Brief Glimpses of Memoirs of UN Secretaries-General

Dr Myint Zan

The nineteenth of January 2021 (using the historic present tense) is the 101st birthday of the fifth Secretary-General of the United Nations the late Javier Perez de Cuellar (19 January 1920-4 March 2020) and 22 January 2021 is the 112th birthday of the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, the late U Thant (22 January 1909-25 November 1974). On the occasion of the birthdays of two distinguished late Secretaries-General of the United Nations, this writer would like to provide brief glimpses of the memoirs of six former Secretaries-General that he has read.

Pilgrimage for PeaceIn the Cause of Peace (the 1st UNSG’s memoirs)

The first Secretary-General of the United Nations was Trygve Lie (16 July 1896-30 December 1968) of Norway. Trygve Lie (pronounced ‘Lee’) served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 2 February 1946 to 10 November 1952.  The first UN Secretary-General (UNSG) became the first and so far the only UNSG to resign from office.

A little over a year after his resignation in 1954 Trygve Lie published his memoirs In the Cause of Peace: Seven years with the United Nations. In the book, the first UNSG recounted how he became Secretary-General, his re-election as Secretary-General for a second  term in  November 1950 and how the  delegates from the then Soviet Union  boycotted him by not attending Security Council meetings which he presided in most of the year 1950. The continuation of the sustained attacks against Lie by the Soviets,  among others,  led to Lie’s resignation in November 1952.

I borrowed and read In the Cause of Peace from Monash University library in Melbourne, Australia, while I was studying for my post-graduate degree in law in mid -1979. In mid-2005 I bought a copy of the book online. In Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia I read it for the second time in its entirety.

The second UN Secretary-General was Dag Hammarskjöld (29 July 1905-18 September 1961). Hammarskjöld was the only UNSG  to die in office and in tragic circumstances too when the plane carrying him for negotiations in the Katanga-Congo conflict crashed in Ndola in (what is now) Zambia. Since he died in office unlike all other Secretaries-General who resigned (Lie) and others who retired after their terms Dag Hammarskjöld never had the chance to write the memoirs of his UN years.

The book Markings was selections from his diary between 1925 to August 1961 and was not a memoir as such. Still, when I visited the United Nations headquarters in New York in December 1981 at the book shop, I did not find copies of the memoirs of the late former UNSGs Trygve Lie and U Thant but copies of Markings were available for sale.

View from the UN (the 3rd UNSG’s memoirs)

Dag Hammarskjöld was the only person in Nobel prize history who was posthumously awarded a Nobel peace prize. One of the nominators for Hammarskjöld’s  Nobel peace prize was U Thant  of Burma who on 3 November 1961 became the third (initially  ‘Acting’) United Nations Secretary-General. On 23 January 1971 11 months before U Thant’s second term as UNSG was scheduled to end U Thant categorically stated that ‘under no circumstances whatsoever would he served a third term’.

In a news conference in September 1971 U Thant also  categorically refused to serve even for an extension of a few months if the UN were not able to find his successor by the end of December 1971. As it was, on 21 December 1971, ten days before U Thant’s  tenure was scheduled to end the UN Security Council (UNSC) recommended Kurt Waldheim (21 December 1918-14 June 2007) to be the fourth Secretary-General.

In his posthumously published memoir View from the UN (1978) (which I read the same year at the US Embassy library in Rangoon since the book could not be borrowed) U Thant wrote that as soon as he knew that a successor was named he telephoned his family to inform them of his ‘liberation’. Indeed in his farewell address to the United Nations (according to the editorial of the New York Times of  29 December 1971   ‘The Liberation of U Thant’) U Thant stated  that he ‘felt a sense of great relief bordering on  liberation on  laying down the burdens of office’.

View from the UN was translated into Burmese with the title ကုလသမဂ္ဂပေါ်မှ အမြင်.(It could be profitably shortened to ကုလသမဂ္ဂမှ အမြင် without the  word ပေါ်. U Thant’s memoirs cover, among others, how he was elected UNSG, his successful efforts in bringing back  the United States and the Soviet Union from the ‘brink’ (of possible nuclear war)  during the Cuban missile crisis, his efforts to end the Vietnam war  from the mid-1960s to early 1970s, the invasion by the United States of  the Dominican Republic in April 1965 and of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in August 1968.

The second last Chapter of U Thant’s memoirs concludes with this sentence (which I recall from memory) that at the last session of the UN General Assembly which he attended as Secretary-General QUOTE I closed my eyes and meditated. I prayed for the success of Mr Waldheim and the United Nations UNQUOTE.

In the Eye of the Storm the 4th UNSG’s memoirs

Dr Kurt Waldheim  of  Austria became the fourth UNSG on 1 January 1982, and he was UNSG till 31 December 1981. (Subject to correction with evidence, to the extent that this writer is aware, Waldheim and the 6th UNSG  Boutros Boutros-Ghali,  were the only two UNSGs who obtained  earned doctorates from a recognized University by submitting theses which Waldheim did at the University of Vienna in 1944 and Boutros-Ghali obtained his doctorate from the University of Paris in 1949).

In striking, indeed embarrassing contrast to U Thant Waldheim, in 1981, ‘unashamedly  campaigned’ for 3rd term as UNSG. Only the veto by the People’s Republic of China 16 times prevented this former Nazi (albeit arguably in minor posts) from being embarrassingly elected to be UNSG for a third term.

Waldheim’s In the Eye of the Storm: A Memoir  (1986) (which I read in Melbourne, Australia around 1998) of course did not mention his Nazi past which only surfaced around 1987 during the time (post-UN ‘forced retirement’) he was the President of Austria.  Waldheim eventually was barred from entering the United States. Somewhat immodestly or at least theatrically Waldheim wrote that he was after all ‘a spokesman for humanity’. Dr Waldheim (as well as, one should add) Dr Boutros-Ghali deemed it fit to mention in their memoirs that they received ‘standing ovations from the UNGA’ on the occasion of their forced retirements.

As far as I can recall, in their memoirs, none of the other UNSGs deemed it necessary to mention about the standing ovations they had received on the occasions of their retirements.

Pilgrimage for Peace: The 5th UNSG’s  Memoirs

When the late Perez de Cuellar of Peru was elected as 5th UNSG  in December 1981 he, like three of his illustrious predecessors, (bar one) Lie, Hammarskjöld, U Thant did not seek far less campaign for the UNSG post. Perez like U Thant also refused to serve a third term as UNSG. (I recall reading in Time magazine when Perez was elected as UNSG that  commentators  favourably compared him to the ‘self-effacing U Thant’).

Perez de Ceullar’s Pilgrimage for Peace: A Secretary-General’s Memoir was published in 1997. I read it in Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia in 2005. As a non-assuming person, Perez modestly  wrote that as English was not quite even his second language, his expressions may not always be ‘felicitous’ (not Perez’s  exact statement  but my paraphrase).  ‘Mischievously’ I have written ‘it shows’ in the margins. (I think Perez wrote to the effect that English was his third language after Spanish and French: all three are official languages of the UN).

Perez’s memoirs cover among others the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina which occurred in June 1982 within months after he became Secretary-General. It also deals with the 1991 Gulf War, and though I do not recall him writing in his memoirs I clearly recall hearing on radio Perez stating after the 1991 Gulf War broke out that it was ‘not a United Nations war’.

Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga the 6th UNSG’s Memoirs

Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali (14 November 1922-16 February 2016) of Egypt became the sixth UNSG on 1 January 1992 after Perez (like U Thant) refused to serve a 3rd term. Just as Trygve Lie the first UNSG was the first and only one to resign and Dag Hammarskjöld was the only UNSG to die in office, Boutros-Ghali was the only UNSG not to be elected to a second term. I read his memoirs Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga (1999) in Melbourne, Australia in 2000.

Of all the UN Secretaries-General memoirs (six of them) which I have read in their entirety, Boutros-Ghali can be said to be the most ‘bitter’. At the end of his second term in late 1996, Boutros-Ghali received the support of 14 out of 15 members of the United Nations Security Council for a second term, but the veto from the United States (under the Clinton administration) made him the only UNSG, so far, to be denied a second term.

The ‘beneficiary’ of the  then US administration’s ‘cussedness’ or at least persistency was  the late Kofi Annan (8 April 1938-18 August 2018) who became the 7th UNSG. Annan was also  the only living UNSG to be awarded the Nobel peace prize  in 2001.

Boutros-Ghali’s bitterness was directed to the then United States administration and specifically then US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright (born 15 May 1937). Albright’s was eventually successful in her efforts (or almost ‘machinations’) in the UN Security Council to deny  him a second term – a particular aspect of the ‘US-UN saga’ which Boutros-Ghali discussed in a few dozen pages.

Other aspects of the US-UN saga deals with the Somalia crisis (or is it US-UN imbroglio?)  of 1993 and the Yugoslav crisis which  Boutros-Ghali tried to solve only with limited success.

I wrote a review of Unvanquished in 2000 (27) Journal of Malaysian and Comparative Law, page 313.

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace, the 7th UNSG’s Memoirs

Kofi Annan (of Ghana) was the seventh UNSG. Kofi Annan   and Nader Mousavizadeh’s Interventions: A Life in War and Peace was first published in 2012, and I read it in 2013 in Malacca and Yangon.

It covers not only the Annan’s ‘interventions’ as UNSG but his post-UNSG efforts. Annan published another book We the Peoples: A UN for the 21st century in 2014 but to me with one exception (see below) a single memoir of a former UNSG is (quite) sufficient.

Scheduled Publication of Resolved: United Nations in a Divided World, the 8th UNSG’s Memoirs

Ban Ki-moon (of South Korea) (born 13 June 1944) retired as eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations on 1 January 2017  after serving like (four of his predecessors) 10 years as UNSG. According to website Ban Ki-moon’s memoirs Resolved: United Nations in a Divided World is scheduled to be published on ‘15 June, 2021’.

Request/Query Regarding U Thant’s Unpublished Manuscripts

But back to our very own U Thant. Although I do not have a copy of View from the UN with me, currently  I do recall reading in a preface written by the late Dr Tin Myint-U (son-in-law of U Thant and father of historian and author Dr Thant Myint-U)  that U Thant’s unedited manuscript has been deposited with   the archives of the United Nations and that U Thant’s last days (before he passed away on 25 November 1974) ‘were filled with great emotion as he had begun but was unable to complete a manuscript entitled Ethics for Our Time’.

If possible the writer submits that U Thant’s ‘un-shortened’  View from the UN manuscript (I recall reading in Burmese that U Thant had to hire an editorial assistant to ‘cut’ his manuscript to around 100,000 words) and Ethics for Our Time (if that is some what more than several dozen pages) should be published. If they had been published the writer would appreciate being informed of the source or if they are on line ‘the link’ where they can be read.

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