United Nations

There was a time late last year when both the United States and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam were willing to involve the United Nations in the Vietnam War. It could have been a modest beginning, but it came to nothing.

On September 20, Secretary General U Thant received through a trustworthy intermediary an inquiry from the NLF. The Front was interested in sending two to three men to the United Nations and wanted to know whether they could get United States visas. Clarifications were requested and an answer to them transmitted to Ambassador Goldbergearly in December. The State Department came forward with a proposal that amounted to a rejection: inasmuch as a decision had been made to refer the Vietnam problem to the UN Security Council, it was up to the latter to issue an invitation to the NLF. In such case the necessary visas would be granted. Every informed diplomat understood as well as Washington that the NLF would never send representatives to the UN at the invitation of the Security Council.

The project was dropped, and the few people who were aware of it thought that Washington had made a mistake. This view became widely held when the facts were revealed in the Washington Post. Among those who knew were most members of the Security Council. The incident contributed to their lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of a UN involvement in Vietnam. The U.S. Mission to the UN was not enthusiastic either, but it had no choice, as the Senate had approved by an overwhelming majority a resolution introduced by Senator Mansfield to enlist the Security Council in the search for peace in Vietnam. The Senate had not considered the possibility that after a bitter debate a majority of Security Council members would support a resolution contrary to the U.S. position. A proposal, for example, that the United States stop the bombing of North Vietnain unconditionally was certain to receive not only the affirmative vote of Communist bloc and neutral nations but even those of several U.S. allies.


This was the third time the United States tried to involve the United Nations in the Vietnam issue and got nowhere. The reason was not a lack of interest, as the general debate at the 22nd Session (1967) of the General Assembly amply demonstrated. One hundred out of 109 speakers dealt with the issue of Vietnam in detail; 44 of them (as compared with 28 the previous year) called for a bombing halt. Many critics charged the United States with aggression in Vietnam and expressed great admiration for the way a small nation of undernourished peasants in black pajamas has stood up to the greatest power the world has ever known. In some cases these views were not expressed publicly, but they influenced attitudes and decisions.

Under the circumstances the UN, on the whole, did not believe it should assume responsibility in the matter. An African diplomat not unsympathetic to the West summed up the feelings of a great many of his colleagues when he said: “The United States got itself into this mess; let the United States get out of it.”

No one at the UN doubted that the efforts by Senator Mansfield were well meant, but it was felt they ignored the mood of the United Nations today. It is because of this mood and the contrasting perspectives it reflects that the world body is unable and unwilling to help Washington out of its predicaments. The Security Council, especially after it grew from eleven to fifteen members, mirrors to a considerable extent the political views prevailing at a given moment in the General Assembly. And the majority in the Assembly is made up of countries from the world’s Southern half, enmeshed in the problems of overpopulation and creeping hunger, bitter because of the failure of nonalignment and the UN’s inability to deal with racism in Africa, convinced that their role in world politics is minimal.

Recent debates in both the Security Council and the General Assembly have indicated a feeling that the chance for a solution at the UN was to be found in an understanding between Washington and Moscow, and that there was no chance in the absence of such understanding. When the superpowers dominate the scene, preventing resolutions from passing, or if passed, from being implemented, most small nations are not inclined to undertake new, bold initiatives for the preservation of peace. This consideration applies with particular force to the problem of Vietnam.

Who represents whom?

There are both theoretical and practical considerations for the widespread desire to steer clear of the Vietnam issue. In 1954, after the French defeat at Dienbienphu, considering that of all the parties directly or indirectly involved only France was a member of the United Nations, it was decided to call a nonUN conference in Geneva. The United States is today in much the same position as France was thirteen years ago. The two Vietnams and Communist China are not UN members; accordingly, Hanoi and Peking refuse to recognize the competence of the UN in the Vietnam issue. Peking’s views are compounded by the fact that it sees what it considers a usurper (the representative of Nationalist China) occupying its seat in the Security Council. In the Council itself two permanent members, the Soviet Union and France, are strongly committed to the view that the UN is not competent to act.

At the time the issue came up for consideration before the Council in 1966, a French diplomat recalled that when the United Nations was involved in the Algerian issue prior to independence, it never proposed specific solutions. It merely debated whether or not it should support independence for the territory, thus implicitly recognizing that it was the responsibility of France and France alone to find a solution in Algeria. Paris never proposed that the UN should come up with some magic formula, nor would the organization have acted if requested to do so.


Washington is probably less aware than the U.S. Mission to the UN that certain subjects are taboo as far as nearly all the African and the Asian and a good number of the Latin-American delegates are concerned. The perspective of these people is different and deeply influenced by the recent history of their countries. For example, while Washington offers assurances of its desire to seek a political solution in Vietnam, it also offers legalistic reasons for the maintenance of its military presence and activities there. But it was with legalism that the great powers in the past justified their hold over the territories of the same countries which today represent a majority in the General Assembly. Algeria was denied the right to seek independence because under French law the territory was an integral part of France. And the word “aggression” has often been spoken by colonial powers to condemn whoever supported movements of national liberation. The new countries have just as often rejected the self-proclaimed “right” of the great powers to “punish” what the latter consider aggression. Today it is Portugal which cries “aggression” because African countries assist Angola and Mozambique in their struggle for independence and are indifferent to Lisbon’s legal definition of the two territories as Portuguese provinces.

The issue of aggression, on which the American case mainly rests, is widely rejected as lacking in logic and pertinence. Third World countries fail to see why efforts by North Vietnam to overthrow a hostile regime in the South should be more of an aggression than the initiatives by the CIA in toppling governments in Guatemala or Iran simply because such governments are considered hostile to United States interests. Nor do they understand why support of the National Liberation Front by North Vietnam should be branded aggressive and not the United States’s role in supporting anti-Castro activists in the military operation that ended in the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Holy war

The United States seems to some UN diplomats to be contributing to the confusion because instead of admitting candidly its strategic interests, it prefers to speak in terms of a Communist menace to the world. Very few Afro-Asian (or for that matter European) countries accept the American thesis that Communism must be contained in Vietnam lest the whole of Asia fall under the dominance of Red China.

U Thant put the problem in these terms: “I have repeatedly stated how wrong it is to regard the war in Vietnam as a kind of holy war against a particular ideology. I have expressed the view that the motivating force on the part of those who are being charged with this ideology is really a strong sense of nationalism, a desire to win their national independence and establish their national identity. It is nationalism, and not Communism, that animates the resistance movement in Vietnam against all foreigners, and now particularly against Americans.”

The countries subscribing to U Thant’s statement — they are a majority, largely silent, baffled, and frustrated — also believe that far from being an aggressor, the National Liberation Front is the only legitimate representative of the people of South Vietnam. This is yet another view which springs in part from their own recent historical experience. It may prove particularly relevant, given Ambassador Goldberg’s assurance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States is willing to accept the participation of the Front in an enlarged Geneva Conference or in any Security Council discussion of Vietnam.

Another parallel with the situation in Algeria prior to independence might be useful. (It must be remembered that Algeria and Vietnam are the only two Third World countries which acquired their independence after a long and bloody struggle.) The war between the Algerian nationalists (FLN) and France could have ended some two years earlier had the Algerians been willing to accept the French contention that the FLN was but one of a number of political forces representing the Algerian people. Furthermore, the new countries remember how during the closing part of the colonial period, puppet governments were set up in a number of territories striving for independence, and the various fronts of national liberation were invited to come to terms with them.


What the United States is willing to consent to today the colonial governments were insisting upon only a few years ago. But today, as then, the “proof” of legitimacy varies according to historical experiences. To most Afro-Asians, a government lighting against foreigners, especially if they are white, is preferable to one that accepts or invites their presence. I have often heard the problem put in these general terms: If North Vietnam withdrew its forces from South Vietnam would the Front of National Liberation collapse? Certainly not. If the United States withdrew from South Vietnam would the Saigon government stay in power? Not another twenty-four hours. Hence the Front is a legitimate spokesman for the Vietnamese people, while the Saigon government is merely an American puppet. All this may sound simple and unsophisticated to countries that have had a long history and a variety of political experiences. To the new countries it is instead the very essence of logic.

The fact that a great many nations are unsympathetic to the American position is only partly responsible for the inability of the United Nations to deal with the Vietnam problem. The decisive factor is probably that the international organization is not in a position to play a positive role. The UN could do either of two things: issue a proclamation of principle or intervene directly to restore the peace. The first alternative would be largely useless, the second unthinkable. The resolutions suggested by the United States, but on which Washington never managed to get a vote, would call for autodetermination and the convening of a conference. Everyone, including the Communist countries, agrees in principle; the irreconcilable differences concern implementation.

In the circumstances, what positive role could the Security Council play? As the French representative put it at the time of the Council’s debate: “The intervention of the United Nations at the present stage . . . would, in our opinion, but add to the existing confusion. In the absence of a real discussion between the parties essentially involved, it could but lead to misunderstanding.” The same point was made with equal force last December when the United States was sounding out Security Council members on the chances of a Vietnam debate.

As to an eventual peacekeeping role by the UN in Vietnam, U Thant’s own philosophy comes into play. He is against committing the organization in a dispute in which a superpower is one of the parties. In this case, both superpowers are parties. Nor will he ever cease to consider the two superpowers’ own views on peacekeeping. The United Nations could overcome without excessive difficulty the opposition of Britain or France, as it did during the Suez crisis of 1956; it would never survive the determined opposition of either Washington or Moscow.

Thus, apart from any other considerations, it is likely that the opposition of the Soviet Union to a UN involvement in Vietnam would be more than sufficient to deter the Secretary-General from suggesting any action. U Thant does not forget that the Soviet views on peacekeeping led to crises that almost wrecked the organization. It was precisely on that score that Nikita S. Khrushchev came to pound his shoe in the General Assembly hall (1960) and that the 19th Session (1964) was prevented from taking any initiatives leading to a vote. The Security Council could of course overrule the Secretary-General on a peacekeeping issue, but it is not likely to do so, at least in regard to Vietnam.

Vietnam, U Thant has said, is a problem for the Vietnamese and the great powers to solve. Should the parties concerned come to an agreement, the United Nations could at that time help implement it. The organization could, for example, take steps to ensure the fairness of an election or a plebiscite.

No exit

For the moment, the UN can provide no exit from Vietnam; it can do little more than exert a moral influence. Most delegates at the United Nations, including the “friendly” ones, take it for granted that whatever opinion they express in behalf of their governments, President Johnson will pursue whatever policy he chooses. Much that comes out of Washington tends to confirm this pessimism. If debates at the United Nations have had some value, it is primarily in showing to Washington that friends and critics alike are unhappy about what we are doing in Vietnam. The former say it was foolish to get involved, the latter that it was unjust and immoral.

Both friends and critics would like to help in ending the war, but what the United Nations can do is not enough, and what Washington would like the United Nations to do cannot be done.

Mario Rossi