In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Adlai Stevenson spoke the most famous line of his career. The former Illinois governor and two-time presidential candidate was the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations.
After a series of provocative political moves and a failed US attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime, Nikita Khrushchev proposed the idea of placing Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba to deter any future invasion attempt in May 1962. By October 14, American spy planes captured images showing sites for medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba.
Tensions mounted quickly. Concurrent with other negotiations, the United States requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on October 25. There, Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. Ambassador Zorin refused to answer.
“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? Don’t wait for the translation! Yes or no?”
“I am not in an American courtroom, sir,” Zorin responded, “and therefore I do not wish to answer a question put to me in the manner in which a prosecutor does–”
“You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now,” Stevenson interrupted, “and you can answer yes or no. You have denied that they exist, and I want to know whether I have understood you correctly.”
“You will have your answer in due course,” Zorin replied. “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision,” countered Stevenson. “And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”
The Mudd Manuscript Library holds the papers of Adlai Stevenson, and as part of our NHPRC-funded project, we have digitized records relating to his tenure as United States Ambassador to the United Nations. Here, especially in his section on Cuba, we get more of the story behind the story — notes, memoranda and letters of congratulations after this memorable speech, and records from 1963-1965, after the crisis and when the cold war was icier than ever.
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We hope that researchers everywhere will be able to make use of these newly-available materials. As always, please contact the Mudd Library with questions about any of our collections.