Birth of U.N. Leader U Thant

Item #UN974 – “As a Buddhist, I was trained to be tolerant of everything except intolerance.”

U Thant was born in Pantanaw, British Burma, on January 22, 1909.

The oldest of four sons, Thant was born into a successful family of landowners and rice merchants.  After attending Rangoon’s University College (currently called the University of Yangon), U Thant returned to his hometown to teach at the National School and serve as headmaster when he was 25.  During his time there, U Thant befriended Burma’s future prime minister, U Nu.

In 1948, U Nu appointed U Thant as director of broadcasting.  U Thant later spent six years working as U Nu’s secretary, writing speeches, arranging his travel, and meeting foreign visitors.  During this time, U Thant also served as the secretary of the first Asian-African summit in 1955, which led to the Non-Aligned Movement.  Between 1957 and 1961, he was Burma’s U.N. representative and assisted in the negotiations for Algerian independence.

U.S. #1204 – U Thant became U.N. secretary-general after Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash.

Upon the unexpected death of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, the U.N. Security Council unanimously selected U Thant to complete Hammarskjöld’s term in office.  He was the first non-European to ever hold the position.  He was later re-elected to a second term.

During his first term, U Thant helped arrange the negotiations between U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev that helped bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.  And in December 1962, he instituted Operation Grand Slam, which averted Civil War in Congo.

Item #UNG495 – “Every human being, of whatever origin, of whatever station, deserves respect.”

During his ten years in office, U Thant oversaw the admission of dozens of new Asian and African states into the United Nations. He strongly opposed the Vietnam War and the apartheid in South Africa.  Additionally, U Thant created many of the U.N.’s development and environmental agencies, funds, and programs, such as the U.N. University, the U.N. Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the U.N. Environmental Programme.

U Thant also created the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  It was formed in 1964 to give developing countries a place to discuss problems with their economic development. UNCTAD creates policies relating to various aspects of development including trade, aid, transport, finance, and technology.

Item #UNV437 – “Wars begin in the minds of men, and in those minds, love and compassion would have built the defenses of peace.”

And in 1965 U Thant oversaw the creation of the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).  The UNDP uses scientific studies and advanced technology to show each nation’s citizens ways to make use of their natural resources in the most efficient ways possible.

U Thant declined to serve a third term and retired in 1971. He died only three years later.  Despite his contributions to the world, at the time of his death Burma was led by a military government, which refused him any honors.  Tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Rangoon to pay their last respects.

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  1. Too bad the government of the USA did not believe as strongly in the words of U Thant shown under his picture on this page and maybe the unnecessary war in Vietnam would have been averted for the US and the 58,000 gallant servicemen and women killed would have been spared. The memorial to those who served and died in Vietnam are a lasting memory to their service to the USA but also a lasting reminder that so many lives could have been saved to build our country instead of being sacrificed in the name US supremacy in Asia. The great example of those who fell in Vietnam should inspire all Americans to find their way in peace not conflict whenever possible.

    1. Probably correct and if LBJ had lived up to his promise there would have been 50,000 fewer deaths in that misguided war.

  2. This Day in History… January 22, 1909 very good subject for thematic collection on USA history some must compile this article for 365 days and publish in book form
    surendra kotadia

  3. Thank you for this essay on U Thant. He went against the US Military Complex, of which President Eisenhower warned us about during his administration. The VietNam war as with many conflicts is about bringing more money to the greedy and indifferent, who care nothing for anyone but themselves. LBJ and the CIA leaders during that time, have over a million deaths on their heads, 58, 220 who were members of the U.S. Military. Not to mention the 153,303 US soldiers who were injured and the 1643 who are still MIA. RIP my brothers and sisters. RIP Mr. U Thant.

  4. Thank you for this great synopsis of U Thant. There is so much of history that is forgotten or left unsaid and it is great that you see fit to highlight some of it here.

    In the big scheme of things, war never proves anything that is lasting. Too many young men, and innocent civilians are butchered for what? Usually its about some industry, oil, or in the case of Vietnam, Rubber. How many young people would have been able to realize their whole potential and benefitted civilization had their lives not been wasted in various parts of the world. Of course, there are some conflicts that can’t be avoided, and WWII comes to mind, but the world has constantly changed borders as people moved and countries were annexed by their larger neighbor. Who appointed the United States, or for that matter, Russia, to determine a countries right to self determination and the manner in which they wish to govern or be governed. Let the people decide, just as we decided in the 1700’s. If land is what you want, then follow the example of the Louisiana Purchase, or the purchase of Alaska. Do it peacefully. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

  5. Great story! Our world needs more leaders like U Thant to help solve today’s challenges, namely global warming and helping nations get along with each other.

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