05/30/2013 - 16:18

The closest brush: How a UN secretary-general averted doomsday

A. Walter Dorn

Dorn is a professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada and chair of the department of security and international...

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Robert Pauk

Pauk is a retired Canadian military officer who served in UN peacekeeping operations.

A half-century after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world still overlooks the role played by U Thant—the quiet, unassuming UN secretary-general from Burma—in helping the superpowers resolve their crisis and avert nuclear war. Thant sent early and important messages to President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The first requested a moratorium on the conflict at sea. Although many of Kennedy’s advisers looked upon Thant’s initiative with derision, Kennedy asked Thant to send another message requesting a cessation of Soviet shipping. The message gave Khrushchev a way to stop his ships but still save face. This ended the threat of a naval confrontation and enabled the superpowers to focus on the deeper issues of the conflict. Early on, Thant also proposed and pushed the idea that eventually formed the basis of agreement: Soviet missile withdrawal in exchange for guarantees of Cuban security. During moments in the crisis when many were calling for an attack on Cuba, Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk cited Thant’s initiatives as reasons for restraint. Thant also shuttled to Cuba to mollify Prime Minister Fidel Castro and to confirm that missile dismantlement had begun. He then aided the negotiations between Soviet and American teams at the United Nations to resolve remaining issues, such as how the missile withdrawal was to be verified.