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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.

In spite of these repeated rebuffs by Saigon and Washington, U Thant tried to approach one of the main powers which had refused to have anything to do with him—Communist China—directly. In April U Thant requested President Ben Bella to sound out the views of Peking regarding the steps Communist China felt were required to achieve a peaceful solution of the Vietnamese problem. The Chinese told Ben Bella that the UN had better keep out. Peking considers that the UN is compromised by Formosa’s presence and because of its role in Korea. Furthermore, the organization reflects a form of peaceful coexistence hardly congenial to the revolutionary ardor of Mao Tse Tung and his supporters. Chou stated that the Vietnamese issue could be negotiated only at a reconvened Geneva Conference. That took care of the suggestion, made by several delegates, that U Thant visit Peking and Hanoi. Meanwhile, the US air strikes were taking place almost daily.

The Secretary-General had hoped that a conference scheduled to be held on Cambodia would serve “as a useful forum” for discussing other matters, that is, Vietnam. The advantage was that Peking had already endorsed the conference, together with France and the Soviet Union. This had been a period of particularly intense “quiet diplomacy” by U Thant, but he was beginning to feel keenly the frustrations of his role. On April 15 he warned: “If I ever believe that my usefulness has ended, I shall not hesitate to request the Security Council to recommend to the General Assembly a new man to take my place.” He knew, as he told the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 21, that the whole trend of international relations, including the basic problem of financing United Nations peace-keeping operations, would be affected by the developments in Vietnam and by the ability of all the parties to “that agonizing situation” to find some basis for mutual accommodation, if not for a permanent settlement.

Meanwhile the high hopes of April had vanished. The situation had taken a sharp turn for the worse as the war escalated on both sides. “We are witnessing today, I feel,” U Thant warned, “a definite reversal of the slow progress the United Nations has made towards world stability and world peace. A further drift in this direction, if not arrested in time, will mark the close of a chapter of great expectation and the heralding of a new chapter in which the world organization will provide merely a debating forum, and nothing else.” Speaking to friends, he warned that he would not preside over the dissolution of the UN. He was not born to be an exalted head clerk. He was also grieved at the death on July 14th of a dear friend—Adlai Stevenson.

When the General Assembly opened its twentieth session it was still under the soporific influence of the previous session, when the dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union over financing UN peace-keeping operations in the Congo and the Middle East had prevented the Assembly from taking any effective action. Delegates delivered tired, rehashed speeches. U Thant had reluctantly arrived at the conclusion that the smaller countries could provide no support for initiatives to bring about peace. Only for a while was the Assembly stirred from its lethargy by the appearance October 4th of Pope Paul VI and his solemn appeal for peace.

DURING THE SUMMER AND FALL of 1965 there were reports of peace-feelers from leaders in several countries. The feeling at the UN—perhaps a not entirely fair one—was that these leaders were guided primarily by the desire to gain personal prestige and attention. Of the numerous reports, U Thant credited only that brought by the Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Peter as worthy of serious consideration. Peter was reported to have told U Thant and Secretary of State Rusk that he had consulted with the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front representatives in Budapest. He revealed at a press briefing in October 1965 that he had been told that if the US stopped bombing, North Vietnam would agree to come to the conference table. The condition was that there be no ultimatum connected with the cessation of bombing. U Thant was reported to have felt that Peter’s statement might have offered possibilities for breaking the impasse in Vietnam; but it evoked no response.

During the 20th session of the Assembly, U Thant took the occasion of a meeting with the press, to make clear his position on Vietnam. He stressed the following five points:

Firstly, the more the conflict is prolonged the more complex and difficult will be the solutions to the problem. As I have been saying all along, what could have been achieved in 1963 was not possible of achievement in 1964. What was possible in 1964 is not possible this year.

Secondly,…I want to reiterate again today that the reconvening of the Geneva Conference and the reiteration and the implementation of the Agreements reached in 1954, it seems to me, are the only means of bringing about peace and stability in the area.

Thirdly, vigorous efforts implying perhaps major concessions, should be made by all the parties principally concerned in the conflict, in order to create the necessary political and psychological climate congenial for the conduct of negotiations.

Fourthly, even at this late hour, perhaps ten years too late, I still hold the view that the Geneva Agreements of 1954 can still be implemented.

Fifthly, the only alternative to such a course is the prolongation and the escalation of the conflict, resulting in appalling loss of life and tremendous destruction of property. In my view, if only some bold steps were taken, even as late as 1964, in the political and diplomatic field, I feel that much of the tragic developments we are witnessing today could have been avoided. Of course, I am saying all this, not in the spirit of I told you so, but out of pure conviction. I…believe that we still have time to find a peaceful solution to the tragic Vietnamese problem.

In a New Year message issued December 22nd U Thant further stated:

This dark side of the world shows itself in its most abhorrent and dangerous form in South-east Asia. There the year is ending with war in Vietnam—a war more violent, more cruel, more damaging to human life and property, more harmful to relations among the great powers, and more perilous to the whole world, than at any other time during the generation of conflict which that country has known.

After the New Year, on January 31, 1966, the Americans requested an urgent meeting of the Security Council to consider the situation in Vietnam. It marked the high point of a “peace offensive,” which included a suspension of bombing, to get Ho Chi Minh to accept “unconditional negotiations.” A few days earlier on January 20th, U Thant had made a guardedly optimistic statement. He noted that over the previous year there had been a rapprochement between the positions of the parties. Although “certain basic principles of a negotiated settlement seem to have already been agreed upon,” there existed “much divergence of view, the extent to which it is difficult to assess, concerning the implementation of these principles.” He supported as a first useful step the establishing of a government “representative, as far as possible, of all the sections of the South Vietnamese people, which could take over the responsibility of organizing the exercise by the people of their right to decide their own affairs.” In other words, if negotiations were to be a real possibility the government in Saigon would have to be broadened or replaced by a more representative ruling group. Furthermore, “if realistic discussions are to take place, there must be participation in them by, among others, those who are actually fighting.” The latter include the Vietcong. In the following months, however, Ky’s military dictatorship was strengthened and protests against his government by Buddhists and others were suppressed with American help.

ON APRIL 25TH U Thant left New York to sound out the French and the British. He saw Prime Minister Wilson and Secretary of State Stewart in London, and President de Gaulle at the Palais de I’Elysée in Paris. He also had several press conferences, in an effort to explain to an anxious Europe what the UN can do, and what it cannot.

He said that he had done his best to moderate the violence of the struggle in Vietnam, which he defined as one of the “most barbarous in history,” and to try to bring the parties to the conference table. Unfortunately, even though the conflict threatened the peace, the United Nations should not be involved. Both Peking and Hanoi were quite willing to go to Geneva, but refused to be present at the UN, where they were not members. One prerequisite of Security Council involvement in the discussion of an issue was that the Council must be in a position to hear both sides of the question. Once again neither Hanoi nor Peking would be willing to appear before the Council to plead their case. Hanoi, particularly, was afraid that the Geneva Agreements of 1954 might be diluted. Then too, Peking felt—rightly or wrongly—that if it were asked to appear in the Security Council, it would face Nationalist China, a party inimical to its interests. The Secretary-General was also of the opinion that the UN should not become involved directly in a dispute affecting one of the two super-powers. To do so was the surest way to render the organization completely ineffective.

Furthermore, the Soviet Union and France were against United Nations involvement in peace-keeping of any kind in Vietnam. U Thant had very good reason to believe that the United Kingdom would also share this view. United States opposition had prevented the United Nations from intervention in the peace-keeping operation in the Dominican Republic. In the case of Vietnam, two big powers, probably three, were opposed.

U Thant had no choice but to keep the UN out and in May, 1966 he stated this publicly:

With the full knowledge of the attitudes of these big powers, how can the Secretary-General say that the United Nations must be involved in Vietnam, that the United Nations should be involved in Vietnam? I have to say that at least for the moment the United Nations cannot and should not be effectively involved in peace-keeping operations or in operations of the nature of the maintenance of international peace and security or law and order in Vietnam.

Asked if he would welcome any initiative from Great Britain and the Soviet Union, the two co-chairmen of the 1954 Agreements, the Secretary-General said he had done so some time ago, but for obvious reasons it would be difficult for the two powers to come out with a fresh proposal at this time. It seemed to him that the International Control Commission, established by the Geneva Conference, might eventually play a more useful role than the Security Council.

However, while excluding the possibility of direct UN participation in the Vietnam question, U Thant did not cease his own efforts to bring about peace. He made it clear at the end of May that he did not accept the view that the war was a necessary and justifiable response to “aggression”:

As the war worsens, its justification in terms of a confrontation of ideologies is becoming more and more misleading. For democratic principles, which both sides consider to be at stake in Vietnam, are already falling a victim to the war itself.

In Vietnam there is growing evidence that the so-called “fight for democracy” is no longer relevant to the realities of the situation. Twenty years of outside intervention and the presence of a succession of foreign armies have so profoundly affected Vietnamese political life that it seems illusory to represent it as a mere contest between communism and liberal democracy. Indeed, recent events have shown that the passion for national identity, perhaps one should say national survival, is the only ideology that may be left to a growing number of Vietnamese. Thus, the increasing intervention by outside powers in the conflict—involving their armies, their armaments and, above all, their prestige—has tended to alienate the people of Vietnam from their own destiny. And if, therefore, the issue in Vietnam is not a struggle between two different views of democracy, what is really at stake, unless an early end to the hostilities is brought about, is the independence, the identity and the survival of the country itself.

THE SECRETARY-GENERAL recognized that all parties seemed to accept the Geneva Agreements of 1954. The main question was a practical one: how to induce the big powers and two Vietnams to return to them. He emphasized that it was not enough for one side to “call for negotiations.” These could not take place unless an atmosphere congenial for discussions was first established. To this end he proposed three steps: first, the cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam; second, the scaling down by all parties of all military activities in South Vietnam, which alone could lead to a ceasefire; and third, the willingness by all sides to enter into discussions with those who were actually fighting, including the Vietcong. U Thant did not arrive at these three points arbitrarily; nor did he lightly offer a proposal that would have required a sharp change in US policy. He was, after all, in a uniquely effective position to gather information privately and to assess the aims of the countries involved in the war. He put forward his proposal in March 1966 only after concluding that there were very strong possibilities of peaceful settlement if his advice were followed. Indeed, U Thant made it clear that he saw no alternative to the three points; that all three were inseparable; that they had to be implemented in the order stated. Thus the US—which had been told privately of these proposals late in 1965—was expected to take the first step.

As we know, the US did not do so. But the Secretary-General insisted on the three points on every possible occasion, both publicly and in his private conversations with the powers involved in the war. He repeated the three points in a statement on July 16 in which he appealed to the Government of North Vietnam to “exercise restraint in its treatment of American prisoners.” A few days later, in Geneva, he made the point that in Vietnam, as in many parts of the world, if the granting of independence were too long delayed, or if the struggle were intensified or the situation deteriorated. “extreme forces come to the surface and dominate the scene, making the problem far more difficult to solve.”

From July 25th to 30th he was in Moscow. He had a three-hour talk with Premier Kosygin and an equally long talk with Communist Party boss Brezhnev. The Russians made it clear that they would initiate no peace move in Vietnam. They were on the side of North Vietnam and would offer its government and people all possible assistance. His talks with the Soviet leaders confirmed his fears that, if the present trend in Vietnam continued, the fighting might spill over the frontiers and was likely to develop into a major war. But the Soviets told him that the participants themselves should take the initial steps to negotiations. In view of this attitude he did not press the three points with the Soviet leaders. There was nothing that could be done so long as the United States viewed North Vietnam as the aggressor and the Soviet Union viewed the United States as the aggressor. These mutual charges would lead nowhere: “This conflict in Vietnam should be related to the longing of the Vietnamese people for independence without any interference from outside.”

When the Secretary-General visited Latin America in August, he made the decision which had been in the back of his mind for quite some time. Since the great powers had ignored his peace initiatives, and the smaller countries gave him little support, he would not accept a second term when his mandate expired in November, 1966. All the great powers had expressed the wish that he would continue as Secretary-General, with no strings attached. But U Thant had asked for actions leading to peace, and still believed that his three-point proposal could open the way to negotiations and to honorable settlement; but all he was getting was words.

He announced his decision on September 1. He spoke with the passion of a man who saw disaster approaching:

Today it seems to me, as it has seemed for many months, that the pressure of events is remorselessly leading towards a major war, while efforts to reverse that trend are lagging disastrously behind. In my view the tragic error is being repeated of relying on force and military means in a deceptive pursuit of peace.

U Thant had hoped that his refusal to run again would serve to dramatize the failure of the United Nations to be effective at a time when the peace was gravely threatened. His aim had been to provoke its members to re-examine their positions on the war and to take a series of steps that he believed were both reasonable and contained real potentialities for bringing the fighting to an end. In this he failed. Instead he received universal praise and pleas that he stay on a Secretary-General. The members were well aware that in the present state of international tension it would be enormously difficult for the great powers to agree on a replacement. Privately many of them agreed with his position on Vietnam, although few would take the risk of giving it open support. During the opening debate in the General Assembly one foreign minister after another took the floor to urge that U Thant was indispensable to the organization. No doubt U Thant was touched personally by these sentiments; but as Secretary-General he had no use for them, for they revealed that the reasons for his dramatic gesture had not been understood.

U Thant will indeed be difficult to replace and it remains to be seen whether he can be persuaded to reconsider his decision and stand again. But his fruitless efforts to bring about peace in Vietnam pose a question far greater than that of his own future: whether the United Nations, or indeed any group of nations can play any effective role in ending the increasingly dangerous war in Vietnam.

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