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UNSUNG MEDIATOR: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis


U Thant's Gamble

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.24  
— Adlai Stevenson, Statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 13, 1963

President Kennedy’s televised announcement on Monday, October 22, that the United States would institute a quarantine of all sea shipments to Cuba beginning October 24 alarmed and shocked the world.25 A confrontation between Soviet ships en route to Cuba and the American navy was imminent. Khrushchev condemned the U.S. quarantine as a “gross violation of Charter of United Nations” and “naked interference in domestic affairs of Cuban Republic.” He called on the United States to renounce its actions “which would lead to catastrophic consequences for peace throughout the world.”26 Unless one side backed down, a sea battle was inevitable. Many people feared an escalation to general war, perhaps by the Soviet seizure of West Berlin, and even a nuclear exchange.

It was in the midst of this widespread international terror that almost half the UN members, mostly the nonaligned countries, implored Secretary General U Thant to assume the role of an intermediary. This he did decisively, much to the surprise of the superpowers. Adlai Stevenson later called this intervention an essential “first step” in resolving the crisis.27

Thant sent his first message to the two leaders on October 24, which happened to be UN Day, in the afternoon, only a few hours after the quarantine had taken effect. It contained an urgent appeal for a moratorium of two to three weeks involving both the voluntary suspension of all arms shipments to Cuba and the quarantine measures, especially the searching of ships bound for Cuba. The aim was to gain time to find a peaceful solution. In this context Thant offered “to gladly make myself available to all parties for whatever services I may be able to perform.”28

The world hailed Thant’s initiative. The New York Times front page headline for the next day read in part: “Thant Bids U.S. and Russia Desist 2 Weeks.”29 Notwithstanding the positive publicity, his initiative was initially met with contempt by both Soviet and American officials.

At first, the Soviet response in New York was strongly negative. Thant read his message at the Security Council meeting on the night of October 24 and, importantly, suggested that if the United States pledged not to invade, the offensive armaments might be withdrawn. This was a critical proposal, but it was ignored at the time by the participants. After the meeting, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations, Valery Zorin, privately censured Thant for not forcefully criticizing the U.S. blockade of a sovereign state. When Zorin pressed the same argument the next day, Thant became so irritated that he told Zorin “if he really felt that way, he had better condemn me openly in the Security Council meeting scheduled late in the evening.”30 However, Ambassador Zorin had not received instructions from Moscow on how to respond to Thant’s unexpected appeal, and he was probably not even aware of the presence of the Soviet missiles in Cuba.31 Nevertheless, his reproof made it initially appear as if the Soviet side would not be receptive to Thant’s initiative (Figure 2).


CMC Figure 2

Figure 2: U Thant (left) and Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin (right) confer at the Security Council meeting of October 24, 1962. An interpreter sits in between. At that televised Council meeting, Thant informed the Council of his identical messages to President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev. In the Security Council, Thant suggested a Soviet missile withdrawal in exchange for a U.S. nonaggression guarantee. (UN Photo/MH)


Much to Zorin’s embarrassment, Khrushchev’s response to Thant’s message was overwhelmingly positive. At about 3:30 p.m. on October 25, the secretary general received the Soviet leader’s cable. It read:

I have received your message and have carefully studied the proposal it contains. I welcome your initiative. I understand your concern over the situation which has arisen in the Caribbean, for the Soviet Government too regards it as highly dangerous and as requiring immediate intervention by the United Nations. I wish to inform you that I agree to your proposal, which is in the interest of peace.32

Khrushchev’s positive response to Thant’s message helped him save face as he ordered most Soviet ships heading to Cuba to turn back. While this ameliorated the crisis at sea, some ships continued towards Cuba, thus testing Kennedy’s resolve to enforce the quarantine. These ships would soon enter the interception zone, which could lead to their capture or destruction, and to war. The darkest hours of the Cuban missile crisis had not yet passed.

As this drama was unfolding, American officials also initially reacted negatively to Thant’s message. The American feeling was publicly guarded and privately almost hostile. At 2:30 p.m. on October 24, Thant had told Adlai Stevenson that he was going to send identical messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy at 6 p.m. calling for a voluntary suspension of arms shipments to Cuba and the lifting of the quarantine. Stevenson expressed disappointment that these communiqués would not include any mention of the missiles or their construction sites in Cuba and asked Thant to postpone sending the messages for twenty-four hours.33 The secretary general refused but did agree to meet Stevenson again at 5 p.m., which he did, this time with Charles Yost, a member of the U.S. mission to the United Nations. At that meeting Thant advised them that the telegrams had already been sent. Ambassador Stevenson responded by asking Thant to include in the speech he was going to make to the Security Council that night a reference to the need to stop military construction in Cuba. Thant agreed to do so, though he refused to say anything about the missiles already in place.34

Meanwhile, at the 5 p.m. meeting of ExComm that day, Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced to the president that he expected U Thant to make the above appeal but that it would have “vague references to verification, and no reference to the actual missiles in Cuba.”35 Rusk told Kennedy that they had tried to get U Thant to withhold the statement, but he had refused. The president immediately told Rusk to get back to Stevenson on it,36 in other words to press Thant to delay his message. Clearly the president and his advisers were apprehensive about Thant’s message for the same reasons Stevenson had been.

Similarly, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, in a telephone conversation with Kennedy at 7 p.m. that evening, condemned Thant’s message. After Kennedy read it to him, the British Prime Minister said: “I think that’s a very dangerous message he’s sent.”37

The Americans were apprehensive about Thant’s message38 because it did not call for a freeze on the construction at the Cuban missile sites and a verified withdrawal of the missiles. The fact that the message was also public39 heightened U.S. fears it might create international pressure on them to accept a halt to the quarantine without a corresponding halt to the construction at the Cuban missile sites.

Subsequent to his telephone conversation with the British prime minister on the evening of October 24, Kennedy received his second correspondence from Khrushchev since the beginning of the crisis. In that cable, sent before Khrushchev had responded to Thant’s appeal, the premier accused Kennedy of issuing an ultimatum that the United States would itself never accept and of pushing mankind toward nuclear war. The Soviet leader explicitly stated his government “cannot instruct the captains of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba to observe the orders of American naval forces blockading the island.” Khrushchev emphatically stated: “We will not simply be bystanders with regard to piratical acts by American ships on the high seas . . . We will then be forced on our part to take the measures . . . to protect our rights. We have everything necessary to do so.”40

Tension was rising. Khrushchev’s communiqués to Kennedy were still hostile. Though many ships had turned back, this was little consolation to the United States. A Soviet tanker called the Bucharest was rapidly approaching the interception zone, and the president was under pressure to board it.41

At about 10:30 p.m. that night (October 24), Kennedy spoke by phone to Under Secretary of State George Ball regarding Khrushchev’s stated intention to defy the quarantine. Ball said “I don’t think we have any option but to go ahead and test this thing out, in the morning.”42 He was referring to the Bucharest, which the president was considering stopping. Regarding the ships that Khrushchev had already turned back, the president stated, “he is stopping the ones he doesn’t want us to have” [i.e., the ships he wants to keep out of American hands].43 The president had little time to decide how to deal with the Soviet ships still heading toward Cuba. To let them pass would indicate that the United States lacked the resolve to enforce the quarantine. To stop them would risk a naval clash and war. It seemed as if the president was back to square one with Khrushchev.

Turning to Thant’s message, Under Secretary Ball said that the president’s previous instructions to reply to it immediately had Ambassador Stevenson in New York worried. In Ball’s words, Stevenson was “kicking like a steer” about replying so soon; he was also “concerned primarily about the conditions which we put in that proposed reply because he [Stevenson] feels that those are in effect conditions to talking.”44 Revisions of the reply to Thant’s message continued until well into the next day.

Less than an hour after his first conversation with Ball at 10:30 p.m., Kennedy called Ball again with a new idea. It was now about 11:15 p.m. (still October 24), and the president said he wanted “to give out a message [to the Soviets] in a way that gives them enough of an out to stop their shipments without looking like they completely crawled down.”45 The president suggested that the United States ask Thant to make a new appeal to the Soviets that they stop their ships for a few days so that preliminary talks could then be arranged in New York. The president told Ball, “the question would be if there is any message we would send to U Thant to give them [the Soviets] a way out.”46 He added, “we should get ourselves back to U Thant and say that he can request the Soviet Union to hold up their shipping . . . for the immediate area, that we would be glad to get into conversations about how the situation could be adjusted.”47

When the president initiated this new action involving Thant, Khrushchev had not yet sent his conciliatory response to the secretary general’s first message, and Kennedy could not know that Khrushchev’s response would be positive. In fact, the president had just received Khrushchev’s extremely hostile communiqué threatening defiance of the quarantine. But Kennedy was aware from U.S. intelligence that Khrushchev had ordered back many ships48 and undoubtedly now realized that a second message from Thant might help Khrushchev save face.

After his discussion with the president, Ball explained the president’s idea to Secretary Rusk, who suggested Ball call Stevenson immediately to “see if U Thant will ask Mr. Khrushchev not to send his ships pending modalities.”49 Just before midnight Ball spoke to Stevenson who agreed to try out the idea on Thant.50 Stevenson immediately called the secretary general, getting him out of bed. In that discussion Thant agreed to issue a direct appeal to the Soviets in the morning.51

As this discussion between Stevenson and Thant was taking place in New York, there was concern back in Washington that Stevenson might fail to impress upon Thant the specific message the administration wanted him to convey to the Soviets. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy confided to Ball that “Stevenson may go down the drain.”52 To ensure that Thant’s message contained exactly what the administration wanted, Secretary of State Rusk sent a telegram to New York at 2 a.m. with explicit written instructions to Stevenson about exactly what Thant’s message to the Soviets should state.53

The contents of that message—what the United States wanted—were handed to Thant by Stevenson on the morning of October 25 in the form of a single typed page. This page, recently found in UN archives by the authors, had a note written in the corner “handed to ASG [Acting Secretary General] by Stevenson, 25 October, 62—10:30 a.m.”54

The page contained exactly what Secretary Rusk had sent to Stevenson in his 2 a.m. cable. It listed the points that Rusk wanted Stevenson to have Thant send to Khrushchev as Thant’s own proposal. This recently discovered memo to Thant is reproduced here in full:

I. An expression of concern that Soviet ships might be under instructions to challenge the quarantine and consequently create a confrontation at sea between Soviet ships and Western Hemisphere ships which could lead to an escalation of violence.
II. An expression of concern that such a confrontation would destroy the possibility of the talks such as you have suggested as a prelude to a political settlement.
III. An expression of hope that Soviet ships will be held out of the interception area for a limited time in order to permit discussions of the modalities of an agreement.
IV. An expression of your confidence, on the basis of Soviet ships not proceed- ing to Cuba, that the United States will avoid a direct confrontation with them during the same period in order to minimize chances of an untoward incident.55

Even as Stevenson was passing the above instructions to Thant at 10:30 a.m. on October 25, the United States still had not sent Thant its official response to his first appeal. That U.S. response was not sent until 2:19 p.m. that day.56 Ironically, the United States asked Thant to send a second message before it had even responded to his first one. The president’s response to Thant’s first message emphasized that the crisis was created by the secret introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba and that the answer lay in their removal. The president then referred to Thant’s suggestions made in the Security Council to promote preliminary talks and satisfactory arrangements and assured the secretary general that Ambassador Stevenson was ready to discuss these arrangements with him and that the United States desired a peaceful solution of the matter.57

Thant sent his second set of appeals at 2:26 p.m.58 on October 25. It contained almost word for word what Stevenson had requested in writing earlier that day. Thant asked Khrushchev to instruct Soviet vessels en route to Cuba to stay away from the interception area for a limited time.59 Thant simultaneously asked Kennedy, in a separate though similar message, to instruct U.S. vessels to do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with Soviet ships.60 To both leaders he stated that this would “permit discussions of the modalities of a possible agreement which could settle the problem peacefully.”61 He also requested an answer from both governments so that he could advise each one of the other’s assurances of cooperation with his appeal to avoid all risk of an untoward incident.62

By asking Thant to convey his second appeal to the Soviets as his own proposal, Kennedy clearly understood the importance of giving his opponent an honorable way out. Khrushchev had just turned back most of his ships. To now accept a proposal directly from his adversary to withdraw all his remaining ships would have been viewed as a complete retreat. But to accept a proposal from the UN secretary general to “temporarily” hold back his ships as an act of self-restraint to allow negotiations was another matter entirely, especially when supported by an international community that was praising peacemakers.

When Kennedy suggested this tactic to Ball, he was transcending very strongly felt American and British apprehensions about Thant’s first message. He was able to ignore his advisers’ perceptions about the shortcomings of that message and see an opportunity for a second. Kennedy, during the most desperate moments of the crisis when others were girding for confrontation, realized he could use a mediator to get his opponent to gracefully disengage without appearing to surrender or display weakness. As in other mediated conflicts, compromises proposed by the mediator often originate with one of the protagonists, but when presented as the mediator’s idea they appear more palatable. By his actions on the night of October 24, Kennedy facilitated the transformation of the conflict from a bilateral to a mediated one.

The Americans could not anticipate that Khrushchev would accept both Thant’s messages, and ExComm deliberated on October 25 about possible responses to the Cuba-bound ships and their cargo.63 One of the things that tempered Kennedy at this juncture was his knowledge that Thant was working for conflict resolution. At about 6 p.m. on the evening of October 25, Kennedy again spoke to British Prime Minister Macmillan by telephone and said:

Now we have got two tracks running. One is that one of these ships, the selected ships which Khrushchev continues to have come towards Cuba. On the other hand we have U Thant, and we don’t want to sink a ship . . . right in the middle of when U Thant is supposedly arranging for the Russians to stay out. So we have to let some hours go by . . . In other words, I don’t want to have a fight with a Russian ship tomorrow morning, and a search of it at a time when it appears that U Thant has got the Russians to agree not to continue . . . I think tomorrow night we will know a lot better about this matter of the UN’s actions and Khrushchev’s attitude about continuing his shipping.64

Kennedy reiterated the above remarks at ExComm.65 He was determined to avoid action at sea until he knew whether Thant’s second message would convince Khrushchev to hold back his ships. Of course, Kennedy immediately accepted Thant’s proposal: “If the Soviet Government accepts and abides by your request . . . for the limited time required for preliminary discussion, you may be assured that this government will accept and abide by your request that our vessels in the Caribbean ‘do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with Soviet ships’.”66 The president also underlined the urgency of the situation, as Soviet ships were still proceeding towards the interception area and work on the Cuban missile sites was continuing.

On the morning of October 26, Thant received Khrushchev’s acceptance of his second proposal. The premier wrote quite specifically that he had “ordered the masters of Soviet vessels bound for Cuba . . . to stay out of the interception area, as you recommend.” He stressed that this measure, “in which we keep vessels immobilized on the high seas, must be a purely temporary one; the period cannot under any circumstances be of long duration.”67

The New York Times reported the success of Thant’s initiative with banner headlines: “UN Talks Open: Soviet Agrees to Shun Blockade Zone Now,”68 and on a later page: “Moscow Agrees to Avoid Blockade Zone after New Pleas from Thant on Talks.”69

News of Khrushchev’s cable accepting Thant’s second appeal was received in Washington on the morning of October 26 with profound relief. The stand-still at sea permitted a period of communication between the parties that finally focused on the issues of Cuban security and missiles. Tension over the situation at sea did not dissipate totally, but the leaders’ attention was no longer fixed on a naval confrontation. Negotiations on the core issues soon began and would lead to resolution of the crisis a mere two days later. Ironically, a myriad of verification and other issues would then arise for Thant to help the parties resolve.


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24. Adlai Stevenson, Hearings before the Subcommittee on International Organization Affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 88th Congress, 1st Session (March 13, 1963): 7.

25. The entire address to the nation by President Kennedy is reproduced in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 163–71.

26. Khrushchev’s letter is reproduced in FRUS 11: 170–71.

27. See note 24.

28. The actual message is recorded in United Nations Security Council Official Records, No. 1024, October 24, 1962. U Thant’s speech to the Security Council announcing his identical messages is in Ramses Nassif, Thant in New York 1961–1971: A Portrait of the Third UN Secretary General (New York, 1988), 27–30. Also see U Thant’s comments on his message in U Thant, View from the UN (New York, 1978), 163.

29. New York Times, October 25, 1962, 1.

30. U Thant, View from the UN, 164.

31. Ibid., 165–66.

32. United Nations Security Council Official Records, No. 1025, October 25, 1962. Also cited in U Thant, View from the UN, 165.

33. Porter McKeever, Adlai Stevenson: His Life and Legacy (New York, 1989), 524.

34. Ibid.

35. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 372.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid., 388.

38. Apprehension over the perceived shortfalls in U Thant’s message is evident in the actual discussions of the ExComm participants, as recorded in May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 372–88.

39. Ibid., 387.

40. Khrushchev’s cable is cited in FRUS 11: 185–87.

41. Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 73–74.

42. “Memorandum of telephone conversation at 10:30 p.m., October 24 between President Kennedy and Under Secretary of State Ball,” FRUS 11: 188–89.

43. Ibid., 11: 189.

44. Ibid.

45. “Memorandum of telephone conversation at 11:15 p.m., October 24, between President Kennedy and Under Secretary of State Ball,” FRUS 11: 190.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., 11: 191.

48. There was extensive discussion in ExComm that day, October 24, about the many Soviet ships that had turned around. See May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 353–54, 357–58, 361. Also, in a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Macmillan, President Kennedy said, “some of these ships, the ones we’re particularly interested in, have turned around. Others are coming on . . . the ones that are turning back are the ones that we felt might have offensive military equipment on them, so they probably didn’t want that equipment to fall into our hands . . . But we still don’t know whether the other ships will respect our quarantine,” 384–85.

49. “Memorandum of telephone conversation at 11:25 p.m., October 24, between Secretary of State Rusk and Under Secretary of State Ball,” FRUS 11: 191–92 [emphasis added].

50. “Memorandum of telephone conversation at 11:45 p.m., October 24, between Under Secretary of State Ball and the Representative to the UN (Stevenson),” FRUS 11: 193–94.

51. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 392.

52. “Memorandum of telephone conversation at 12:30 a.m., October 25, between Under Secretary of State Ball and the President’s Special Assistant for National Security (Bundy),” FRUS 11: 195–97.

53. “Telegram from the Department of State to the Mission to the United Nations, 2 a.m., October 25,” FRUS 11: 199.

54. “Memo handed to A/SG by Stevenson,” File: “Cuba–Adlai Stevenson October 1962,” DAG1/, box 1, UN Archives, New York.

55. Ibid.

56. Laurence Chang and Peter Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: A National Security Archive Document Reader (New York, 1992), 372.

57. President Kennedy’s reply to U Thant is reprinted in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 185.

58. Chang and Kornbluh, The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962, 372.

59. U Thant’s message to Khrushchev of October 25 is reproduced in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 190–91.

60. U Thant’s message to Kennedy of October 25 is reproduced in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 187–88.

61. Ibid.

62. Cleveland interview, UN Oral History, 23. Assistant Secretary of State Harlan Cleveland later claimed that the United States not only provided wording for Thant’s second message to Khrushchev, but also the message to Kennedy. Cleveland said “the UN should be telling both sides to cool it . . . so we wrote a message for U Thant to send to both the US and the Soviet Union.”

63. May and Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes, 404fwd.

64. Ibid., 428–29.

65. Ibid., 431.

66. Kennedy’s reply to U Thant of October 25 is reproduced in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 189.

67. Premier Khrushchev’s reply to U Thant of October 26 is reproduced in Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 192–93.

68. New York Times, October 27, 1962, 1.

69. Ibid., 8.