U Thant and Vietnam: The Untold Story

U Thant
U Thant; drawing by David Levine

The full story of U Thant’s efforts to bring about an end to the war in Vietnam is known only to himself. So are the reasons for his recent announcement that he will not stand for another term as Secretary-General of the United Nations. The requirements of diplomatic discretion would prevent him from giving a detailed account of these matters even if he wanted to. But if some of the details may still be missing, it is nevertheless possible to assemble the essential facts, and it is time that the story be told. The public and the press have ignored it almost completely; and even diplomats closely concerned with the Vietnam question remain unaware of U That’s role in seeking a peaceful solution to the war, and of the events that led him to reject another term of office. The story that can now be told may help place the Vietnam tragedy in a clearer perspective.

On August 6, 1964, Secretary-General U Thant met with President Johnson in Washington. On the same day he had lunch with Secretary of State Rusk and suggested that a private dialogue take place between Washington and Hanoi to explore a way out in Vietnam. U Thant had just returned from a tour that had taken him to Geneva, Cairo, Paris, London, Rangoon, and Moscow. He offered, as the basis for a compromise, a proposal that had originated with President de Gaulle for a neutralization of the states comprising the former Indochina (the two Vietnams, Cambodia, and Laos) and a strict observance of the 1954 Geneva Agreement.

Two weeks before, on July 24, President Johnson had made a statement opposing a reconvening of the Geneva Conference, and his stand was echoed the same day by South Vietnamese Premier General Khanh in Saigon. But the crisis had deepened on August 2nd and 4th with the Gulf of Tonkin incidents involving US destroyers and North Vietnamese launches. The UN Security Council then met at the request of the United States. That was the beginning of the official involvement by the UN in the war in Vietnam.

Washington was, or should have been, aware of U Thant’s stand on Vietnam. He had made his position clear on various occasions, beginning with an almost casual remark in the course of a press conference (January 29, 1963), which had rather started US officials. Asked what he was going to do about a reported Soviet military build-up in Cuba he said:

If one says that the presence of Soviet technicians on Cuban soil constitutes a threat to peace in the area, others may say—they are actually saying it—that the presence of the American troops in South Vietnam also constitutes a threat to peace in that particular area. Of course, if you go on discussing these phenomena, there will be no end to this debate. What we should do now, and particularly what…

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