Global Policy Forum

The UN's Acting Secretary General U Thant


Neutralist with Moral Fiber

November 10, 1961

The Secretary-General who comes after me," Dag Hammarskjold once said, "will be one of the Afro-Asians." Last week, nearly two months after Hammarskjold's death, the U.N. fulfilled his prophecy. Picked to succeed Dag, after weeks of haggling between Russia and the U.S., was Burma's permanent U.N. delegate, U Thant (rhymes with Du Pont).* His selection came after Russia finally backed away from its insistence on a troika leadership and compromised with the U.S. on the number and authority of assistant secretaries. The U S wanted five, one each from the U.S., Russia, Latin America, Africa and Western Europe; Russia demanded that either satellite Eastern Europe be included or Western Europe scratched, contended that each should be given virtual veto power. U Thant finally won the right to pick as many assistants as he saw fit, agreed to consult with them over policy, but would not be bound by the advice they gave.

Round-faced and greying, U Thant wears black-rimmed glasses and elegantly tailored Western suits, usually with an English-style striped tie. He does not drink, but smokes small black cheroots, and is the only official allowed to smoke in the presence of Burma's abstemious Prime Minister U Nu. Still known respectfully as saya (teacher), U Thant has written six books, including a 1933 history of the League of Nations and two recently published volumes in a projected three-volume history of his native country. He speaks fluent English, has an unassuming disposition that has made him exceptionally popular in both Burma and the U.N. Born in January 1909 at Pantanaw in Burma's fertile Irrawaddy delta, U Thant comes from a cultured, well-to-do family of landowners. Oldest of four brothers, all of whom became prominent in Burmese government and business, he is married to the daughter of an eminent lawyer. They have a 22-year-old daughter, Aye Aye, and a son. Tin Maung ("Tinny"), 19, both taking sociology courses at Manhattan's Hunter College.

After Pantanaw National High School, U Thant attended Rangoon University, but dropped out in his second year when his father's death left him responsible for supporting his family. He returned to teach English and history at his old high school, at 21 passed his teacher's exams ahead of all other candidates in Burma. At college and later on the staff at Pantanaw, U Thant became a lifelong friend of U Nu; both were prolific spare-time journalists, specializing in spirited anticolonial articles. In 1947 U Thant became publicity director for the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League during its struggle to win freedom from the British, and served as the government's top press officer, winning high marks from newsmen for his honesty and knowledgeability. In 1953, when U Nu was Prime Minister, U Thant became his private secretary, speechwriter and alter ego.

Politically, U Thant takes a hardheaded Western view of economics, while maintaining the Eastern mystic's preoccupation with spiritual values. He calls himself a "democratic socialist," and argues with feeling: "There is something wicked about a society in which a successful trader can make a fortune but a successful teacher has to strike to get an adequate reward." He believes staunchly in democratic institutions and has helped achieve them in Burma, which outlawed the Communist Party a few months after achieving independence. But he has supported U.N. membership for Red China, which faces neutral Burma across 1,500 miles of frontier, even while decrying Communism's "violent" tactics. This inconsistency many Burmese are willing to justify in hopes that Red China's acceptance on the world scene may restrain what U Thant regards as the primary source of conflict between nations: "Uncivilized elements in their characters.' Burma's role, he feels, is not to join any bloc but to work to "reconcile" such conflicts.

U Thant first joined his country's U.N. delegation in 1952, was appointed permanent delegate in 1957. Among other key U.N. posts, U Thant this year served concurrently as chairman of the Development Fund, the Congo Conciliation Commission and the Afro-Asian Standing Committee on Algeria. Rejecting Krishna Menon-style neutralism, he has shown moral fiber and tact in his major assignments. He called on the U.N. to maintain law and order in the Congo, worked patiently and discreetly to end the Algerian conflict, backed the U.N. resolution condemning Russia's brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising (though, characteristically, he tried to tone down its blistering language).

As Acting Secretary-General, U Thant is expected to prove a patient and efficient chairman, rather than a bold initiator in Dag Hammarskjold's mold. U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson believes that he will be "very sturdy" in protecting his office against Russian attempts to undermine it. Throughout the long succession crisis, U Thant resisted all Soviet maneuvers to foist troika schemes on the U.N. Secretariat. His critics, from Washington to such vehemently anti-Communist nations as Nationalist China, fear that in his pursuit of compromise, U Thant may gravely inhibit the U.N.'s role as the "conscience of mankind." They may reckon without U Thant's quiet but nonetheless firm belief that peace cannot be achieved through passive neutralism, which would mean a withdrawal from the battle for peace." Pointedly, he has declared: "Whoever occupies the office of the Secretary-General must be impartial, but not necessarily neutral."

* U is not a first name, but an honorary title roughly meaning mister. Thant means clean or clear in Burmese, hence one reporter's nickname for U Thant: Mr. Clean.

More Information on the UN Secretary General
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