On November 30, 1962, the United Nations voted unanimously to appoint 53-year-old Burmese diplomat U Thant to a full four-year term as Secretary General of the United Nations. The vote in the General Assembly was 109 to 0, with Honduras absent.1
The “U” was not his given name, as such. As his grandson explains: “‘U’ is an honorific in Burmese, roughly equivalent to ‘Mister’ and traditionally denoting a gentleman of some rank.” Respected for his tough neutralism, and marveled for a poker face that the wife of a leading diplomat likened to an “inscrutable Buddha,” and known for a fondness for smoking cheroot and imbibing daiquiris, Thant had played a crucial role in the settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis and had long been involved in the increasingly deep involvement of the United Nations in the Congo. But for over a year his official title had been Acting Secretary General.2
After Dag Hammarskjold was killed in a plane crash in the Congo on September 19, 1961, Thant had been appointed to an interim term on November 3, 1961.
In the November 1962 vote, in addition to the new 4-year term, Thant’s appointment was backdated to November 3, 1961. Thant had requested that the term be backdated so that he could better care for his semi-invalid wife.
Thant was also given a $10,000 per year raise in pay (base pay boosted from $20,000 to $27,000, with an official expense account going from $20,000 to $22,500), along with $15,000 contribution towards the rent and maintenance of their house overlooking the Hudson River in the fashionable Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx, New York City.2
His grandson, Thant Myint-U, later described life in the household:
My parents, both Burmese, had met and married in New York and were living with my grandfather and grandmother in what was then the secretary-general’s official residence, a rambling seven-bedroom red-brick house, partly covered in ivy and set on a grassy six-acre hillside along the Hudson River. On the map it was part of Riverdale, but in most other ways it was a small slice of Burma. In addition to my parents and grandparents (and later three younger sisters), there was always an assortment of Burmese houseguests, who stayed anywhere from an evening to many months, and a domestic staff (all Burmese as well) of nannies and maids, cooks and gardeners as one might expect in any Rangoon pukka home. Burmese dancers and musicians sometimes performed at parties on the lawn. A Buddhist shrine with fresh-cut flowers graced a special area on the first floor, and a constant smell of curries drifted out of the always busy black-and-white-tiled kitchen. The UN security guards at the gate—mainly Irish and Italian Americans—wore uniforms of light and navy blue, but inside the stone walls a Burmese sarong or longyi, even in the Northeast winter, was the more predictable sight.3
Despite the deep respect many held for Thant, his appointment was not a foregone conclusion. The Soviets had been pushing for a new troika system at the head of the United Nations, but in talks with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson, Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, stopping over in New York enroute from Havana to Moscow, was persuaded to back off that campaign and to let Thant’s appointment go forward under the status quo structure.4
- The President of the Republic of Honduras, Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales, was at the White House that day for a state visit. The country’s UN delegation had presumably traveled down to Washington DC for the occasion and therefore missed the General Assembly vote. ↩
- William Fulton, “U Thant of the U.N.–a Tough Neutralist,” Chicago Tribune, 4 November 1962. ↩ ↩
- Myint-U, Thant, The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). ↩
- Alexander Burnham, “U.N. Names Thant for 4-Year Term,” New York Times, 1 December 1962. ↩