U Thant Reexamined
To the Editor:
. . . Professor Morgenthau based his rather sharp and not undeserved criticisms of U Thant [“The New Secretary-General,” January] on a speech delivered at Johns Hopkins December 2, 1962. I want to discuss U Thant’s neglected press conference September 17, at the opening of the General Assembly session while he was still the Acting Secretary-General in the hope that we may better understand the motivations and intellectual derivations of the new U.N. Secretary-General.
Newspapers, by tradition, report “hard news.” In the case of U Thant’s press conference, this meant those statements dealing with then current crises, so that his philosophical speculations . . . went generally unnoted. Had his obiter dicta been properly discussed at the time, we should not be as surprised about U Thant as Professor Morgenthau seems to be. . . .
I have the official U.N. text of the press conference before me, having covered it as a U.N. correspondent. . . .
One must forgive the verbal dislocations inherent in diplomatic discourse, for there are things a diplomat must say that are improbable, implausible, or untrue. Thus U Thant, having just returned from visits to the USSR, the Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Brazil, and the U.S.A., said that he had received “one indelible impression, that all Governments want the United Nations to perform as its founders wished it to . . .,” that “the United Nations should develop into a really effective instrument for the promotion of peace and the prevention of war.”
“They differ only in the organization and procedural aspects of the functioning of this Organization,” he added, which is like saying that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis agreed on the need to maintain the Union but differed over ending slavery. But this is diplomatic language. . . .
He then moved on to define the world today and its relationship to his candidacy. He would consider running for the office depending on “the prospects of my ability to bridge somewhat the gulf between the two giants,” namely the U.S. and the Soviet Union. His next statement . . . confirms Professor Morgenthau’s characterization of him as “a kind of superego in the conduct of foreign policy.” “. . . In the shadow of the hydrogen bomb, we. . . I mean particularly the people from small countries must bend all our energies to bringing about conditions for the easing of tension, for the elimination of the fear and suspicion . . . in existence for so long. I think that I reflect the conscience of the whole world when I say that.”
Now, obviously, when U Thant talks about “small countries” . . . he is talking about ex-colonial territories in Asia and Africa whose existence is threatened by the “two giants.” . . . U Thant, it would seem, regards himself as the representative of “small countries” (you could fit eighty Hollands or eighty Belgiums into one Sudan), certainly not the “two giants.”
A reporter then inquired about Cuba, its fears of American invasion, and whether he foresaw the need of initiatives to safeguard peace in this area. U Thant replied that “. . . my own belief is that the United States will not attack Cuba and that Cuba will not attack the United States.” Then an obiter dictum—“Most Americans have been restless for some time in the past two years at the presence of what they [my italics] regard as hostile elements just ninety miles off their coast.” He recalled that at Communist Party Congresses in Eastern Europe “some sort of European Monroe Doctrine was adopted and reiterated.”
“You will no doubt recall that most of the Russians,” he said, “also have been telling the world that elements they regard as hostile have been just across their frontier for seventeen years. Of course it is far from my intention to equate these two positions. I am just stating the facts as I see them.”
The facts, in this instance, are half-facts since within these seventeen years Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania became victims of Soviet aggression. . . . He said he did not “believe for a moment that it is the intention of the big powers to launch aggression,” . . . and he called upon “wielders of mass media like you . . . not only in this country but in the Soviet Union and elsewhere to present the true facts objectively and fairly.”
The most seriously “disquieting” (to use Professor Morgenthau’s adjective) statement by U Thant came . . . when he reverted to . . . what he called “my line of thinking.” He believed “very strongly in the Hegelian concept of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis, and . . . in the march of humanity towards a synthesis.”
This is not the place to discuss U Thant’s understanding of Hegel. . . . But it is from such philosophical pieties that he concludes that because religious tolerance, once regarded as a sin and a crime, is today accepted, political tolerance will surely come.
U Thant then delivered a fervid affirmation of his faith in “parliamentary democracy [as] the only type of society which is congenial to the growth of human freedom, human happiness and human genius.” . . .
“I believe in these freedoms but this belief . . . does not shut me off from the knowledge that there are hundreds of millions of people who believe otherwise. I am absolutely aware of this fact.”
Does U Thant truly believe that “there are hundreds of millions of people” who have repudiated his catalogue of human freedoms? Or that these “hundreds of millions,” whether Russians, Tibetans, Chinese, Hungarians, Spaniards, or Cubans have willingly surrendered their faith in that freedom? . . . And how can he be so “absolutely aware of this fact” when the “votes” taken on this issue—East Germany, 1953 and 1961; Poznan, 1956; Hungary, 1956; Tibet, 1959; Spain, 1962—have shown the contrary to be the case? . . .
As a Buddhist, he continued, he believes Buddhism to be “. . . superior to other religions” but was not blind to the fact “that there are hundreds of millions of people who believe otherwise.” The peaceful coexistence of different religions becomes the basis for a comforting prophecy about the course of Communist totalitarianism. . . .
U Thant cannot condemn Communism or any other form of totalitarianism while he is the servant of member nations whose very presence at the U.N. makes a mockery of the Charter. But in equating the “two giants”; in imputing some higher nobility to “the people from small countries”; in fashioning political sermons out of Hegel; in writing off “hundreds of millions of people” as deficient in any desire for freedom and human dignity; in ignoring the imperialist drive of Communism outlined in Khrushchev’s January 6, 1961 “national liberation” speech; in envisioning the possibility that the press in a totalitarian state can “present the true facts objectively and fairly”; in saying that everybody, aggressor and victim, has a right to his “Monroe Doctrine”; and in his avowal, as Mr. Morgenthau showed, that the West errs in not appreciating the new, peace-loving Khrushchev—U Thant is demonstrating a naïveté, a credulity, a moral simplicity which can only make suspect present and future U.N. policies.
In conclusion, U Thant said he belonged to the school which maintains that “the United Nations should develop into an organic thing; should get stronger and stronger so that ultimately it will assume the attributes of a sovereign State.” The other school, he said, “maintains that the United Nations should be just a forum for debate. . . .”
For the moment, I shall opt for the debating forum.
New York City
To the Editor:
It seems to me that Hans J. Morgenthau’s judgement of Mr. U Thant. . . is simply an account of how Mr. Thant’s philosophy conflicts with the author’s own views. This is hardly an objective criterion. . . .
I feel that Mr. Morgenthau’s reaction is a subjective one because reading these same statements of Mr. Thant . . . my reaction is one of accord and renewed hope. To me it is cause for encouragement that Mr. Thant has the courage to take a stand in the middle of the world arena. From this perspective he does not look upon the United States as we are accustomed to look at ourselves, nor does he reflect the image of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as they prefer to see it. . . In attempting to assess the ability of a man to play the role of the U.N.’s Secretary-General, the capacity to be autonomous would seem an important qualification. . . .
(Mrs.) Elizabeth B. Little