by Cho Zin Than
Much like his predecessor Dag Hammarskjöld before him, Burmese statesman and third Secretary-General of the UN U Thant lived for the principle of ‘Preventive Diplomacy’. It was his actions that prevented the Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating. This 1962 crisis was an intense thirteen-day military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba pitted the two superpowers against each other in the USA’s backyard. Fortunately, U Thant emerged as the mediator who de-escalated the crisis from the brink of nuclear destruction.
Hailing from Southeast Asia, the figure of U Thant was initially selected as a compromise, thereby becoming the acting Secretary-General after the member states of the UN failed to decide on a permanent candidate for the role following Hammarskjöld’s untimely passing in 1961. Despite these less than auspicious beginnings, U Thant’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis is what granted him the permanent appointment. The vitality of his role can be gleaned from the fact that both the United States and the Soviet Union relied significantly on his directions to de-escalate to a situation in which both powers felt reasonably safe. In particular, three phases can be observed: de-escalation, resolution, and implementation.
Following the Kennedy government’s imposition of ‘naval quarantine’ to all shipments to Cuba, previously existing tensions in the US-USSR relationship escalated swiftly. Khrushchev responded in kind, threatening with the potential escalation of a naval war to come to the defence of Cuban sovereignty. In turn, U Thant, in his bid of conflict resolution, proposed for both sides to respectively lift the naval blockade and halt shipments to Cuba. To the surprise of the international community, Khrushchev responded affirmatively to the Secretary-General’s proposal; thereby marking the first phase of the crisis’ de-escalation.
By contrast, the American response was notably harsh. President Kennedy even went as far as condemning U Thant for not mentioning their firm claim against the placement of missiles in Cuba. During this time, the United States found itself in an increasingly hostile environment with the Soviet Union, especially after Khrushchev demonstrated his unwillingness to interfere with the decisions of his captains at sea, should they have to counter a US blockade of Cuba. Such assertions convinced the United States that the Soviet Union’s aggressive behaviour was not ending at any time soon. Nevertheless, and with the relations between both countries worsening rapidly, the Americans drew up a concrete plan. U Thant was to signal to the Soviet Union this American proposal for a temporary halt in shipments; the US would in return host negotiations in the city of New York. In so doing, the US provided an opportunity to the Soviet Union to back down from the bid of aggression while preserving the government’s face and dignity. U Thant accepted the suggested proposal and transmitted it to Krushchev, who once again accepted. For the sake of reciprocity, the United States also accepted U Thant’s earlier proposal not to invade Cuba by military force. The result was clear: U Thant had successfully de-escalated the tensions.
The second phase of U Thant’s involvement in this crisis took on a prominent position by the end of October 1962 as negotiations between the two countries both bilaterally and at the United Nations Security Council became increasingly tense. As the United States and the Soviet Union entered into more heated negotiations, the United States began to put more pressure on U Thant. Ultimately, the main objective of the USA was to co-opt U Thant into confirming a United Nations inspector group in Cuba. This investigative team would analyse the operational status of Soviet missiles in the country. However, Americans expressed concerns with the Secretary-General’s political ability in implementing such a request, keeping in mind potential resistance from the Soviet and Cuba.
The American side clarified their desire to reach an agreement on the halt of shipments to Cuba and the abolishment of operational missile sites there, with those already operational set back to default. Despite U Thant’s view that there was little chance of Soviet acceptance of such demands, he concluded that such a promise of non-invasion would have to be reciprocated by the Soviet Union’s dismantling of all offensive weaponry in Cuba. Discussions were seemingly agreeable until a Khrushchev cable stated that the dismantling of missile sites in Cuba could only come about if the US took down its own missile installations in Turkey. Prior to the outbreak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States had placed its nuclear weapons in Turkey to ensure their offensive reach in Europe in case of an attack, to ease the security concerns of its allies, and, most importantly, to warn its enemies of the United State’s military capacities, particularly the Soviet Union.
After careful considerations, the United States decided to accept the Soviet’s offer of 27 October 1962 on the sole condition that such a withdrawal of the missiles from Turkey be kept a secret. The Soviet Union in turn accepted the US’ proposal based on their rising concern on a possible US invasion of Cuba. From here onwards, U Thant clearly acted as the referee between both parties, both to prevent a catastrophe from taking place, as well as to save the global reputation of both the United States and the Soviet Union. In other words, U Thant’s mediation made it possible for the two superpowers to save themselves of a nuclear entanglement that was becoming more constricting as time passed by until finally releasing both.
Of course, as Secretary-General of the UN, U Thant’s mediating role was not confined to the conflict between the Soviet Union and the US. He also had to consider Cuban interests. Another challenge for U Thant came after Fidel Castro refused to accept the proposed investigative measures by the UN. On top of the violation of Cuban sovereignty, the imposition of such measures was exacerbated by the Cuban leadership not being informed of such a decision by the Soviet Union beforehand. It took several bitter and extensive discussions to get Castro to agree on a direct UN liaison, the return of the body of the American pilot back to the US, and the removal of the last-standing IL-28 bomber aircraft from Cuba. Informal as well as public declarations, all channeled through the person of U Thant once again de-escalated the tensions.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and U Thant’s successful role therein contributed to the renewal of his mandate as Secretary-General of the UN. His mediating role suggests the significance of third-party diplomacy at the time of a largely bipolar international order during the Cold War. At the time, the lack of such efforts almost certainly would have led the world into a nuclear disaster. Nevertheless, it was not an easy feat to have the world’s most powerful countries to acknowledge, let alone rely on, the refereeing role of the UN in conflict resolution. This successful avoidance of nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union over Cuba continues to be a remarkable historical triumph of international diplomacy. To this day, it is clear that the UN as an institution, and its diplomats as the referees, continue to play a crucial role in retaining the peace, however fragile it may be.
Dorn, W. A. (2009 ). Unsung Mediator: U Thant and the Cuban Missile Crisis . Diplomatic History , 33.
Fuhrmann, M., & Sechser, S. T. (2019, October 18). Can the U.S. protect its nuclear weapons in Turkey? Retrieved from The Washington Post : https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/18/can-us-protect-its-nuclear-weapons-turkey/
History.com Editors . (2010, January 4th ). Cuban Missile Crisis . Retrieved from History : https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cuban-missile-crisis
Office of the Historian . (N.d.). The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. Retrieved from Office of the Historian : https://history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/cuban-missile-crisis
Ramcharan, B. G. (N.d.). Preventive Diplomacy at the United Nations . Retrieved from UN Chronicle : https://www.un.org/en/chronicle/article/preventive-diplomacy-united-nations
Your Dictionary. (N.d.). U Thant Facts. Retrieved from Your Dictionary : https://biography.yourdictionary.com/u-thant
Cho Zin Than is a recent graduate in International Relations from the University of Yangon (Myanmar) who has a great interest in political biographies. Cho also shares a keen interest in exploring the bilateral relations between countries and/or international organisations, focusing on the projections of their relations from a diplomatic perspective. For her final undergraduate research paper, she has written a piece on the topic ‘The European Union and Myanmar on Democratic Transition: A Challenging Chapter in Their Bilateral Relations.’ Cho regularly volunteers in organisations that strive for greater empowerment in the educational development of the following generation in Myanmar such as BridgeBurma, the Youth Society for Education, and the Civic Society Initiative.