View from the UN Analysis


View from the UN

Throughout his youth in a Burma struggling for independence from British colonial rule, U Thant developed a desire to write. He later became a strong advocate of freedom of the press, something he has always defended, and something which has achieved its best expression in View from the UN.

In the book, U Thant evaluates the major world events which occurred during his tenure as Secretary-General of the United Nations and analyzes his role and the effectiveness of the UN’s role in those situations. He also emphasizes his view of the United Nations, pointing out weaknesses and outlining steps he believes must be taken in order to further its mission of peace. He correctly maintains that the book is not a collection of memoirs. The text reads like a history schoolbook; the details of each issue are presented in strict chronological order. U Thant’s experiences as a teacher and headmaster in Burma may explain his pedantic style. Although reading about each resolution and all the minor details of each issue is tedious, it does present the reader with a vivid picture of the difficulties involved in trying to set up negotiations for peace.

The book is not entirely devoid of U Thant’s personal comments. Occasionally he briefly describes meetings with other world leaders. Even when criticizing someone, however, he usually has something favorable to say. Thus, he describes Lyndon B. Johnson as a strong, warm hearted person—before adding that he was “juvenile in his concept of international developments.” But the author’s comments, though interesting, lack feeling; they do not seem to be spontaneous. Furthermore, they do little to soften the textbook mood which prevails.

U Thant deals at length with several major United Nations crises and weaves his ideology through them. While maintaining a surface objectivity, he writes of the need for an independent Secretary-General of the UN, and the need for the major powers to realize that Third World countries need more time to develop into “civilized” nations. He discusses the Middle East problems, major power imperialism, and, briefly, arms limitation talks. U Thant was adamant that the office of Secretary-General should be independent, even though at the beginning of his term, the Soviet Union attempted to employ the Troika system to fill Dag Hammerskold’s seat. The Secretary-General, U Thant said, should have the power to bring up any issue endangering international peace, as well as the power to regulate peacekeeping forces. He refers to the Vietnam conflict and the Cuban missile crisis, where major powers were deadlocked because solving the issue meant compromising national interests. The Secretary-General must truly be an “international” citizen, and U Thant emphasizes the necessity for independence when he discusses the Dominican crisis, the Middle East conflict, and the India-Pakistan war of 1964, in which his autonomy and ability to deal directly, or at least to send representatives, resulted in negotiations for peace.

But perhaps U Thant here underestimates the esteem in which he was held by world leaders. Before coming to the UN, he had had long practice in neutrality: he was not caught up in the political fighting which was rampant in Burma during the first years of independence; and he withstood the various shifts in Burma’s political regimes, even as Secretary to the Government of Burma. At that time he served as righthand man to the volatile Burmese premier U Nu, and was considered to be a buffer between him and his country-men.

The willingness with which other nations called upon U Thant, or the representative he selected to arbitrate disputes, shows that other nations respected his reputation for neutrality. In the India-Pakistan conflict of 1965, for instance, both countries put the question of border dispute to a tribunal hand-picked by U Thant. The tribunal ruled in favor of Pakistan, and although India was understandably unhappy about the decision, Prime Minister Ghandi upheld it. U Thant does not mention whether this incident was a sore spot in the later India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir.

U Thant lists his successes during his term: the Cuban missile crisis and the India-Pakistan war as major successes, the conflicts between the Netherlands and Indonesia, and several skirmishes in the Middle East, Africa, and Indochina, as minor successes. These were due, he says, to the autonomy of his position. He acknowledges, however, that autonomy alone did not help him surmount what he considered his major failures: the Middle East crisis, the Vietnam conflict, the Cyprus-Turkey conflict, conflicts within South Africa, and world recognition, especially by the United States, of the Peoples Republic of China.

Throughout the book, U Thant maintains a “surface” objectivity: he never openly accuses or blames any one person or country for hindering his efforts toward peace. Instead, he sets down the facts as he perceived...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)


America. CXXXIX, October 21, 1978, p. 270.

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1129.

Christian Science Monitor. LXX, July 12, 1978, p. 17.