For 13 agonizing days a half century ago, nuclear Armageddon was only minutes away. American warships and Soviet submarines with nuclear-tipped torpedoes played out a tense high-seas standoff.
American spy planes had spotted Soviet missiles – capable of being tipped with nuclear warheads and only a few minutes flight time from incinerating U.S. cities – being deployed in Cuba.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who had rashly ordered the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of the Communist-controlled Caribbean island a year earlier – made a dramatic televised address: putting the United States on a war footing, announcing a blockade of Cuba and threatening to sink any Soviet ship that crossed a 500-mile “quarantine” line. Hawks in Congress and close to the president called for immediate air strikes.
As the days of excruciating tension played out in October, 1962, the world lurched closer and closer to nuclear war. Another high-flying U.S. spy plane was shot down over Cuba. Both President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly bluffed and threatened; both feared the war would start by accident; both fought off hawks inside their own inner circles; both ultimately backed down.
Never before, or since, has the spectre of thousands of mushroom clouds rising cratered cities and spewing deadly plumes of radioactivity sufficient to send man back to the stone age – or perhaps extinction – been so terrifyingly close. Fifty years on, the Cuban Missile Crisis – a hot showdown in the Cold War era when Canadian schoolchildren learned “duck and cover” as air-raid sirens wailed, seems ancient history. But new, sometimes startling, aspects of the crisis that challenge long-held, and only half-true, versions of the superpower standoff have emerged from historians in Canada and elsewhere.
And there are still lessons to be learned.
UN Secretary-General U Thant : The forgotten player in the crisis
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.
In his paper, just published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mr. Dorn contrasts the bombastic swaggering in the early American versions of the crisis, with the reality of quiet diplomacy. “The popular understanding is that a U.S. show of military force compelled the Russians to back down, or as Secretary of State Dean Rusk euphemistically put it: ‘We went eyeball to eyeball [with the Russians], and… the other fellow just blinked,’” writes Mr. Dorn, adding: “Rusk’s verbal bravado conceals how the Cuban Missile Crisis, much more than a mere contest of wills, was also a mediated settlement.”
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.
There’s even a minor Canadian postscript among the tales untold. While Canadian military historians (like their American counterparts) tend to portray the crisis as a military showdown and focus on efforts of Canadian warships in hunting Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic, there was also a little-known UN aspect to Canada’s involvement.