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‘Responsibility of the Great Ones’: How the Organization of American States and the United Nations Helped Resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2019

Renata Keller*
Assistant Professor in History, University of Nevada, Reno
*Corresponding author. Email:


This article draws on an international assemblage of sources to recover the history of the involvement of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN) in the Cuban missile crisis. It argues that, through the mechanisms of the OAS and the UN, Latin American citizens and officials helped shape the peaceful outcome of the crisis. This article challenges dismissive portrayals of both Latin American countries and multilateral organisations and, in so doing, joins the growing literature on how supposedly weak Latin American countries have used international organisations to influence world affairs.

Spanish abstract

Este artículo utiliza un ensamblaje internacional de recursos para recuperar la historia del involucramiento de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) y las Naciones Unidas (ONU) en la crisis de los misiles de Cuba. Señala que a través de mecanismos de la OEA y la ONU, ciudadanos y funcionarios latinoamericanos ayudaron a configurar el resultado pacífico de la crisis. El artículo desafía los relatos que otorgan poca importancia tanto a los países latinoamericanos como a organismos multilaterales, y, al hacerlo, se une a la creciente literatura que muestra cómo los supuestamente débiles países latinoamericanos han usado a las organizaciones internacionales para influenciar en los acontecimientos mundiales.

Portuguese abstract

Este artigo utiliza-se de um conjunto internacional de fontes dedicadas a recuperar a história do envolvimento da Organização dos Estados Americanos (OEA) e da Organização das Nações Unidas (ONU) na crise dos Mísseis de Cuba. Argumenta que, através dos mecanismos da OEA e da ONU, cidadãos latino-americanos e oficiais de governo ajudaram a definir o resultado pacífico da crise. Este artigo rechaça representações desdenhosas tanto da América Latina quanto das organizações multilaterais, e, ao fazê-lo, junta-se ao crescente conjunto literário que demonstra como países supostamente fracos da América Latina utilizaram organizações internacionais para influenciar questões mundiais.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 ‘Responsabilidad de los grandes’, El Diario, La Paz, 25 Oct. 1962.

2 For a description of how the literature on the Cuban missile crisis has evolved, see James G. Hershberg, ‘The Global Cuban Missile Crisis – Surfing the Third Wave of Missile Crisis Scholarship’, in Christian F. Ostermann and James G. Hershberg (eds.), ‘The Global Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: New Evidence from behind the Iron, Bamboo, and Sugarcane Curtains, and beyond’, Cold War International History Project Bulletin, 17/18 (Fall 2012), pp. 7–10.

3 Munton, Don and Welch, David A., The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History, 2nd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)Google Scholar; Brands, Hal, Latin America's Cold War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Allison, Graham and Zelikow, Philip, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 2nd edn (New York: Longman, 1999)Google Scholar. In a previous article on the Cuban missile crisis, I touched on the OAS debates but focused more on governmental and public responses within specific Latin American countries. This article expands upon my previous work by taking a closer look at international organisations and their role in the crisis. See Keller, Renata, ‘The Latin American Missile Crisis’, Diplomatic History, 39: 2 (April 2015), pp. 195222CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Herz, Monica, The Organization of American States (OAS): Global Governance away from the Media (New York: Routledge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cooper, Andrew F. and Legler, Thomas, Intervention without Intervening? The OAS Defense and Promotion of Democracy in the Americas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Leticia Bobadilla González's history of Mexico and the OAS goes into greater detail about the debates surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, but focuses almost exclusively on Mexico's role: México y la OEA: Los debates diplomáticos, 1959–1964 (Mexico City: Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, 2006).

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7 On the tendency in the literature on the OAS to depict the organisation in dismissive terms, see Herz, The Organization of American States, p. 1. On scholarly treatments of the UN, see Elisabeth Roehrlich, ‘State of the Field Essay on the History of the United Nations and its Organizations’, H-Diplo Essay No. 153, 20 April 2018, , last access 1 Feb. 2019.

8 On the influence of Latin American countries’ international politics and multinational organisations, see Friedman, Max Paul, ‘Fracas in Caracas: Latin American Diplomatic Resistance to United States Intervention in Guatemala in 1954’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 21: 4 (2010), pp. 669–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Getchell, Michelle Denise, ‘Revisiting the 1954 Coup in Guatemala: The Soviet Union, the United Nations, and “Hemispheric Solidarity”’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 17: 2 (2015), pp. 73102CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Long, Tom, Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 On the history of inter-American regional cooperation, including the OAS and its predecessor, the Pan-American Union, see Keller, Renata, ‘Building “Nuestra América”: National Sovereignty and Regional Integration in the Americas’, Contexto Internacional, 35: 2 (2013), pp. 537–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Leu, Hans-Joachim and Vivas, Freddy (eds.), Las relaciones interamericanas: Una antología de documentos (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1975), p. 135Google Scholar. See ‘Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty)’, US Department of State, , last access 1 Feb. 2019.

11 On the history of the OAS, see Sheinin, David, The Organization of American States (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996)Google Scholar. By the time of the missile crisis, Cuba had been suspended from the OAS. It should be noted that even though the OAS itself had a relatively short and unimpressive history of coordinated action in defence against outside threats, individual Latin American countries had shown a great capacity for cooperative action in World War II. See Leonard, Thomas M. and Bratzel, John F. (eds.), Latin America during World War II (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007)Google Scholar.

12 On Cuban–Soviet relations and the decision to station missiles in Cuba, see Blight, James G. and Brenner, Philip, Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), pp. 722Google Scholar.

13 ‘Discussion of Cuban Situation’, 31 Aug. 1962, Record Group (hereafter RG) 59, Central Decimal Files (hereafter CDF) 1960–3, Box 1330, Decimal Folder 637.61/8-362, US National Archives and Record Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).

14 CIA Office of Current Intelligence, ‘Current Intelligence Weekly Summary’, 14 Sept. 1962, CIA CREST Database, NARA.

15 ‘Acta de la sesión ordinaria celebrada el 9 de octubre de 1962’, in Consejo de la Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA), Actas de las sesiones, vol. 42, julio–octubre 1962, Anexo C.

16 ‘Telegram from Department of State to All ARA Diplomatic Posts’, 4 Oct. 1962, RG 59, CDF 1960–3, Box 1330, Decimal Folder 637.61/8-362, NARA.

17 May, Ernest R. and Zelikow, Philip D., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2002), p. 36Google Scholar.

18 Ibid., p. 46.

19 Ibid., p. 50.

20 On US attitudes and foreign policy toward Latin America, see Schoultz, Lars, Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy toward Latin America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar. On US–Latin American relations under Kennedy, see Rabe, Stephen G., The Most Dangerous Area in the World: John F. Kennedy Confronts Communist Revolution in Latin America (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

21 May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 80.

22 Ibid., p. 94. Article 8 of the Rio Treaty states: ‘For the purposes of this Treaty, the measures on which the Organ of Consultation may agree will comprise one or more of the following: recall of chiefs of diplomatic missions; breaking of diplomatic relations; breaking of consular relations; partial or complete interruption of economic relations or of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, telephonic, and radiotelephonic or radiotelegraphic communications; and use of armed force.’

23 May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 124. For further elaboration of the OAS's role in authorising the blockade, see Larson, David L., ‘An Interpretation by Department of State Legal Adviser Abram Chayes on US Legal Position, November 3, 1962’, in ‘The Cuban Crisis’ of 1962: Selected Documents and Chronology (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), pp. 244–8Google Scholar.

24 Wilson, Larman C., ‘International Law and the United States Cuban Quarantine of 1962’, Journal of Inter-American Studies, 7: 4 (1965), pp. 485–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 144.

26 Ibid., p. 178.

27 Dean Rusk, ‘Eyes Only Ambassador from Secretary’, 21 Oct. 1962, RG 59, CDF 1960–3, Box 1625, Decimal Folder 737.00/10-1262, NARA.

28 May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, pp. 184–7.

29 On the Alliance for Progress, see Taffet, Jeffrey F., Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2007)Google Scholar.

30 ‘Al fin y al cabo’, Bohemia Libre, Caracas, 11 Nov. 1962.

31 The first part of the proposal was a formality. According to OAS procedures, member states have to hold a vote to invoke the Rio Treaty and approve meeting as an ‘Organ of Consultation’ in order to consider urgent problems.

32 ‘Acta de la sesión extraordinaria celebrada el 23 de octubre de 1962’, in Consejo de la OEA, Actas de las sesiones, vol. 42, julio–octubre 1962, pp. iii–33.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 On Castro's efforts to export revolution – and Latin American governments’ responses – see Brown, Jonathan C., Cuba's Revolutionary World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 On Latin American-led efforts to fight communism, see Rabe, Stephen G., ‘The Caribbean Triangle: Betancourt, Castro, and Trujillo and US Foreign Policy, 1958–1963’, Diplomatic History, 20: 1 (1996), pp. 5578CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Avila, Gustavo Salcedo, ‘Más allá de la Doctrina Betancourt: Ayuda encubierta como instrumento de la política exterior de Venezuela durante la guerra fría (1959–1964)’, Revista OPSIS, 14: Especial (2014), pp. 7492Google Scholar. On earlier collective efforts to defend the hemisphere, see Moulton, Aaron Coy, ‘Militant Roots: The Anti-Fascist Left in the Caribbean Basin, 1945–1954’, Estudios Interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe, 28: 2 (2017), pp. 1429Google Scholar.

37 ‘Acta de la sesión extraordinaria celebrada el 23 de octubre de 1962’.

38 On Colombian responses to the Cuban Revolution, see Karl, Robert A., ‘Reading the Cuban Revolution from Bogotá, 1957–62’, Cold War History, 16: 4 (2016), pp. 337–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Article 6 of the Rio Treaty states: ‘If the inviolability or the integrity of the territory or the sovereignty or political independence of any American State should be affected by an aggression which is not an armed attack or by an extra-continental or intra-continental conflict, or by any other fact or situation [that] might endanger the peace of America, the Organ of Consultation shall meet immediately in order to agree on the measures which must be taken in case of aggression to assist the victim of the aggression or, in any case, the measures which should be taken for the common defense and for the maintenance of the peace and security of the Continent.’

40 On Brazil's role in the missile crisis, see Hershberg, James G., ‘The United States, Brazil, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (Part 1)’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 6: 2 (2004), pp. 320CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hershberg, James G., ‘The United States, Brazil, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Part 2)’, Journal of Cold War Studies, 6: 3 (2004), pp. 567CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 At the time of the missile crisis, the only countries in the Americas that still had diplomatic relations with Cuba were Brazil, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. On the Brazilian, Mexican and Bolivian governments’ defence of Cuba to protect their own leftist credentials, see Keller, ‘The Latin American Missile Crisis’.

42 ‘Acta de la sesión extraordinaria celebrada el 23 de octubre de 1962’.

43 Bobadilla González, México y la OEA, p. 155.

44 May and Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 212.

45 Ibid., p. 201.

46 Ibid., p. 219.

47 José A. Mora, ‘Letter from José A. Mora, Secretary-General, Organization of American States’, 23 Oct. 1962, S-0873, Box 1, File 4, UN Archive (hereafter UN), New York City. Thant was appointed acting secretary-general in November 1961 following the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, then secretary-general on 30 Nov. 1962, with the title retroactively applied to his entire time in office. The remainder of this article will use his retroactive title.

48 ‘Informes de los gobiernos sobre las medidas adoptadas de acuerdo con el párrafo segundo de la resolución aprobada por el Consejo de la Organización de los Estados Americanos, actuando provisionalmente como órgano de consulta, en la sesión celebrada el 23 de octubre de 1962’, Oct. 1962, S-0872, Box 2, File 5, UN. The Argentine and Dominican governments followed through with their offers by deploying ships to participate in the naval quarantine. See Keller, ‘The Latin American Missile Crisis’, p. 204.

49 UN, UN Yearbook 1962, Part 1: The United Nations. Section 1: Political and Security Questions. Chapter 8: Questions Relating to the Americas, p. 106, , last access 1 Feb. 2019.

50 Thant, U, View from the UN (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1978), p. 160Google Scholar.

51 Ibid., p. 173. Emphasis in original. On the Monroe Doctrine, see Loveman, Brian, No Higher Law: American Foreign Policy and the Western Hemisphere since 1776 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), chap. 2Google Scholar.

52 Ibid., p. 168.

53 ‘La instalación por Rusia de bases en territorio cubano viola seguridad continental’, El Mercurio, Santiago, 25 Oct. 1962.

54 ‘Dramático aniversario de la ONU’, La Nación, La Paz, 24 Oct. 1962.

55 Thant, View from the UN, p. 168.

56 ‘Cables Sent to the United Nations’, Oct. 1962, S-0872, Box 1, File 2, UN.

57 Ibid., File 5.

58 On Canadian government officials’ reactions to the Cuban missile crisis, see McKercher, Asa, ‘A “Half-hearted Response”?: Canada and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962’, The International History Review, 33: 2 (2011), pp. 335–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 ‘Cables Sent to the United Nations’, Oct. 1962, File 1.

60 Ibid., File 3.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid., File 1.

63 Ibid., File 2.

64 Ibid., File 3.

65 On the impact of the missile crisis in Cuba, see Blight and Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days.

66 UN General Assembly, Seventeenth Session, Official Records, ‘Address by Mr. Osvaldo Dorticós, President of the Republic of Cuba’, 8 Oct. 1962,, last access 13 March 2019. For the version of Dorticós’s speech published in Cuba, see ‘Cuba en la ONU’, Cuba, Havana, Nov. 1962.

67 David L. Larson, ‘Excerpt from Statement by Cuban Ambassador García-Inchaustegui [sic] to UN, October 23, 1962’, in ‘The Cuban Crisis’ of 1962, pp. 63–4.

68 Thant, View from the UN, pp. 161–2.

69 Thomas J. Hamilton, ‘Stevenson Charges in U.N. Cuba Is Soviet Bridgehead’, New York Times, 24 Oct. 1962.

70 Thant, View from the UN, Part III, Appendix A, p. 460.

71 ‘Statement Made by Acting Secretary-General U Thant before Security Council, 24 October 1962’, S-0872, Box 2, File 6, UN. See also Nassif, Ramses, U Thant in New York, 1961–1971 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), pp. 27–9Google Scholar.

72 Thant, View from the UN, p. 165.

73 Ibid., Appendices C and D, pp. 461–2.

74 On Thant's role in setting up negotiations and Khrushchev and Kennedy's responses, see Dorn and Pauk, ‘Unsung Mediator’.

75 ‘Text of Message from Acting Secretary-General U Thant to Premier Fidel Castro and his Reply’, S-0872, 26 Oct. 1962, Box 2, File 6, UN.

76 Ibid.

77 ‘Text of a Letter from Acting Secretary-General U Thant to Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba, Dated 28 October’, S-0872, Box 2, File 6, UN.

78 ‘Secretary-General and Staff Accompanying him to Cuba – 30 October 1962’, S-0872, Box 2, File 14, UN.

79 ‘Letter from Fidel Castro Ruz to U Thant’, 28 Oct. 1962, S-0872, Box 2, File 10, UN.

80 ‘Boletín de Prensa Latina’, Prensa Latina, Havana, 2 Nov. 1962, José Revueltas Papers Box 96, Folder 3, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection (hereafter Benson), Austin, TX.

81 ‘Comparecencia del Dr. Fidel Castro, Primer Ministro del Gobierno Revolucionario y Primer Secretario de las ORI, ante las cámaras y micrófonos de la televisión nacional, para explicar al pueblo de Cuba sobre las conferencias y conversaciones sostenidas con el Secretario General de la ONU, Señor U Thant y de la situación actual de la crisis ocasionada por el bloqueo naval impuesto por los Estados Unidos’, 1 Nov. 1962, S-0872, Box 2, File 10, UN.

82 Thant, View from the UN, p. 186.

83 U Thant, ‘Notes on my Second Meeting with Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba in Havana on the 31st of October, 1962’, in Nassif, U Thant in New York, pp. 38–48, p. 39.

84 Ibid., p. 41.

85 Ibid., pp. 45 and 47. It is important to note that even though Castro moderated his public statements after his meeting with Thant, years later the Cuban leader remained extremely distrustful of the Soviets and bitter about the way they had treated him during the missile crisis. See Castro's secret 1968 speech in Blight and Brenner, Sad and Luminous Days, pp. 35–71.

86 ‘Statement Made by Acting Secretary-General U Thant on Arrival at Idlewild Airport, 31 October 1962’, S-0872, Box 2, File 6, UN. Idlewild Airport would be renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963 after the president's assassination.

87 Dorn and Pauk, ‘Unsung Mediator’, p. 288.

88 On the resolution of the inspection issue, see Fursenko, Aleksandr and Naftali, Timothy, ‘One Hell of a Gamble’: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958–1964 (New York: Norton, 1997), chap. 15Google Scholar.

89 ‘Boletín Espartaquista’, 30 Oct. 1962, José Revueltas Papers Box 32, Folder 16, Benson. On Revueltas, see Crespi, Roberto Simon, ‘José Revueltas (1914–1976): A Political Biography’, Latin American Perspectives, 6: 3 (1979), pp. 93113CrossRefGoogle Scholar.