VICTORIA, Australia — Much criticism has been written about U Thant, the third secretary general of the United Nations, who died from cancer 25 years ago on Nov. 25, 1974. While some of it may be just, much of it is not.

Journalist Rosemary Righter states in her book, “Utopia Unlimited,” that current U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is “the best secretary general since Dag Hammarskjold.” Righter goes on to say that “U Thant was invisible, (Kurt) Waldheim was a liar, (Javier) Perez de Quellar would not make waves if he jumped out of a boat and (Boutros) Boutros-Ghali was always mouthing anticolonial rhetoric.” She further adds that when Annan became secretary general, some people warned him not to be “a first-year U Thant.”

Leaving the admirers of other secretaries general to defend them, I’d like to know what Righter meant when she said that. One wonders whether Righter heard of U Thant’s pivotal role in bringing back the United States and the Soviet Union from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. The October 1962 incident, which took place 11 months after U Thant was unanimously elected U.N. secretary general, was the most dangerous crisis in the postwar period. When it was over, Time magazine praised his “instrumental role” in averting war.

Upon his death in 1974, Time wrote that “U Thant took over a U.N. on the verge of collapse.” This was not an overstatement. In 1961, the Soviets were boycotting U Thant’s predecessor Hammarskjold and pressing for a troika of secretaries general chosen from the East, West and the “nonaligned” group to head the world body. U Thant successfully neutralized these demands and provided leadership at the U.N.’s greatest moment of crisis.

His dedication to his duties is reflected in the fact that when his only son Tin Maung Thant was killed in a traffic accident in May 1962, U Thant did not attend the funeral, saying that his schedule would not permit him to do so. He was only able to visit his son’s grave two years later in July 1964. In light of his selfless dedication and achievements, striving to be like a “first-year U Thant” would be a worthy goal for any U.N. secretary general.

U Thant also has been the target of considerable criticism concerning his role in the Six Day War, a conflict that he called “the most misunderstood event in U.N. history.”

The June 6, 1967 editorial headline of the London newspaper The Spectator, screamed “U Thant’s war” a day after Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Two weeks earlier, U Thant had, at the request of President Gamal Nasser of Egypt, ordered the withdrawal of United Nations Emergency Forces stationed inside Egyptian territory. The UNEF acted as a “buffer” between Egypt and Israel. The troops had been deployed inside Egyptian territory since the end of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, when the joint forces of Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt following Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. As a result of the agreement between Nasser and the world body, U.N. troops were deployed inside Egyptian territory (Israel refused to allow any U.N. troops to be stationed inside its territory) with the explicit stipulation that the UNEF had to be withdrawn whenever the Egyptian government so requested.

U Thant honored this agreement and, complying with Nasser’s request, ordered the withdrawal of the UNEF in May 1967. For this decision he was savagely criticized by many Israeli and Western diplomats, international lawyers, editorial writers and politicians alike, including a U.S. senator who accused him of acting “like a thief in the night.”

U Thant defended his decision to withdraw the UNEF by pointing out that he was acting strictly in accordance with the mandate negotiated by his predecessor Hammarskjold with the Egyptian government. The epithet “U Thant’s war” is indicative of the unjust nature of some the criticism leveled against him.

It is interesting to compare the criticism directed against U Thant’s handling of the UNEF withdrawal with the comparatively mild criticism that has been leveled against current U.N. Secretary General Annan for his negligence and inaction during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The National Post newspaper of Canada in an Dec. 18, 1999, editorial titled “Sorry not enough,” called on Annan to resign. The National Post wrote that U.N. personnel in the field had warned (by means of confidential faxes) of the possibility of the Rwandan genocide about three months before it took place. The faxes were sent to the U.N. Peacekeeping Headquarters in New York, where Annan was then serving as undersecretary general of peacekeeping operations. Annan chose not to forward the intelligence information from these field personnel to the U.N. Security Council. In light of this, the National Post opined that, “A secretary general of the United Nations cannot accept responsibility for inaction in the face of mass murder and expect to remain in office.”

I do not have any strong opinion as to whether Annan should resign or not, but I believe that it is extremely unlikely that he will step down. Even though the National Post used strong language when it described a statement made by Annan as “misleading to the point of outright dishonesty,” it did not, and rightly so, headline its editorial “Kofi Annan’s genocide” a la’ The Spectator ‘s headline “U Thant’s war.” It would be just as outrageous, sensationalist and cynical to describe the Rwandan genocide as “Kofi Annan’s genocide” as it was to classify the 1967 Middle East war as “U Thant’s war.”

I am not saying that U Thant was flawless. His faults, however, were minimal compared to a number of other public figures who get off much more lightly. U Thant, the only Asian to serve as U.N. secretary general, would be the first to deplore excessive praise of him.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.