UN Played Critical Role in Diffusing Cuban Missile Crisis

On the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a new op-ed by Walter Dorn and Robert Pauk explores the role of then-Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant. Although often neglected in history books, Dorn and Pauk contend that Thant played a major role in diffusing international tensions and avoiding nuclear doomsday. (Walter Dorn and Robert Pauk, “Between the superpowers in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Ottawa Citizen, 15 October 2012).

From the Ottawa Citizen:

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.

Even while the hawks in President Kennedy’s circles pushed for the invasion of Cuba, Thant ensured that each side of the conflict was given enough breathing room to back down from near-catastrophe in an honourable manner.

While Kennedy may be the figure most often associated with the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is certainly worth remembering the courage and vision of the quiet diplomats of the United Nations.

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.

Photo Credit: LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto 


Tags: Cuban Missile Crisis, Ottawa Citizen, Robert Pauk, U Thant, Walter Dorn