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U Thant and Vietnam: The Untold Story

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 the UN should do now, in the context of the developments in Cuba and in South Vietnam or in Ruritania or anywhere, will be to explore the means of easing tensions and bringing about better understanding between the Powers primarily involved. I think this is the only sensible thing for us to do.

U Thant had shown great concern for the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam and the effect it would have on Southeast Asia. After the fall and murder of Ngo Dinh Diem in November, 1963, he had hoped that the way would be open for a more representative government to take power. In talks with Ambassador Stevenson, he urged the formation of a broadly based government that would include exiles in Paris and elsewhere. Washington thanked him for the suggestion and did nothing about it. The US wanted a fighting, not a representative, government in Saigon.

AS WE SHALL SEE BELOW, U Thant felt that direct UN intervention in the Vietnamese war might invite disaster, while its chances of success were minimal. He urged repeatedly a return to the Geneva Conference table as the only step likely to produce useful results. “Of course, if there is an agreement by the parties primarily concerned,” he explained, “the UN can be involved at that stage to see that the agreement is observed” (July 8, 1964). U Thant insisted, accordingly, that in the circumstances only quiet diplomacy had a chance to yield results. The Secretary-General could, in his private capacity—as U Thant—talk to people who would not talk to one another; his strength lay in his impartiality and the support of a majority of the members of the UN. He was to be a go-between, not a mediator. (He knew that he was in no position to mediate.)

It was in precisely the capacity of a go-between that he had spoken on August 6th to Secretary of State Rusk. His feeling, confidants say, was that Rusk was receptive to the idea of private conversations between Washington and Hanoi. He therefore proposed it to Ho Chi Minh through the intermediary of the Russians. He assured the North Vietnamese leader that if he sent an emmissary to talk to the Americans this would be kept strictly confidential. Within three weeks Hanoi informed the Secretary-General, via Moscow, of its agreement to private talks. Stevenson then informed Washington of Hanoi’s acceptance of Thant’s proposal.

But in December U Thant was hospitalized for an ulcer and did not return to work until January 8, 1965. Two days after his return, a heartbroken Stevenson had to admit that no reply had yet come in from Washington. Nearly five months had passed! Stevenson then decided to take the initiative himself in order to put pressure on Washington. Acting on his own, and not on instructions from the Department of State, he asked U Thant to suggest where the plenipotentiaries should meet and at what level. U Thant suggested that one of the four countries where both Washington and Hanoi were represented might be suitable—Cambodia, Burma, France, or Pakistan. The idea was to let the local US Ambassador in one of these countries explore with his North Vietnamese colleague whether Ho Chi Minh would actually accept De Gaulle’s plan for the neutralization of the area, including North Vietnam. If Washington became convinced that Hanoi agreed to De Gaulle’s plan, this would have represented a considerable breakthrough.

Following Stevenson’s request, U Thant surveyed the possibilities for arranging a secret meeting. Cambodia was eliminated when US-Cambodian talks concerning a rapprochement broke down. Pakistan turned out to be an unlikely prospect. Burma, on the other hand, seemed a real possibility for private discussions on neutral ground. Again acting on his own initiative, Stevenson asked U Thant to sound Burma out. Ne Win, the Burmese head of state, replied on January 18, within fortyeight hours, that he was willing to play host to a completely secret meeting of representatives of both sides, with the understanding that his country would not get directly involved. Ambassador Stevenson was told of this response and informed Washington of Ne Win’s acceptance. At the end of January—one week short of six months after U Thant had begun his efforts—the reply came in from Washington. It was No. The official excuse was that the news of secret meetings would inevitably reach Saigon and would ruin the morale of the South Vietnamese government. U Thant wryly remarked that governments were falling in Saigon every two months. Washington further contended that an independent sounding through the Canadian representative in the International Control Commission in Hanoi had revealed that Ho Chi Minh was not interested in exploratory talks. U Thant, of course, knew better, Furthermore, the Canadians let it be known privately that they had made no such check.

AMBASSADOR STEVENSON was totally shaken by these developments. He stated in a private interview at the time his conviction that President Johnson had been kept in the dark during the whole affair. He believed that the President learned about it much later. Peking also learned about the efforts to arrange private negotiations in February 1965 and blasted Moscow, which it thought had initiated the whole maneuver. This served only to place Hanoi under increased pressure from Peking.

The American rejection of U Thant’s proposal coincided with the fatal decision to bomb North Vietnam. A few days later, on February 12, the Secretary-General issued a statement to express his fear “in regard to the dangerous possibilities of escalation.” “Such a situation,” he added, “if it should once get out of control, would obviously pose the gravest threat to the peace of the world.” He pleaded “very strongly that means must be found, and found urgently, within or outside the United Nations, of shifting the quest for a solution away from the field of battle to the conference table.” At this time the Soviet Union took a significant step: It began official talks with Hanoi and the French concerning the possibility of reconvening the Geneva Conference. However, by the end of February it was clear that both Peking and Washington were opposed to a reconvened conference.

As it was becoming clear that neither his own private efforts nor the Russian initiative were succeeding, U Thant made an open suggestion that both sides get together: “I believe that arrangements could be devised under which a dialogue could take place between the principal parties with a view, among others, to preparing the ground for wider and more formal discussions.” What he had in mind, as he told the press on February 24th, was this: If convening a Geneva-type conference still presented difficulties to some of the great powers, it could be worthwhile to explore the possibilities of informal, private, and confidential dialogues between some of the parties directly involved, as a preliminary step towards the convening of a more formal conference.

During this period he tried to impress upon the Soviets that it would be unrealistic to exclude the Saigon government from a reconvened Geneva conference. He made the same argument to Washington with respect to Hanoi’s participation. He also felt that South Vietnam should be represented both by the government and the National Liberation Front. He recalled that at the 1962 Geneva Conference on Laos three parties—rightists, communists, neutralists—had been allowed to participate. Why not use that as a precedent? During February he communicated this proposal—which came to be known as the “5 + 2”—directly to Washington, London, Moscow, Paris, and indirectly to Hanoi, Saigon, and the National Liberation Front. Peking was not included. The proposal was rejected by Saigon and Washington, the latter countering with the offer that the FLN should be represented by North Vietnam. France was interested. The Soviet Union did not react publicly. Hanoi and the FLN made it known that they were studying the proposal, but did not reject it.

EARLY IN APRIL THERE WAS RENEWED hope. On April 1st, the heads of state or government leaders of seventeen nonaligned nations appealed for the start of negotiations. On the seventh, President Johnson announced that the United States was ready for “unconditional discussions.” U Thant commended the seventeen nations for their “sound approach.” He felt “the only way to get discussions started which would lead to serious negotiations would be without any conditions.” He also dispatched a note to President Johnson to welcome his appeal as “positive, forward-looking and generous.” The Secretary-General noted the press reports according to which Premier Pham Van Dong of North Vietnam would be willing to undertake discussions, although under certain stated conditions. U Thant commented: “I strongly hope that there will be a prompt follow-up on the stated willingness of the parties directly involved to enter into discussions and that no effort will be spared to get discussions started with a minimum of delay. The world, which is gravely threatened by this conflict, is certainly due this much.” During this period U Thant had drafted an appeal for a cease-fire and had given Ambassador Stevenson a copy of the text, stating that he would be willing to consider whatever modifications or alterations Washington might suggest. Washington did not bother to reply, and the statement was never issued.

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