U.S. ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson had a reputation for preferring to concede than to confront. In the first days of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy worried that his man in New York didn’t have what it took to present the U.S. position on Cuba forcefully to the world body. On Thursday, October 25, the tenth day of the crisis, Stevenson showed that he was in fact made of sterner stuff than JFK thought. The former two-time presidential candidate dressed down Valerian Zorin, the Soviet ambassador, in a UN Security Council meeting as Americans watched on television.
Stevenson’s dramatic moment would come that afternoon. At 1:45 a.m. (8:45 a.m. in Moscow) that morning, the State Department handed the Soviet embassy in Washington a letter from JFK. It responded to the letter that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had written the day before. Whereas Khrushchev’s letter struck an indignant tone, Kennedy’s was cold and to the point: “I regret very much that you still do not appear to understand what it is that has moved us in this matter.” The final sentence in the 266-word letter made it clear that Kennedy wasn’t offering any concessions: “I hope that your Government will take the necessary action to permit a restoration of the earlier situation.”
At that morning’s meeting of the ExCom, Kennedy directed that the Soviet tanker Bucharest be allowed to cross the quarantine line. (One of the ships enforcing the quarantine line was the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, which was named after JFK’s older brother, a Navy flier who had been killed during World War II.) U.S. intelligence had determined that it was carrying ordinary petroleum products; the ExCom agreed that the first Soviet bloc ship the U.S. Navy stopped should be one that was carrying missiles or missile parts. Kennedy also discussed how to respond to an offer that acting UN secretary general U Thant made the day before that the United States and the Soviet Union agree to halt both the quarantine and arms shipments pending negotiations. Khrushchev accepted the offer. Kennedy, however, saw it as equating the U.S. response with the Soviet provocation. So he decided essentially to ignore U Thant’s offer, writing in his response to the acting secretary general that “the existing threat was created by the secret introduction of offensive weapons into Cuba, and the answer lies in the removal of such weapons.”
That afternoon at an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Ambassador Zorin assured his fellow delegates that the Soviet Union had not placed missiles in Cuba: “Falsity is what the United States has in its hands, false evidence.” The United States, he argued, was manufacturing a threat that could have “catastrophic consequences for the whole world.”
Stevenson listened impassively as the Soviet ambassador laced into the United States. When it was finally his turn to speak, he dispensed with the standard diplomatic niceties. He instead went immediately for the jugular: “I want to say to you, Mr. Zorin, that I do not have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk. And I must confess to you that I am glad that I do not!” Stevenson went on to denounce the Soviets for lying, treating Zorin in a way that the Soviet ambassador likened to an American prosecutor browbeating a defendant. Stevenson pressed on:
All right, sir, let me ask you one simple question: Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no—don’t wait for the translation—yes or no?
When Zorin refused to answer, Stevenson snapped:
You can answer yes or no. You have denied they exist. I want to know if I understood you correctly. I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room
With Zorin still continuing to refuse to answer, Stevenson’s aides proceeded to produce large photos of the Soviet missiles in Cuba. The delegates in the room, and everyone watching on television, saw the Soviets unmasked as liars. Zorin could only simmer. The mild-mannered Stevenson had scored an enormous political and diplomatic victory for the United States.
As dramatic as Stevenson’s tongue-lashing of Zorin was, it did not solve JFK’s fundamental problem—Soviet missile were in Cuba. Indeed, at a second ExCom meeting that evening, the president learned from CIA director John McCone that his greatest fear was true: some of the missiles in Cuba were operational. The stakes were now even greater.
For other posts in this series or for more information on the Cuban missile crisis, click here.