The UN General Assembly convened this week for its 67th session. Heads of state and foreign ministers will be giving speeches galore. Some will be good. Some will be awful. Most will be forgettable. With any luck, none will be as deceitful as the speech that Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko gave fifty years ago today when he told the General Assembly that the Soviet Union’s military assistance to Cuba posed no threat to the United States.
The back story for Gromyko’s speech begins in the summer of 1962 when U.S. intelligence agencies accumulated evidence that the Soviets were shipping weapons to Cuba. The intelligence data alarmed CIA director John McCone. He told President John F. Kennedy in August that the Soviets planned to ship—or perhaps had already shipped—medium-range ballistic missiles to Cuba, a development that would potentially upend the nuclear balance. Although much of the intelligence community thought that McCone’s warning went beyond what the evidence showed, Kennedy nonetheless issued National Security Action Memorandum 181 on August 23, directing the national security bureaucracy to begin thinking about what to do if McCone turned out to be right.
Two weeks later, the U.S. intelligence community confirmed that Cuba had received less threatening, conventionally armed surface-to-air missiles from the Soviets. The news prompted Kennedy to issue a statement on September 4 drawing a line in the sand—he would not tolerate a Soviet decision to give Cuba weapons that would threaten the United States:
There is no evidence of any organized combat force in Cuba from any Soviet bloc country… of the presence of offensive ground-to-ground missiles; or of other significant offensive capability either in Cuban hands or under Soviet direction and guidance. Were it to be otherwise, the gravest issues would arise… [Cuba] will be prevented by whatever means may be necessary from taking action against any part of the Western Hemisphere.
The Soviets insisted that Kennedy had no cause for concern. On September 7, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, told the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, that the Soviet Union had shipped only defensive weapons to Cuba. Four days later, TASS, the official Soviet news agency, made the same claim publicly:
The armaments and military equipment sent to Cuba are designed exclusively for defensive purposes…there is no need for the Soviet Union to shift its weapons for the repulsion of aggression…to any other country, [for] instance Cuba.
That set the stage for Gromyko’s speech to the UN General Assembly. He took the podium on September 21 and lashed into the United States for seeking an excuse to wage war on Cuba. Repeating previous Soviet denials, he insisted:
any sober-minded man knows that Cuba is not…building up her forces to such a degree that she can pose a threat to the United States or…to any state of the Western Hemisphere.
The only problem with Gromyko’s statement was that it was a bald-faced lie, as a U.S. U-2 spy plane would establish just three weeks later. While he was lambasting U.S. foreign policy in New York, Soviet technicians were building launching pads for nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. The discovery raised, as Kennedy had warned, the “gravest issues,” and brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.