This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis when the United States and the former Soviet Union were poised on the brink of nuclear war and the world collectively held its breath.
On Monday, October 22, 1962, President Kennedy announced a U.S. naval blockade to form a 500-mile circle around Cuba, where Soviet missiles with nuclear warhead capability had earlier been detected, and threatened to sink any Soviet ship crossing the blockade. The crisis ended on Sunday, October 28th, with the announcement by Soviet premier Khrushchev of the dismantling of the Soviet missiles in Cuba.
As Paul Koring of The Globe and Mail notes today:
Mostly forgotten, the United Nations untested Secretary-General U Thant played a pivotal role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Half a century later, with the UN regarded almost with contempt by many, including Canada’s outspoken Foreign Minister John Baird, the key role of diplomacy in averting nuclear doomsday has emerged from dusty archives, perhaps as a lesson worth remembering.
“In the historical record, U Thant has largely been written out of the crisis,” says Walter Dorn, who heads the Security and International Affairs department at Canadian Forces College, in Toronto. The Kennedy camp preferred to portray their man as a gutsy Cold Warrior, not a President so unnerved by the hawks in his own camp that he sought mediation by the UN.
Yet at one critical juncture, American diplomats woke U Thant at midnight and begged him to deliver a face-saving solution to the Russians. And long before the term “shuttle” diplomacy was in vogue, the obscure Burmese diplomat who became Secretary-General almost by accident following the death of Dag Hammarskjöld in a Congo plane crash, was defining it.
“Hardly anybody know about what U Thant did … but at one point there were separate teams on the 38th floor of the UN building – a U.S. team and a Soviet team – and U Thant was literally shuttling between the two rooms,” Mr. Dorn said in an interview.
U Thant went to Havana, brought back the body of the downed American pilot, calmed Fidel Castro and – months later – after it was all over, was quietly thanked by both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev.
Read the entire news feature and its accompanying sidebars at The Globe and Mail.