In the cause of peace, C.V. Narasimhan

Since its inception in 1945, the United Nations has played a crucial role in defusing many a crisis, including a near-disaster involving two superpowers. An anecdotal account of a few of the important moments in the history of the world body.


EVERY year, October 24 is observed as United Nations Day. It was on that day in 1945 that a sufficient number of ratifications from member-states to bring the world body into existence was received. During my long tenure at the U.N., one particular U.N. Day stands out in my memory – October 24, 1962.

In mid-October 1962, an international crisis developed over the presence of Soviet-made missiles in Cuba. From the time Cuba became a Communist nation under Fidel Castro, there had been considerable hostility between the United States and Cuba. It was not generally known that Cuba, the only Communist country in the western hemisphere, was arming itself with Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) provided by the Soviet Union. These missiles were capable of hitting any destination on the eastern seaboard and the central part of the U.S. Although the arms build-up had been going on clandestinely for some time, it became a crisis on the night of October 22, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy made a statement on television and radio that the Soviet Union was building offensive missile sites in Cuba. Kennedy decided to impose a naval and air blockade to prevent the import of more missiles and equipment into Cuba by the Soviet ships that were already proceeding towards Cuba. The world was on the verge of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers.

The crisis came to a head on October 24. Being U.N. Day, there was the usual Western music concert at 3 p.m. in the huge General Assembly Hall. Interestingly, the music was provided by the Leningrad Symphony orchestra under the baton of the maestro, Mravinsky. The violin soloist, David Oistrakh, was one of the great violinists of the century. After the concert was over, the leading members of the orchestra and senior members of the Soviet mission to the U.N. went up to the Secretary-General’s conference room where a big reception was held for them. As soon as the event was over, Secretary-General U Thant called me to his room and we decided on the course of action to be taken in the Security Council which was due to meet late that night.

U Thant made a statement in the Security Council. He said: “Today the United Nations faces a moment of great responsibility. What is at stake is not just the interests of parties directly involved, not just the interests of all member-states, but the very fate of mankind.” He went on to express the profound hope and conviction that moderation and good sense would prevail over all other considerations. He also stated that at the request of the Permanent Representatives of a large number of member-governments, he had sent identically-worded messages to President Kennedy and Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev. He made an appeal to the parties concerned to enter into negotiations “even tonight if possible”. He went on to say: “The Secretary-General cannot serve on any other assumption (subject to human frailty and honest difference of opinion) than that all member-nations honour the pledge to observe all articles of the charter.” What he meant in effect was that if his appeals were not heeded he might seriously think of resigning his post.

The Security Council met on the morning of October 25 but even before the meeting U Thant had sent further messages to Khrushchev and Kennedy. Around 3 p.m. that day, Khrushchev sent a very friendly reply, accepting U Thant’s proposal that the Soviet ships stop in their course and not challenge the blockade imposed by the U.S. He went on to request that the U.S. also act in this spirit of moderation. He concluded his message by saying, “I thank you for your efforts and wish you success in your noble task.”

This came as a tremendous boost to U Thant. Kennedy also sent a message, through Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. It said: “If the Soviet Government accepts and abides by your request that Soviet ships already on their way to Cuba stay away from the interception area you may be assured that this Government will accept and abide by your request that our vessels in the Caribbean do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with the Soviet ships in the next few days to minimise the risk of any untoward incidents.”

The situation was thus defused but by no means was it certain that there would be no further confrontation. In fact, on the night of October 28, it looked as if the U.S. was getting ready to send its bombers over Cuba to destroy the missile sites. However, the day passed without any incident.

U Thant had also been corresponding with Castro, who was the Prime Minister of Cuba then. During these discussions Castro invited him to visit Cuba. U Thant accepted the invitation. He left for Havana on the morning of October 30, on a Varig Brazilian airline plane chartered by the United Nations. (At the time there was no direct plane service between the U.S. and Cuba.) He was accompanied, among others, by Brigadier-General I.J. Rikhye.

U Thant hoped that Castro might agree to permit a small group of observers to be stationed in Cuba to certify the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. However, it was not possible to get Cuba to agree to stationing any observers on its soil. Eventually the withdrawal was done without the presence of any observers and the world breathed a sigh of relief. On January 7, 1963, Adlai Stevenson and V. Kuznetsov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, sent a message of thanks to U Thant for his efforts. The cooperation of the Soviet Union was won on the basis of an assurance that Cuba would not be attacked by the U.S. These diplomatic efforts helped preserve the peace and averted a nuclear confrontation.

Towards the end of his meeting with Castro, U Thant asked the Cuban leader to return on humanitarian grounds the body of Major Rudolf Anderson, a U.S. Air Force pilot whose reconnaissance plane had been shot down (with a Soviet missile) by Cuba on October 27. Castro replied that Anderson was killed when he violated Cuba’s air space, but agreed to return the body. U Thant returned to New York as a “conquering hero”.

PERHAPS the darkest days in the U.N.’s history were those that followed the tragic death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in an air crash on the night of September 16, 1961. On a peace mission to the Congo, Hammarskjold was going to meet Moise Tshombe of Katanga in Ndola. The bodies were found only the next morning, and flown back to New York. Hammarskjold’s body was flown to Stockholm. I attended his funeral at Uppsala a few days later. For the first time in U.N. history, the U.N. Day came and went without a Secretary-General. After a great deal of secret negotiations U Thant of Burma (now Myanmar) was appointed Secretary-General on November 3, 1961.

V.K. Krishna Menon, India’s Defence Minister, was the leader of the Indian delegation to the General Assembly in 1961. He knew he was not very popular in the U.S. He also had a macabre sense of humour. In September 1961, he had to undergo major surgery at a hospital in the Bronx which involved making an incision in his skull. When I went to visit him at the hospital, he said: “Narasimhan, your American friends think I am a lunatic. You can now tell them on good authority that you had indeed seen me at hospital and I am a man with a hole in the head.”

In mid-December 1961, acute tension developed between India and Portugal on the subject of Goa and other Portuguese enclaves in India. It looked as if an invasion of Goa by the Indian military forces was imminent. U Thant sent identically-worded messages to the Foreign Ministers of Portugal and India requesting them to settle the dispute through peaceful means. This appeal fell on deaf ears and on December 18, Indian troops marched into Goa and completed the takeover of the territory in short order. This left a bad feeling amongst several delegates, who felt that India, a founding-member of the United Nations, had blatantly violated the U.N. Charter.

In the U.S. press there was comment about the fact that Krishna Menon had organised this military adventure and there was a cartoon depicting him as a python swallowing Goa and describing him as the “Goa Constrictor”!

In the summer of 1962, U Thant had some interesting visitors from India – C. Rajagopalachari, R.R. Diwakar and B. Shiva Rao. (It was a delegation from the Gandhi Smarak Seva Samithi, led by Rajaji, and its mission was to plead for complete cessation of nuclear testing. They had already made this plea to Khrushchev in Moscow. They were on their way to Washington to meet President Kennedy.) U Thant was happy to meet them. He knew Rajaji very well and had great respect for him. I invited Rajaji and his associates for lunch in my home. U Thant and Ralph Bunche also graciously attended this luncheon. We had a very interesting discussion, full of good humour. Taking advantage of the spirit of humour, I asked Rajaji whether he had heard the joke about himself which went like this:

Question: “Which famous studio in Hollywood is named after the last Governor-General of India, the Hon’ble Sri Rajagopalachari?”

Answer: “20th Century Fox.”

UTHANT had another important success in his mediation efforts, in this case between the Netherlands and Indonesia. Towards the end of 1961, tension developed between the two countries in regard to a territory which was known as West New Guinea, one of the largest islands in the world. The eastern part of the island is called Papua New Guinea and it was under the trusteeship of Australia, which discharged its responsibility to the full satisfaction of all concerned. In 1975, Papua New Guinea became an independent and full sovereign member of the U.N.

West New Guinea was an immense territory with an approximate population of 750,000, all aborigines. Since it was ruled by the Netherlands as part of the Netherlands East Indies, Indonesia claimed that this territory should also be transferred to it. The Dutch resisted this claim and the situation became very tense.

In early 1962, U Thant began a series of informal talks with the Dutch and Indonesian representatives through the good offices of a well-known U.S. diplomat, Ellsworth Bunker. The Netherlands was not willing to transfer the territory straightaway to Indonesia. Bunker devised a plan that envisaged a phased transfer of the territory. He proposed an interim period during which the U.N. would take over the administration of the territory. This proposal was endorsed by the Security Council on August 15, 1962, and Indonesia and the Netherlands signed an agreement. On September 21, a resolution sponsored by Indonesia and the Netherlands was approved by the General Assembly and the agreement between the two states concerning West New Guinea (West Irian) was ratified.

Administering a territory was an immense responsibility for the Secretary-General because it was for the first time in the history of the U.N. that executive authority was vested in the U.N. itself, in the form of the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority (UNTEA).

U Thant entrusted the responsibility for this operation to me. I conducted it with my small staff in the Secretariat. In the field we had an array of international officials provided by the U.N. and by specialised agencies. For example, the World Health Organisation provided a hospital in Hollandia (now Djadjapura), the capital of West New Guinea. We had to have, as usual, a peace-keeping contingent in the territory. On my recommendation, the Secretary-General approached the Government of Pakistan, which provided a battalion to serve in this area under the leadership of General Saiduddin Khan. An administrator had also to be appointed to run the territory and U Thant chose a distinguished Iranian diplomat, Djalal Abdoh, for the job. Abdoh was assisted by N.S. Subaraman, who had come to serve the U.N. from the Government of India. (He had at one time served as a private secretary to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.) He was a very able international civil servant and his help was much appreciated by the administrator.

The General Assembly resolution provided that UNTEA would transfer the territory of West New Guinea to Indonesia on May 1, 1963. I was deputed by U Thant to represent him on this occasion. U Thant had also prepared a message which I delivered on his behalf and the transfer of the territory to Indonesia was completed. Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio represented Indonesia. The same night, the entire U.N. contingent consisting of about 100 officials, including me, left for New York by a KLM flight. From Hollandia the nearest airport was Biak, which was in the north-westernmost tip of West New Guinea. The plane arrived on time and we all boarded it. Most members of the team were going on to New York, but some officials were to transfer to a flight to Geneva. I stayed on at The Hague for a couple of days in order to meet the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands. When we arrived in Amsterdam the next morning, I learnt to my pleasant surprise that I was also to be received in audience by the Queen of the Netherlands. The meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m. The queen received me graciously and expressed her great concern that, after the transfer of jurisdiction to Indonesia, the interest of the people of West New Guinea should be safeguarded. I told her that we had received all possible assurances on this from the Indonesian Government, and there was also, of course, the provision to ascertain the wishes of the people in 1969. She seemed satisfied with this assurance.

I completed my discussions on the same lines with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands. They told me about their plan to set up a separate fund for the benefit of West New Guinea to be administered by the U.N. This fund was established and the contributions from the Netherlands were matched by those from Indonesia in local currency. This fund also came under my control and we did the best we could with this money for the benefit of the people of West New Guinea.

C.V. Narasimhan with U.N. Secretary-General U Thant.

Two features about the West New Guinea operation are noteworthy. It was the first time that a peace-keeping operation was authorised, not by the Security Council, but by the General Assembly. The second point is that the entire cost of the operation was met by Indonesia and the Netherlands.

U Thant was a splendid host and loved to entertain. On one occasion his guest of honour was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Harold Macmillan. As per U.N. protocol the permanent mission of the U.K. was asked what the favoured main course for the distinguished guest would be. The reply was: “Roast beef, of course.”

At the luncheon in the Secretary-General’s private dining room, U Thant was sitting opposite Macmillan. Macmillan had on his right Adlai Stevenson and I was sitting next to Stevenson. In those days, being a “vegetarian”, I invariably had an omelette at lunch as the main course. When the roast beef was brought to Macmillan he said, “No thank you”, to the consternation of the chef and myself. At that point I observed Macmillan taking some interest in the omelette that had just been brought in. I turned to the Prime Minister and said, “Would you rather have an omelette?” Macmillan said, “Yes, very much so, but I do not want to take away your omelette from you.” I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, let me share this omelette with you. Your omelette will be ready in another five minutes and you can give me half of yours; and then, I can truthfully claim that while many have broken bread with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I am the only one who has broken eggs with him.” Macmillan laughed heartily, and it was done accordingly. At that point, Stevenson, a great phrase-maker, said: “Egg-heads of the world, unite! you have nothing to lose but your shells.” Stevenson was a great wit. He used to say: “There is one thing common to flattery and smoking, they are both dangerous only if you inhale.”

IN September 1962, Trinidad and Tobago became a member of the U.N. Eric Williams was the Prime Minister of Trinidad, He was my collegemate at St. Catherines, Oxford, between 1934 and 1936. Later on, he was a Professor at Howard University in Washington D.C. He became the first Prime Minister of an independent Trinidad and Tobago. He called on me at my office after having visited U Thant, and invited me to visit his country as his personal guest. This visit took place in the summer of 1963. Tobago is a beautiful island with a very fine beach and cottages. Trinidad has a very large Indian population. The capital, Port of Spain, has an Indian quarter with many Indian street names. The island-nation also has a large Chinese population, and the Governor-General was a Chinese, Sir Solomon Hochoy. I stayed at Government House and the Prime Minister hosted a dinner in my honour. All his Cabinet members were present and he introduced me to them as his old personal friend going back to his Oxford days in the 1930s. This was for me a very heartwarming occasion.

ONE anecdote of earlier years comes to my mind. In October 1957, Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari was on a visit to New York to meet the heads of major American banks. V.K. Krishna Menon was also in New York as the leader of the Indian delegation to the General Assembly. When someone asked, “Why are the two Krishnas from India in New York at the same time?” The answer was: “For exactly opposite reasons, one has come for Cashmere, the other for mere cash!”

C.V. Narasimhan, a former Indian Civil Service officer, was the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations.