The U.N. Official Who Quietly Saved the World From Nuclear Annihilation


Though they are in charge of an organization that represents virtually all of humanity, Secretary-Generals of the United Nations — described variably as the “world’s moderators” and the “chief administrative officers” of the U.N. — have never been household names. Not many could name or recognize the current officeholder, António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, let alone any of his eight predecessors.

Yet one of these men, a self effacing and bespectacled diplomat from Burma named U Thant* not only served with distinction as a capable administrator — of what was then a young, bold, and largely untested institution — but true to his role as the “world’s mediator”, he saved humanity from one of its closest calls with armageddon: the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Thant was less than one year into his term as the U.N.’s third Secretary-General when, on October 20, 1962, President John F. Kennedy approached him with aerial reconnaissance photos of secret Soviet missile installations in Cuba. This was two days before Kennedy announced this finding to the world, imposing a blockade against all Soviet ships bound for the island with any weapons. With the nuclear-armed navies of the world’s foremost superpowers set to literally collide, many feared escalation of apocalyptic proportions.

Yet the fact that the U.S. President chose to confide first in the Secretary-General reflected Thant’s already stellar reputation as a man of good character and prudent judgment. Previously Burma’s representative to the U.N., Thant had already played an active role in several global initiatives, from negotiating Algerian independence to participating in the conference that birthed the Non Aligned Movement, a group of mostly developing and newly decolonized states that officially sought to stay out of the Cold War.

It was largely this bloc that secured Thant’s appointment to the office of Secretary-General, initially to serve out the remaining term of his predecessor,  Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, who had died a month earlier in a plane crash en route to ceasefire negotiations during the Congo Crisis. Hammarskjold was very well regarded at the time, and was called the greatest statesman of the 20th century by none other than JFK himself. (To this day, he is recognized as one of the notable, if relatively few, success stories of the U.N.)

Thus, Thant had big shoes to fill, especially since he had basically been forced upon the U.S. and Soviet dominated Security Council to break their deadlock over choosing Hammarskjold’s successor. The world’s smaller, nonaligned states succeeded in pressuring the Council to recommend Thant as the U.N.’s next leader, and the General Assembly — made up mostly of these same states — obliged with unanimous approval.

So here was Thant, thrusted into what the first U.N. Secretary-General called “the most impossible job in the world“, now being secretly asked by the leader of one of the world’s superpowers to help resolve a brewing conflict with the world’s other superpower — an  impossible job indeed.

According to the Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsThant worked quickly behind the scenes to get both Kennedy and his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, to give concessions to induce one another to back down:

Thant’s first initiative came on October 24, when a naval battle and escalation to war seemed likely. At the urging of many fearful nations, Thant asked Kennedy and Khrushchev to step back and allow time to resolve the crisis peacefully. The Soviet premier turned back many of his ships but kept others steaming to Cuba so as not to appear to back down. Thant’s first appeal gave Kennedy the idea to ask Thant to issue a more detailed appeal, requesting that Khrushchev keep his ships away to allow for negotiations. This request was secretly passed to Thant on October 25, complete with the exact wording of the message that the United States wanted Thant to send to the Soviet leader.

The secretary-general sent this second appeal as his own proposal, so it would not appear as an American ultimatum. Khrushchev then used Thant’s request to save face while complying. US Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson later described Thant’s action to a Senate committee: “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.” Thant’s message enabled the superpowers to end their naval confrontation and finally focus on the main issues of the conflict—the missiles and a pending attack on Cuba. In the ensuing negotiations, the secretary-general again played a significant role.

It certainly helped that the affable Thant was as well liked by the Soviet Premier as by  Kennedy: he had already endeared himself to Khrushchev during a visit to the USSR that included a friendly swim at his private dacha. Ever the consummate diplomat, Thant knew how to build relations with world leaders, and this proved life saving. It also helped that he was a devout Buddhist and pacifist.

While Thant played mediator and liaison between the two leaders, things got heated: But on October 27th, just two days after he passed on a conciliatory message from the Americans to the Soviets, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, killing the pilot and deepening the crisis. Kennedy was subsequently under intense pressure to from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his specially-assembled advisors to invade Cuba. Recordings of these deliberations showed that Thant exerted a strong moderating influence; JFK continued to put his hopes in Thant’s efforts, telling the war hawks that “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”.

Thant proposed a faster and relatively more graceful solution: correctly foreseeing that the Russians would immediately dismantle their missiles in Cuba if the Americans guaranteed not to invade, he advocated the idea first publicly, then to both Ambassador Stevenson and U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Both sides would have an honorable way out that could temper both pride and their domestic hawks.

Just days later, Thant’s idea would form the basis for the final agreement that ended the crisis, accompanied by a secret commitment by Kennedy to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Thant also few to Cuba to convince Castro to abide by the deal and tone down his rhetoric; it was during this time that the U.S. lifted the blockade and the conflict began to gradually melt away.

After the conflict, JFK praised the Secretary-General’s pivotal role, stating in no ambiguous terms that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.” Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a few months later, Ambassador Stevenson noted that:

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.

Despite these public pronouncements, as well as recognition by major media outlets at the time, historians and average Americans alike have forgotten Thant’s contributions, if not the very existence of the great mediator himself. Part of it no doubt had to do with Thant’s famously modest character: he avoided recognition in favor of “quiet diplomacy” that allowed the other parties to take the credit and thus make peace more palatable. When Thant was informed that he would be awarded the 1965 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, he replied with characteristic humility, “Is not the Secretary-General merely doing his job when he works for peace?”

Just months after helping bring the world back from the brink of destruction, Thant faced another global crisis: the Congo Civil War, which had broken out in 1960 and indirectly claimed the life of Thant’s predecessor while he tried to negotiate for peace. In response to the chaos and disorder, the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) was established to maintain peace and protect civilians, as per the U.N.’s principle founding goal. In December 1962, ONUC forces suffered a sustained four-day attack by the breakaway State of Katanga, a major faction in the conflict led by Moïse Tshombe, who was backed by the former Belgian colonizers and had repeatedly reneged on agreements with the Congolese government and the U.N.

This attack, preceded by two years of diplomatic violations and the death of a Secretary-General (who had perished en route to bring Tshombe to the negotiating table), moved the otherwise pacifistic Thant to take decisive action. The world mediator requested the UNSC to form “Operation Grandslam“, which would give ONUC a stronger mandate to ensure “complete freedom of movement” in the region to facilitate their operations.

The multinational force, led by an Indian commander and comprised of troops from India, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ireland, Sweden, and Tunisia, acted with surprising efficiency and decisiveness; in less than two weeks, the secessionist capital Elizabethville was under full U.N. control and Tshombe sued for peace, ending the bloody insurgency. Thant congratulated U.N. forces for their service, assuring them that the conflict had been “forced upon them” and emphasizing the necessary nature of their work. He was reported to be greatly relieved that casualties were minimal.

Although many were concerned that the U.N.’s actions were spur a drawn-out guerrilla war or power vacuum, most of the Congo’s troubles had melted away for the time being. Indeed, most of the international community was satisfied with the result, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union — not an easy feat in the polarized Cold War era. (Though the ONUC’s actions were not without criticism, including possible but unreported civilian casualties.)

Given the popular perception of the U.N. as a toothless and corrupt organization — albeit not an entirely unjustified image — it is amazing to think that it played such a pivotal role in some of the greatest crises of the time, all under the leadership of a humble Buddhist diplomat from Burma who was only meant to serve a partial term. Thant was reappointed in 1966 to serve a second term by unanimous decision, becoming the longest serving head of the U.N. at ten years and one month. That year, all the major powers of the UNSC again voted unanimously to recognize the “importance of the secretary-generalship and his good offices” — a clear tribute to the man who helped save the world.

Thant’s second terms saw many more trials and watershed moments, including the induction of dozens of newly decolonized African and Asian states, the establishment of several key U.N. agencies (such as the highly active U.N. Development Programme), and a succession of bloody conflicts across the globe like the Six Day War, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Indo–Pakistani War that birthed Bangladesh. Though he had arguably done more than any other Secretary-General to this day, he could only resolve so many conflicts as head of an organization wholly at the mercy of nation states.

One of his last actions, ironically, was to attempt to direct secret peace talks between the U.S. and Vietnam, whose conflict had just started heating up. U.S. President Johnson, the successor to the man that called Than the greatest statesman of the century, rejected this offer, likely because the Secretary-General was highly critical of the war.

When Thant came up for a third term in 1971, he announced that “under no circumstances” would he be available for reappointment. The job had indeed proved to be the most impossible in the world, and in his farewell address to the U.N. General Assembly, Thant admitted that he felt a “great sense of relief bordering on liberation” on relinquishing the “burdens of office.” Given his accomplishments, he certainly earned that sense of relief. He was one of the few world leaders to be on positive speaking terms with all the world’s major powers, a testament to the goodwill and appreciation he had built up in his capacity as Secretary-General.

Thant died just three years later in New York of lung cancer. Though he was given full honors at U.N. headquarters, his native country had since been taken over by a military junta whose leader reportedly resented Thant’s stature and respect both at home and abroad. When the Burmese regime subsequently refused to accord any publicity or honors to Thant’s body when it was flown back for burial, demonstrations erupted in what came to be known as the U Thant Crisis. Such was the love and appreciation directed at the now-forgotten diplomat who helped the world avert one of its worst disasters with humility.

*”U” is an honorific in Burmese, roughly equal to “Mr”; per Burmese naming customs, “Thant” was his only name.

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