Thant, U. 1909–1974
U. Thant, the United Nations’ third secretary-general and its first non-European, was born in Burma (Myanmar) in the small town of Pantanaw on January 22, 1909. Thant began his career as a schoolteacher in Pantanaw, eventually rising to the positions of headmaster and school superintendent. Following World War II (1939–1945) and the end of British colonial rule, his close friend, U. Nu (1907–1995), prime minister of the newly independent state of Burma, drew him into government service. There followed a number of important government appointments, culminating in Thant’s designation as Burma’s ambassador to the United Nations (1957–1961). Thant was selected as secretary-general on November 3, 1961, following the death of Dag Hammarskjold (1905–1961) in a plane crash in Africa.
Thant’s ten years as UN secretary-general unfolded within the context of a continuing cold war rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union and the emergence onto the world scene of scores of newly independent states, drawn primarily from Africa and Asia. He managed during his two terms to secure the legitimacy of the position of secretary-general, which had come under assault from the Soviet Union during the last year of Hammarskjold’s life, but he did little to expand the powers of the office. He proved himself a vigorous advocate for the economic concerns of third world nations and a vocal opponent of colonialism in southern Africa, but when he left office, in December 1971, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and continuing colonial situations in South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia, and Angola remained as intractable as ever.
Thant’s early years in office found him working in cooperation with the United States to quell a secession in the Congo and to fashion major peacekeeping initiatives in West New Guinea, Yemen, Malaysia, Cyprus, and Kashmir. His role as diplomatic facilitator during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, although modest, earned him the respect of both superpowers and an extended first term as secretary-general. However, by the time of his reappointment to a second term, in 1966, Thant was expressing increasing frustration with his role. The UN’s effectiveness was threatened by the refusal of the Soviet Union and France to contribute to peacekeeping operations. The fiscal crisis that emerged escalated into a political crisis when the United States, invoking Article 19 of the UN Charter, sought unsuccessfully to deny the Soviets a vote in the General Assembly. Further frustrating Thant was his inability to broker an end to the Vietnam War (1957–1975), despite his publicly voiced opposition to the American war effort.
Thant’s last years in office were characterized by renewed frustrations. In 1967 he quickly surrendered to Egyptian demands that he remove UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force) from Egypt’s border with Israel, thus earning widespread blame for the ensuing Arab-Israeli war. In 1971 the United Nations and Thant stood by helplessly as insurrection in the eastern part of Pakistan led to war between Pakistan and India and the dismemberment of Pakistan. Although pressed to assume a third term, Thant retired from office in December 1971.
Thant died on November 25, 1974. Denied a state funeral by the military junta that had ousted U. Nu in 1962, Thant’s body was seized by antigovernment students who buried him, with full honors, at Rangoon University and used the occasion to stage antigovernment demonstrations. Government forces reclaimed Thant’s body in a bloody confrontation with the student protesters and buried him near a major Buddhist pagoda in Rangoon.
SEE ALSO Arab-Israeli War of 1967; Cold War; Colonialism; Secession; United Nations; Vietnam War
Firestone, Bernard J. 2001. The United Nations under U Thant, 1961–1971. London: Scarecrow Press.
Thant, U. 1978. View from the UN. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Bernard J. Firestone
U Thant (1909-1974) was a Burmese and the first non-European secretary general of the United Nations. Though U Thant was frustrated by his limited powers, his elevation to the highest executive position in the international organization was one of the key indicators of the new importance of Asian nations.
Born on Jan. 22, 1909, in Pantanaw in Burma (now Mynamar), U Thant was the first of four sons of U Po Hnit and his wife, Daw Nan Thaung—all of whom were to distinguish themselves in public life. Young Thant wanted to be a writer, particularly a journalist, and, although by no means an Anglophile of the sort then to be found in large numbers in still British-ruled Burma, he did enjoy writing in the English language. He published his first article in English in 1925—at the age of 16—in Burma Boy, an organ of the Burma Boy Scouts Association.
After leaving the National High School in his native Pantanaw, U Thant attended the University of Rangoon, graduating in 1929 at the age of 20. Returning to Pantanaw to help support his mother and permit his three brothers to continue their education, he took a job teaching in his high school alma mater, having finished first in the all-Burma teacher-certification examination. Also in 1929, young Thant published his first book, Cities and Their Stories, about Athens, Rome, and other great cities of history.
It was at Pantanaw National High School that U Thant became the close friend of another Rangoon University graduate (whom he had known, but not well, in college), U Nu—who was one day to become independent Burma's first premier after the termination of British colonial rule. Subsequently Thant became headmaster of the school and Nu its superintendent. At this time he also published a book on the United Nations' predecessor, the League of Nations.
When U Nu returned to Rangoon University to pursue a law degree in 1934, U Thant assumed the job of school superintendent as well as headmaster. The paths of the two young men then went off in different directions temporarily, Thant remaining in Pantanaw but increasing in stature among his fellow educators as a member of the Textbook Committee for Burma Schools, the Council of National Education, and the Burma Research Society. In 1935 he gained some limited fame as a result of a controversy—conducted by letters to newspapers—with Aung San, the emerging nationalist leader.
During World War II Thant served for a time as secretary of the Education Reorganization Committee under the occupying Japanese but, wearying of the task, returned to his teaching post in Pantanaw.
In 1945, when U Nu became vice president of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (or AFPFL, Burma's main nationalist movement), he persuaded U Thant to leave his beloved Pantanaw and take charge of publicity for the AFPFL. He was subsequently asked by Nu to take charge of the press section of the Information Department, where he was so successful that he soon became secretary of the Ministry of Information under the newly independent Burmese government.
Thant emerged as one of the key figures in Burmese political life when he subsequently became secretary to the prime minister, his old friend U Nu. Thant was Nu's alter ego—without whose concurrence he rarely made a major decision. Some observers date the beginning of Nu's later political decline with the assignment of Thant in 1957 as Burma's permanent representative to the UN—a move designed to give the Burmese the best possible representation in the international body.
On Nov. 3, 1961, Thant was named acting UN secretary general following Dag Hammarskjöld's death and was confirmed in the post on Nov. 30, 1962. On Dec. 2, 1966, he was elected to a second 5-year term.
As leader of the world organization, Thant strove to bring peace to the Middle East and, although the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War did take place, he was successful at various times in restraining the rival combatants. He made a major effort in 1968 to end the fighting in Vietnam, and his diplomatic activity was a factor leading up to the March partial bombing halt by U.S. president Lyndon Johnson and the subsequent start of the Paris peace talks.
In December 1971 Kurt Waldheim of Austria was chosen to succeed Thant as secretary general. Thant officially retired as secretary general on Jan. 1, 1972. He moved to Harrison, NY, and died in New York City on Nov. 25, 1974.
U Thant's life is extremely well detailed in June Bingham, U Thant: The Search for Peace (1966). His long friendship with U Nu and his importance within Burma before going to the United Nations are treated in Richard Butwell, U Nu of Burma (1963; 2d rev. ed. 1969). Further insight into Thant's views on international relations can be obtained from William C. Johnstone, Burma's Foreign Policy: A Study in Neutralism (1963). For an understanding of the office of secretary general see Stephen M. Schwebel, The Secretary-General of the United Nations (1952). □