U Thant: The Man U.S. Historians Underappreciate


In the latest move to normalize relations with Cuba, the White House announced earlier this month wide-ranging changes to loosen travel, commerce and investment restrictions. The rules clarify how American companies can conduct transactions and finance operations, raising expectations about business opportunities in Cuba. Although only Congress can lift the travel and trade embargo, the President is using his presidential power to bring about the rapprochement with Cuba he promised last year. The Cuban Thaw seems like a 180-degree turn from the situation between the two countries during the Missile Crisis 53 years ago.

Televised worldwide for almost two weeks, the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war. President John F. Kennedy notified Americans about the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba on October 22, 1962, but it was on October 16 that he learned that the Soviet Union was building nuclear missile installations in Cuba. For six days the President deliberated with his advisors about how to respond. But before he would notify the country, the military adviser at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Admiral John McCain, shared the news with a Burmese diplomat, a man the President later stated had “put the world deeply in his debt.”

Few people today remember, but UN Secretary General U Thant’s role in diffusing the crisis was crucial. As a skilled mediator and diplomat, he gave both parties an opportunity to diffuse the situation without losing face. When the President announced that the United States would institute a quarantine of all sea shipments to Cuba, setting off an imminent confrontation between Soviet ships en route to Cuba, almost half of the UN members begged U Thant to intervene. On October 25, he appealed to both Kennedy and Khrushchev for a moratorium of two to three weeks to allow time to resolve a crisis that threatened to spiral out of their control. Khrushchev used U Thant’s request as an honorable way out and ordered most Soviet ships to turn back, but kept others en route to Cuba so as not to appear weak. This initiative also gave the President the idea to secretly pass a more detailed appeal to Khrushchev via U Thant, so as not to appear as an American ultimatum. Khrushchev complied with request to stop the ships for a few days to allow for negotiations. This message helped create space for the two leaders to end their naval confrontation and focus on the issues of Cuban security and missiles.

Khrushchev and Kennedy came to a resolution two days later. In exchange for a public declaration and agreement to never invade Cuba without direct provocation, the Soviets dismantled their missiles. Privately, the U.S. made a secret commitment to remove its missiles in Turkey.

State Department and United Nations archival documents show that U Thant maintained a strong restraining influence on the President while other advisers advocated responding militarily. U Thant also traveled to Cuba to secure Castro’s consent in the establishment of a UN mission to verify the dismantling of the missile sites. A difficult task considering Castro was humiliated and angry because the Soviet Union had not consulted him during the talks.

First articulated over half a century ago, preventative democracy refers to the diplomatic action taken at the earliest opportunity possible, “to prevent disputes from arising between parties, to prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts and to limit the spread of the later when they occur”. It was U Thant’s predecessor, Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who first articulated the idea of preventative democracy, but U Thant pushed his vision forward. His diplomatic expertise ensured each party to the conflict was given an honorable way out without appearing to surrender. U Thant’s legacy of strong and clever diplomacy should not be forgotten. It undoubtedly paved the way for the continuing practice of preventative diplomacy by UN leaders, including successful negotiations by Kurt Waldheim’s during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s during the war between Eritrea and Yemen. Whether aiming to prevent or mitigate the spread of armed conflict, U Thant’s successors share his belief that whatever might be done to promote peace should be considered.

One response to “U Thant: The Man U.S. Historians Underappreciate

  1. Pingback: Weekly IHL Update – October 5, 2015 | Humanity in War·

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