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Character Sketches: U Thant by Brian Urquhart

U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations.
UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata
U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations.


U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, was a devout Buddhist, a very private man who suddenly found himself in one of the most public and exposed jobs in the world. When Dag Hammarskjöld died in an air crash in Africa in September 1961, U Thant was designated by the Security Council to complete his term as Secretary-General.

It was a catastrophic moment in the UN’s history. The crisis in the Congo had caused the Soviet Union and France to challenge the authority of the Secretary-General in a way that threatened to bring UN peacekeeping operations to a halt. The organization was split down the middle on Cold War lines, as well as being bogged down in a violent and frustrating mission in the heart of Africa. U Thant pulled the UN together and brought it back onto a steady course in a time of storm and change.

1927 – Shown here is U Thant during his time studying at the University of Rangoon (now known as Yangon). Financial difficulties meant he was unable to finish his intended course of studies, but education was to remain an important part of his work before and during his ventures into international diplomacy, with employment as teacher and a school headmaster, as well as serving with his country's educational reorganization committees during the Second World War. "The law of love and compassion for all living creatures is again a doctrine to which we are all too ready to pay slip service. However, if it is to become a reality, it requires a process of education, a veritable mental renaissance. Once it has become a reality, national as well as international problems will fall into perspectives and become easier to solve. Wars and conflicts, too, will then become a thing of the past, because wars begin in the minds of men, and in those minds love and compassion would have built the defenses of peace," he was to later say.

When U Thant became Secretary-General, I was in charge of the UN operation in Katanga, a difficult and sometimes dangerous job. Having been kidnapped and badly beaten up on the evening of my arrival in Elisabethville, I was obligated to unleash the UN forces to stop a new wave of attacks and harassment on UN personnel. I was tired, short-handed, and exasperated by the disunity and incompetence of the military organization I had to work with.

In this dismal scene, the whole-hearted and unequivocal support of the new Secretary-General in New York was encouraging. Not only did U Thant work hard to get us military reinforcements; he also took the offensive with the Western media, which, under the influence of Katanga’s expert public relations organization, had tended to favor Moise Tshombe, the secessionist president. To the distress of his right-wing and business supporters in the United States and Europe, U Thant even called Tshombe and his associates a “bunch of clowns.” This outspokenness at the top was refreshing, particularly when so much seemed to be going wrong in the field.

I met U Thant for the first time when I got back to New York from Katanga in the spring of 1962. He was friendly, informal, and genuinely interested in what one had to say -- in contrast to Hammarskjöld, who paid little heed to subordinates. U Thant also differed from his predecessor in more fundamental ways. He was simple and direct where Hammarskjöld was complicated and nuanced; a man of few words where Hammarskjöld was immensely articulate; a devout traditional Buddhist where Hammarskjöld was increasingly inclined to a personal brand of mysticism; a man of imperturbable calm where Hammarskjöld could be highly emotional; a modest and unpretentious middlebrow where Hammarskjöld was intensely intellectual; a taker of advice where Hammarskjöld almost invariably stuck to his own opinion.

To the casual observer, U Thant appeared placid and rather bland, but he was determined and courageous in his quiet way. He was totally free of the desire to take credit, to justify himself, or to blame others when things went wrong. His Buddhist self-discipline concealed the irritation and frustration that anyone else in his position would often have given vent to. He never lost his temper or showed impatience. In moments of unusual stress he would tap his foot rhythmically, his only display of emotion. He was a martyr to ulcers and various stress ailments in later years.

I doubt if most diplomats, especially from the West, really understood U Thant, for whom moral and ethical considerations took priority over political ones. He did what he believed to be right, even when it was politically disadvantageous for him to do so. U Thant regarded the war in Viet Nam as a moral and to some extent a racial issue, and was appalled at its almost casual toll of Vietnamese as well as American lives. He doggedly pursued his efforts to find a way to end the war long after a resentful U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, had rejected his plan for a cease-fire in place and peace talks in Rangoon, to which the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had agreed. Rusk, in a vulgar and snide public statement, said that U Thant’s efforts to end the war in Viet Nam were motivated by his desire for the Nobel Peace Prize. This malicious and deliberate misreading of U Thant’s motives was made even more grotesque by the subsequent horrors of the war. Three years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, Henry Kissinger took up, with some success, U Thant’s basic approach for seeking an end to the war.

U Thant lived a simple family life, going home each evening to his wife in Riverdale to read official papers as well as a score of newspapers and journals. He had no interest in the social and artistic life of New York, and hostesses and ambassadors alike gave up inviting him to dinner. He refused the Shah of Iran’s invitation to his grotesquely lavish international party at Persepolis on the grounds that, with so much poverty and misery in the world, he would not feel comfortable at such an occasion.

United Nations
U Thant - the third Secretary-General of the United Nations

A look back at some of the highlights of the career of U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations. Credit: UN News


When international peace was threatened, U Thant was ready. At the start of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, he wrote to Kennedy and Khrushchev saying that he was sure that neither would wish to be remembered by history, if any history survived, as having jointly precipitated the end of human civilization. He then proposed actions -- the US calling off the naval quarantine of the Soviet vessels in the Atlantic, and the Soviets turning round the missile convoys and removing their missiles from Cuba -- by which both could back away from catastrophe.

He thus provided a face-saving mechanism, a ladder down which the two superpowers could, and eventually did, descend from their potentially catastrophic confrontation. He then went to Cuba to calm down an angry and resentful Castro. He did not make his efforts public and in his lifetime he received no credit for them.

In September 1965, after U Thant had been warning the Security Council of the danger for the preceding six months, full-scale war over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan. The close involvement of the Soviet Union with India, and, of China with Pakistan, made this conflict more dangerous than an ordinary regional war, and the Security Council belatedly sprang into action, asking the Secretary-General to tackle the situation urgently. U Thant set off the war zone at once and took me with him.

The Secretary-General usually travels by commercial airline, but all commercial flights to the subcontinent had been cancelled because of the war. President Lyndon Johnson offered Air Force One, but U Thant did not want to be so dramatically identified with the United States, and told Johnson that he would feel foolish traveling with a party of four in so large a plane. We flew commercial from New York to Tehran, hoping from there to find some way of getting on to Rawalpindi, our first destination.

In Tehran, everyone except U Thant seemed obsessed with the Secretary-General’s safety in a war zone. (Hammarskjöld’s death in Africa was still very much in people’s minds.) Because the Indian Air Force had bombed both airfields, it was widely believed that it would be too dangerous to land at Karachi or Rawalpindi. U Thant simply said that he had to get to the war zone as soon as possible by the best means available. The American embassy in Tehran, which was better informed and better equipped than we were, offered a small plane, the Convair of the US Air Attaché, and we quickly took off for Pakistan.

Highlights from U Thant's UN service

The Convair was very slow, and because both the Indians and the Pakistanis believed that the crew were in the CIA, our journey was subject to long detours and delays. We eventually arrived in Rawalpindi to see the President, Ayub Khan, and then, after an immense detour around the fighting zone via Bombay, in New Delhi to talk to Prime Minister Shastri. We came back with the basis for a cease-fire, which came into effect two days later.

1972 – Traditionally, a portrait of each UN Secretary-General is hung at UN Headquarters, following the end of their service – shown here is the one of U Thant, painted by US artist James Fosberg. “To understand my feelings – and my conception of the role of Secretary General – the nature of my religious and cultural background must first be understood. I should therefore like to outline not only my beliefs but also my conception of human institutions and of the human situation itself. As a Buddhist, I was trained to be tolerant of everything except intolerance. I was brought up not only to develop the spirit of tolerance but also to cherish moral and spiritual qualities such as modesty, humility, compassion, and, most important, to attain a certain degree of emotional equilibrium," U Thant wrote in his memoirs, 'View from the UN,' published posthumously in 1978. UN Photo/Lois Conner

This expedition increased my respect and affection for U Thant. His wisdom and steadiness impressed and calmed over-excited leaders distracted by wartime emotions. He left the drafting of proposals and communiqués to me, and took full responsibility for them. I also found that U Thant was a keen observer who took great pleasure in the comic aspects of such a mission. Unbeknownst to him, Burmese officials along the route had been notified of his wife’s fondness for mango jam, and at every stop consignments of this explosive substance had been put on board our plane. When some of the jars began to hiss and tick, the captain declared a bomb alert and threw the whole lot out. This was the first time that I saw U Thant overcome by laughter.

U Thant particularly relied on Ralph Bunche. As Bunche’s health was rapidly declining, I met with U Thant increasingly often on day-to-day matters. I also wrote most of his political speeches and reports. He was delightful to work with, and his straightforwardness and decency easily made up for a certain naiveté in political matters. He and his wife set much store by astrology, which occasionally created scheduling difficulties when his wife pronounced certain days unpropitious for important actions. When our son Charlie was born in 1967, U Thant spent an evening making out his astrological chart. He was astonishingly thoughtful of his subordinates.

In June 1967, President Nasser of Egypt suddenly demanded the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping force in Sinai (UNEF) that had kept the peace between Israel and Egypt for the previous ten years. Nasser had a perfect right to do this under the agreement that he had made with Hammarskjöld before the force first arrived in Egypt ten years earlier, and U Thant was bound by that agreement. (Israel had never allowed UNEF to be stationed on Israeli soil at all.) Nasser’s demand was a suicidal move for Egypt, because it gave Israel the long-desired pretext to move into Sinai and Gaza, and, if Jordan and Syria were foolish enough to join in the Egyptian action, to take East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights as well. U Thant and Bunche spent much time and energy trying to alert Nasser to the huge risk he was running.

Alone among world statesmen, U Thant went to Cairo to try to persuade Nasser to withdraw his troops from Sinai and to cancel his demand for the departure of UNEF. Other leaders gave priority to Cold War matters and, in Western countries, to denouncing U Thant for being willing even to consider Nasser’s request for the withdrawal of UNEF, though he was legally bound to do so. No government supported U Thant’s efforts with Nasser, and on 5 June, the Israelis launched simultaneous air attacks on Egypt, Syria and the Jordanian troops in the West Bank. UNEF was still in place, and its soldiers suffered the first casualties of the war.

The Six-Day War was a major disaster for the Palestinians and for the Arab countries, and also for the UN. It created problems - Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights -- that the world is still trying to resolve. In the Security Council the great powers of the East and West did little but bicker along Cold War lines until the war actually started. For such a major catastrophe governments and the press needed a scapegoat, and they selected U Thant, the one person who had tried so hard to prevent it.

Meetings and encounters

In all my time in the UN I can recall no injustice to a public figure remotely comparable to the treatment of U Thant. For a time it was impossible to get any serious public consideration of the actual facts of the case. Fashionable American columnists, and even national leaders who should have, and did, know better, had a field day denouncing U Thant. Israel’s ambassador, Abba Eban, referred to UNEF as “an umbrella that folds up when it starts to rain” -- a remarkably cheap piece of rhetoric considering that in spite of Israel’s refusal to cooperate with UNEF, we had for ten years kept Israel’s formerly bloody boundary with Egypt completely peaceful. U Thant never complained, though we occasionally persuaded him to hit back publicly against some more than usually grotesque distortions, such as the serialized memoirs of the former British Foreign Secretary, George Brown.

For all his stoicism U Thant was certainly wounded by such a shameless onslaught, and from the summer of 1967 his health steadily declined. Ironically, in the following year, when his term of office ended and he announced that he wished to leave, he was relentlessly pressured to stay on as Secretary-General by the very governments who had made him a scapegoat over the Six Day War. Foolishly, he eventually gave in to this pressure.

U Thant’s final years at the UN were sad. For much of the time he was sick, and often out of the office. To his great distress, Ralph Bunche, who, at his insistence, had also stayed on at the UN, went into a steady physical decline and died in November 1971, two months before U Thant himself left the UN.

A few years after he left the UN, U Thant died of cancer of the jaw, perhaps the legacy of the exceedingly strong Burmese cheroots he loved to smoke. He has been largely forgotten, and when his name does come up, it is still usually in connection with “U Thant’s War,” as some journalists liked to call the Six-Day War that he alone tried to prevent. When the Cold War ended, and it became possible for Russians and Americans to discuss what had really happened in the most dangerous crisis in human history, the Cuban Missiles Crisis, U Thant’s role was revealed, although larger political egos on both sides still claim exclusive credit for avoiding catastrophe. As it became possible to discuss the war in Viet Nam objectively, his efforts to end that nightmare have also begun to be recognized. What has been more easily forgotten is the courage, decency, and generosity of a responsible, good, and modest man.

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