The ICRC and the Cuban missile crisis, October-November 1962

The ICRC and the Cuban missile crisis, October-November 1962

The ICRC and the Cuban missile crisis, October-November 1962

Trained as a historian, François Bugnion joined the ICRC in May 1970, serving as a delegate in Israel and the occupied territories, Bangladesh, Turkey and Cyprus, and as head of mission in Chad, Viet-Nam and Cambodia. From 2000 to 2006, he was the ICRC's Director of Law and International Cooperation. He is the author of more than 50 publications on international humanitarian law and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. He has been a member of the International Committee since May 2010. 

When I asked Mr. Bugnon, who has generously accepted to become an Intercross Memory contributor, about his dedication to uncovering the diplomatic and operational history of the ICRC, he said he wrote about the organization so that we can, when needed, "better convince" state and non-state actors of the legitimacy of our action and methods. 

"My experience as an ICRC delegate" he said, "is that when you go to a government representative and say "You have to do this and that because of Article so and so of the Geneva Conventions," well of course, people will listen politely but it doesn't mean that they will react positively. Because people don't like to feel bound by rules, even rules they have accepted. If you can go to the same person and say "For you the situation is brand new but other countries have been confronted in the past with a similar situation and this is the solution that was found," I think there is a much stronger possibility of convincing people to do the right thing."

Last August, the Swiss Review of History published an article by Mr. Bugnion, Confronting the unthinkable: The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Cuban missile crisis, October-November 1962

Here is the transcript of what the author had to say about our little-known involvement in the military and diplomatic crisis that came to define the Cold War:

"The crisis started on October 14th, when US spy planes flying a very high altitudes took pictures which in the view of the United States intelligence services demonstrated that the Soviets were building missile bases in Cuba. President Kennedy was alerted two days later and immediately summoned an executive council to manage the crisis. After protracted discussions, the president decided on a blockade but refrained from using the world "blockade". It was called a "quarantine" instead. On the 22nd, President Kennedy announced to the American public and to the world the presence of these nuclear bases, not yet operational but close. He also announced the determination of the United States to have the missiles removed and the blockade put in place by the US Navy. It was of course a tremendous shock to the world.

The blockade was immediately denounced by the Soviet authorities as an act of piracy and as "a first step towards thermonuclear war". The tension immediately became extremely high. When the American president had made the announcement, the US Navy had already been in a position to intercept Soviet vessels on their way to Cuba in an effort to prevent any delivery of nuclear equipment. For a number of days, the world lived in a state of utter anxiety. Everybody thought that even a minor incident might lead to nuclear warfare and incalculable consequences for humanity.

It is in this context that the ICRC took the initiative to act. Then-ICRC president Leopold Boissier was, as a humanitarian, very much concerned about world peace and, as everyone else, was deeply troubled by the potential outcome of the crisis. On October 25th, three days after the establishment of the blockade, Boissier instructed the Executive Director of the ICRC, Mr. Roger Gallopin, who happened to be in the United States for totally different reasons, to approach the United Nations and indicate that the ICRC would stand ready to support the efforts of the United Nations Secretary General U Thant, who was by then trying to mediate, to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. He stipulated that the ICRC would only play a role if required by the United Nations. So this was really an ICRC initiative to offer its services to the United Nations and through it to the parties, not the other way around. So when the issue of control of ships at sea became the focal point of negotiations, the UN Secretary General requested the ICRC to appoint neutral inspectors who would visit Soviet ships sailing towards Cuba to ensure that there were no nuclear devices on board.

With this request by the United Nations, the ICRC, and its Assembly in particular, was confronted with a significant dilemma. One one hand, the ICRC, as a strictly humanitarian organization, was tempted to say "We cannot accept such a mandate as it is purely political. This is a military issue; we are not qualified and cannot jeopardize our neutrality, our tradition of impartiality, our tradition of being apolitical in such an affair." At the same time, there was a feeling that when the future of humanity itself was at stake, there was no way for the organization to say no. President Boissier summoned the ICRC Assembly for a special meeting, which exceptionally did not take place at ICRC headquarters, but at a private club in Geneva's old city so as not to alert other colleagues. The members of the Assembly were very much divided until one of them, Professor Schindler, a highly respected international lawyer, said "If this crisis leads to the worst, if it ends up with nuclear war, there won't be any possibility of humanitarian action. Therefore, to refuse the mission proposed by the United Nations to preserve our own humanitarian mandate is just nonsense". And this lead to a decision by the Assembly to accept as a matter of principle the request of the United Nations and to send a highly qualified negotiator, Paul Ruegger, a former president of the ICRC, to New York to have discussions with the United Nations and with the three states directly concerned, namely the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba.

The objective was for Ruegger to clarify the role the UN wanted the ICRC to play. It took two or three days until the United Nations was able to confirm the acceptance of this role by the three parties. ICRC president Boissier then flew to New York. He was immediately rushed to UN headquarters, met with Secretary General Thant, was given an office at the 38th floor, near that of the Secretary General, so that he could have his own discussions not only with UN officials but also with representatives of various governments: the three states directly concerned but also the other permanent members of the Security Council and so on, so to clarify the role the ICRC had to play.

In the meantime, the Soviets and the United States continued their discussions, whether under the auspices of the United Nations or bilaterally and reached a solution whereby they would manage a way out of the crisis themselves. So, despite this bold initiative by President Boissier, the ICRC did not, at the end of the day, play any role, at least in terms of sending neutral, impartial inspectors. Other means were used by the parties. By then the Soviets had decided to withdraw all nuclear equipment from Cuba and had accepted that American helicopters would fly over their ships to ensure that they were actually bringing all nuclear equipment back to the Soviet Union. So the crisis was solved politically before the role which the ICRC had been requested to play was needed. Nevertheless, the fact that the ICRC had accepted this mandate, had sent a negotiator and its president to New York and had contacts with the parties certainly helped. First of all to buy time for a negotiated solution but also to inject new ideas towards a solution. I personally believe that the ICRC acted as a kind of face-saving instrument to facilitate the Soviet withdrawal. 

It is interesting that during this crisis and immediately after, the ICRC proclaimed loud and clear that it was only because of these most exceptional circumstances, the danger of a nuclear war, that it had accepted to play the political role that the United Nations wanted it to play. While it publicly avoided to set a precedent that could have hurt its strictly humanitarian identity, the community of states perfectly understood that if the ICRC had accepted to engage this time, it would have to offer its services again if the world was confronted by the possibility of a nuclear war in the future. So the ICRC submitted a detailed report to the next International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Vienna in 1965 and themed The Red Cross and Peace, and the Conference adopted a resolution whereby it encouraged the ICRC, if there were again to be such a danger, to offer its services and contribute to a peaceful solution, in close cooperation with the United Nations if needed. So I would say, retrospectively, the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent ratified what the ICRC had done of its own accord during the crisis. 

What is significant is that both the United States government and the Soviet Union accepted that the ICRC be requested to appoint these inspectors. This certainly testified to a great degree of confidence, of trust in the impartiality of the ICRC in a critical situation. I do not think that this episode dramatically changed the US administration's perception of the ICRC. But when seen in the context of the particularly bitter relations between the Soviet Union and the ICRC, this request for ICRC involvement was significant, particularly since UN Secretary General Thant had clearly indicated that he had acted with the consent of all parties when bringing the ICRC into these most crucial of negotiations.

The Cuban missile crisis was the major crisis of the Cold War, the moment of greatest danger, and if we take into account the destructive powers of the nuclear weapons involved, of course, the most dangerous crisis humanity ever faced. The ICRC played a limited role in this crisis but even a limited role in a major crisis is, I think, highly significant".

Minutes of Committee meeting, November 12, 1962

Letter from the UN European Representative to ICRC President, October 30, 1962