S. Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–63: Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath (Washington, DC, 1996, 11: 144 (hereafter FRUS).

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 147–48.

23. Ibid., 148.