The United Nations has of course no material power and therefore no capacity to prevent any powerful country from starting a war or continuing one. When the country which is waging war is the United States, the principal organs of the United Nations—the Security Council and the General Assembly—are at present not even able to formulate an opinion about the matter. So long as the United States is determined to persevere with its present policy, neither of these organs can reach any coherent decision or recommendation on this subject.

If, for example, a pro-American resolution were introduced in the Security Council, it would fail by reason of a negative vote of at least one permanent member, the Soviet Union—Article 27.3, the veto situation—even if it commanded an otherwise adequate majority, which is not certain. A Soviet, French, or other resolution running counter to American policy would also fail, against the negative votes of three permanent members—the United States, Britain, and China (Formosa).

In the General Assembly there is of course no veto, but a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting is required (Article 18.2). In the first years of the Organization’s life, during the Korean war and for some years thereafter, the United States commanded a safe majority of the necessary size for any proposition to which it attached importance. For the past ten years, however, the United States has not commanded a safe two-thirds of the expanded membership. Granted the unpopularity of the Vietnam war among Afro-Asian countries, it is highly unlikely that a two-thirds majority could be found in the Assembly for any resolution tending to legitimize the present policy of the United States on Vietnam. It is no doubt for this reason that the United States has not sought to obtain from the Assembly a formula of legitimation which, if obtainable, would no doubt be tranquilizing to domestic opinion.

At the same time, it is certain that no resolution to which the United States is opposed, on this or any other subject, can pass the Assembly. The United States, which still has enough influence in the Assembly to keep its Formosa satellite in China’s seat, can always mobilize enough support to block any proposal which it regards as running counter to its interests. It follows that the General Assembly could take no clearcut proposition on the war; the most it could do would be to agree unanimously on some perfectly anodyne proposition, on the lines of those carried for example in the early period of the Algerian war, hoping for a “peaceful, just and neighbourly solution.” As this would be a totally futile outcome, one can understand why the matter has never been inscribed on the agenda of the principal organs, although it has of course been the subject of comment by foreign ministers and others in the General debate, and the object of the personal diplomatic efforts of the Secretary-General. (See, however, the final paragraphs below.)

To say that the processes of the United Nations are at present irrelevant to any serious attempt at a solution of the Vietnam question is not to say that they will always remain so. In the event that the United States Government should seriously begin to look for a way of extricating itself from this entanglement, the use of the United Nations would become a serious possibility. The problem would then become for the United States one of how to execute a withdrawal with the minimum loss of prestige. Now this is precisely the problem with which United Nations procedures are best equipped to cope.

THE VERSATILITY of the United Nations theater in this domain—the legitimation of withdrawal, or holding back, from the brink—can be seen by consideration of the following four cases: the Suez and Hungary crises of 1956, the Caribbean crisis of 1962, and the Middle Eastern crisis of last summer.

In the case of Suez, Britain and France had undertaken a warlike commitment which they soon felt unable to sustain in the face of markedly adverse reactions both from the United States and the Soviet Union. They had then a very urgent problem of saving as much of their dignity as possible, both before the world and before their home public opinion. It was also in the general interest that they should be helped to preserve their dignity, lest the fear of an unbearable degree of ridicule should goad them into persevering in their foolish enterprise.

With the help of Lester Pearson the solution was found in the General Assembly, which requested Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw and also recommended member nations to contribute to a token “United Nations Expeditionary Force,” which Egypt agreed to accept on its soil. It thus became possible for Britain and France to claim that, in withdrawing, they were demonstrating their law-abiding character by immediately acceding to the recommendation of the General Assembly, and also to claim that the object of their intervention, which they had proclaimed as being “the separation of the combatants,” Israel and Egypt, was a task now taken over by the United Nations. Not all political observers found this version of events entirely convincing, but it did have the useful effect of enabling the powers concerned to preserve, in exceptionally trying circumstances, more of their dignity than would otherwise have been left to them.


Similarly, but much more subtly and effectively, the United States used the General Assembly to hold back from the brink in the Hungarian crisis. The Republican leaders’ rhetoric about “rolling back the Iron Curtain” and the content and manner of the propaganda which they addressed to Eastern Europe, had caused many people, in Hungary and elsewhere, to believe that an Eastern European satellite, making a vigorous effort to shake off Soviet control, would receive material aid from the United States.

When this was put to the test by the Hungarian rising, the United States, for adequate reasons, decided not to intervene, but to give satisfaction in a less dangerous way to the anti-Soviet and pro-Hungarian feelings of its domestic supporters by making the maximum use of the General Assembly as a propaganda theater. The General Assembly passed, with much anti-Soviet rhetoric, its resolutions condemning the Soviet action, but it was not asked—as it would have been had the United States decided to handle this on the same footing as Korea1—to bless any “collective security” action against the Soviet Union. The United States Government, while making maximum use of the propaganda value of the United Nations resolutions, also used its own “commitment to the Charter,” the Soviet veto and the “weakness of the United Nations” as a kind of lightning-rod, drawing away from the Government the fury of the American Right about a policy of non-intervention, which was in fact the policy of the United States Government.

In the Caribbean crisis, Khrushchev, having attempted his own variety of brinkmanship by the secret installation of missile bases in Cuba, also needed to withdraw from the brink when he found the United States Government would not tolerate these installations and seemed ready to employ force. Since he had to withdraw, some loss of face was inevitable, but it was kept to the minimum by the fact that the Secretary-General—in calling simultaneously for the suspension of the American quarantine and the turning back of the Russian ships—made it possible to turn the delicate maneuver of reversing the ships into a demonstration of Soviet respect for the United Nations and international law. This was of course essentially similar to the Anglo-French version of their retreat from Suez.

In the Middle East crisis, Soviet use of the United Nations resembled rather the use made of the same institution by the United States over Hungary. The Soviet Government had given the Arabs to understand, as the United States had done in the case of the Hungarians, that they had a powerful friend. In both cases it was to appear in the event that the friend, if powerful, was also cautious. The Soviet Union, like the United States, compensated for its prudent policy of non-intervention, in the face of the defeat of its friends, by the use of the United Nations theater for a compensatory spectacle in which the super-power concerned verbally acted out the role of champion of its friends and made the most of the propaganda value of the situation against the other super-power.

The common features in all these cases are that they included an element of the fictitious, and that they helped to shed an aura of dignity over a Great Power course of action which was prudent and favorable to peace, but was not especially dignified in itself since it involved a certain inconsistency with policies previously proclaimed or applied. The element of fiction in such circumstances is unavoidable since the Great Power has to be allowed the appearance of consistency in circumstances in which the reality of consistency would be excessively dangerous. Also certain policies—like “rolling back the Iron Curtain” and “separating the combatants”—have a strong element of fiction in them from the start, so that any solution that even purports to be consistent with them must also to that extent rely on fiction.

In the case of Vietnam the proclaimed object of the United States is to protect the South Vietnamese from North Vietnamese “aggression.” If withdrawal is to be achieved with minimum loss of prestige it must be on terms consistent with this proclaimed aim. The following are some of the ways in which the United Nations, within such terms, might help the United States in extricating itself from Vietnam with the minimum of loss of prestige:


(1) Universal cease-fire, supervised by UN observation groups. With US acquiescence the cease-fire could be called for by the Security Council: the US itself could abstain on the vote without imparing its validity, according to well-established precedent, As the US has taken some pride in “never using the veto,” such an abstention would be consistent with a proclaimed principle. The other steps listed below could also be covered by Security Council decision, under Chapters VI and VII of the Charter.

(2) UN census of all external forces now in South Vietnam, including North Vietnamese as well as American, Australian, Korean, etc.

(3) UN-supervised phased withdrawal of all these outside forces, such withdrawals to be on a proportionate basis rather than one of absolute parity, i.e. United States forces and allies to withdraw, say, 10% by a given date, while the North Vietnamese also withdraw 10%; the next stage of withdrawal to follow on reports by the UN observers that the first withdrawals have been satisfactorily completed on both sides.

(4) Elections to be prepared and held under United Nations supervision throughout South Vietnam; evacuation of foreign troops to be completed on both sides irrespective of the results of these elections or of any hostilities which might occur between different South Vietnamese forces.

(5) A United Nations refugee program to make itself responsible, with the aid of member-nations, especially those who have intervened in the Vietnam war, for South Vietnamese not willing to remain in South Vietnam once the evacuation of outside troops has been completed.

A UNITED STATES PRESIDENT willing to take advantage of such procedures could reasonably claim that he had done all in his power to see that the South Vietnamese decided their own destiny without outside interference and on a democratic basis as far as pacific international procedures could secure that. On this basis, evacuation could be brought about not only with a minimum of loss of prestige—even in the crude sense in which Washington now seems to envisage prestige—but with very much more prestige saved than was available to the powers involved in the other exercises I have described.

It may be that the war will in fact come to an end in other ways—for example through some revival of the Geneva Agreement. The United Nations might help to “reactivate” the Geneva agreements, or some combination of a “Geneva” and a “UN” formula could be worked out, probably hinging on U Thant personally. The range of possibilities, granted a will to peace, is very wide. My limited purpose here has been to demonstrate that it is possible for the United States to extricate itself, in an orderly and dignified way, from Vietnam. It could be done through the UN; possibly also in other ways.

It is just possible that the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front might—as a result of Chinese advice or for some other reason—reject the use of the United Nations even for facilitating total withdrawal of American troops and the end of the war. They have in fact hitherto taken a reserved and generally negative attitude toward any efforts for the promotion of a “United Nations solution” of the Vietnam war. This reserved attitude on the part of those who are fighting the United States is understandable: neither North Vietnam nor any South Vietnam government is a member of the United Nations and Hanoi well knows the extent of United States influence inside the United Nations. In these circumstances it is natural for them to be wary of any possible use of the UN for purposes of US propaganda. It is true, for reasons indicated above, that UN cover is not now available to make US intervention in Vietnam appear a “collective security” enterprise, like the Korean war. But even without that, there are possible, though limited, dangers—from Hanoi’s point of view—in “taking the question to the United Nations.”

The US Government might itself deem it expedient to go through these procedures (while maintaining its existing policy) not in order to get a mandate—which it knows would not be forthcoming—but in order to demonstrate, through the processes described above, that “the United Nations is powerless,” and argue that therefore the United States is obligated to act on its own (as Ambassador Goldberg has in fact so argued in advance of such a demonstration). For Hanoi and the NLF to become interested in a UN approach therefore, it would be necessary for them to become convinced that US policy had in fact changed and that the US wanted to use UN procedures not to legitimize their remaining in Vietnam, but to legitimize their getting out. Should this change of policy occur, Hanoi and the NLF would seem to have a clear interest in co-operating in such a use of United Nations procedures.

IT IS WELL KNOWN that the National Liberation Front are quite confident that, in the absence of all foreign troops (even including North Vietnamese troops as foreign for this purpose), they would win fairly conducted elections and, if the present South Vietnamese Government refused to allow such elections, they could overthrow it by force. A United States Government which had decided to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam would in effect have decided to accept and tolerate a change of government in Saigon provided this change was not executed by North Vietnam. It is hard to see why the National Liberation Front, which has shown itself so rational in its strategy, should not avail itself to the full of these possibilities. In this connection, it is fortunate that Secretary-General Thant, by the determination and courage he has shown in the quest for peace in Vietnam, has placed himself in such a position that no reasonable person can regard him as a puppet of any power and that the impartiality of his conduct of the necessary procedures would be generally respected.

If the principal parties were prepared to move on these lines, there is no question but that the overwhelming majority of the United Nations membership—in which in this case all the main elements that make up both the Security Council and the Assembly would be working in harmony—could devise the necessary procedures and provide a framework of international legitimacy for the de-internationalization of the Vietnam war. The procedures in question—with the Secretary-General, the Security Council, and the General Assembly2—moving in concert with the United States for the attainment of a constructive purpose—would be such as to bring home to the great majority of the American people the fact that it had been the conduct of the war and not its conclusion that had been damaging to the prestige and national interests of the United States. For a sizable and vocal minority certainly, this outcome would constitute a betrayal, since it would mean accepting the fact that the South Vietnamese left to themselves would be likely to have a government with at least communist participation.

Outside the ranks of the extreme Right, however, I believe that most people, both inside and outside the United States, would hail a settlement of this kind with relief as a decent end to a dangerous and bewildering involvement. But it cannot happen until a United States government is prepared, in practice as well as in rhetoric, to allow the South Vietnamese to settle their own affairs without outside interference.

POSTSCRIPT: Although the United Nations cannot contribute to a solution of the central problem, so long as American policy remains unchanged, there are ways in which initiatives by groups of member nations could even now help to check further escalation. For example Afro-Asian and other states, in part following the “Sahara” precedent, could introduce a resolution directed against any recourse to nuclear weapons, and specifically referring to press reports that use of such weapons in Asia is contemplated. The United States delegation, in coping with such a resolution, would probably be obliged to give some reassurances to the Assembly, and it would be found damaging to the US Government’s “image” to be seen to disregard reassurances solemnly and publicly given to the world organization. In addition, the resolution—probably in a somewhat watered-down form—would likely be carried, and this also would have to be taken into account by those weighing the arguments for and against using nuclear weapons. The introduction of such a resolution—sponsored by, say, Cambodia, Tanzania, and Sweden and any others with the courage to incur a considerable degree of US displeasure—could therefore have a positive, though necessarily limited, effect in the direction of averting the deepening of the disaster.

This Issue

March 28, 1968