U Thant (January 22, 1909 – November 25, 1974) was a Burmese diplomat and the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, from 1961 to 1971. He was chosen for the post when his predecessor, Dag Hammarskjöld, died in September 1961.
Thant began serving as acting Secretary-General of the UN on November 3, 1961, when he was unanimously appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council in Resolution 168, to fill the unexpired term of Dag Hammarskjöld. He was then unanimously appointed secretary-general by the General Assembly on November 30, 1962, for a term of office ending on November 3, 1966. During this first term he was widely credited for his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and for ending the civil war in the Congo. He also said that he wanted to ease tensions between major powers while serving at the UN.
In April 1964, Thant accepted the Holy See’s designation of itself as a permanent observer. There appeared to be no involvement of the General Assembly or the UN Security Council in the decision. He received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1965.
U Thant was re-appointed secretary-general of the United Nations by the General Assembly on December 2, 1966, on the unanimous recommendation of the Security Council. His term of office continued until December 31, 1971, when he retired. During his time in office, he oversaw the entry into the UN of dozens of new Asian
. In 1961, when he was first appointed, the Soviet Union had tried to insist on a troika formula of three secretaries-general, one representing each Cold War bloc, something which would have maintained equality in the United Nations between the superpowers. By 1966, when Thant was reappointed, all the big powers, in a unanimous vote of the Security Council, affirmed the importance of the secretary-generalship and his good offices, a clear tribute to Thant's work.
The Six Day War between Arab countries and Israel, the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 leading to the birth of Bangladesh all took place during his tenure as secretary-general.
He was widely criticized in the US and Israel for agreeing to pull UN troops out of the Sinai in 1967 in response to a request from Egyptian president Nasser. U Thant tried to persuade Nasser not to go to war with Israel by flying to Cairo in a last-minute peace effort.
His once good relationship with the US government deteriorated rapidly when he publicly criticized American conduct of the Vietnam War. His secret attempts at direct peace talks between Washington and Hanoi were eventually rejected by the Johnson Administration.
Thant followed UFO reports with some interest; in 1967, he arranged for American atmospheric physicist James E. McDonald to speak before the UN's Outer Space Affairs Group regarding UFOs.
On January 23, 1971, U Thant categorically announced that he would "under no circumstances" be available for a third term as secretary-general. For many weeks, the UN Security Council was deadlocked over the search for a successor before finally settling on Kurt Waldheim to succeed U Thant as secretary-general on December 21, 1971—Waldheim's 53rd birthday—and just ten days before U Thant's second term was to end.
In his farewell address to the United Nations General Assembly, Secretary-General U Thant stated that he felt a "great sense of relief bordering on liberation" on relinquishing the "burdens of office". In an editorial published around December 27, 1971, praising U Thant, The New York Times stated that "the wise counsel of this dedicated man of peace will still be needed after his retirement". The editorial was titled "The Liberation of U Thant".
"U" is an honorific in Burmese, roughly equal to "Mr". "Thant" was his only name. In Burmese he was known as Pantanaw U Thant, in reference to his home town of Pantanaw.
U Thant died of lung cancer in New York on November 25, 1974. By that time Burma was ruled by a military junta which refused him any honors.