U Thant was the third Secretary-General of the United Nations and served from 1961 to 1971. He was chosen to head the world body following the death of the then Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in an air crash in September 1961.
U Thant was appointed Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, with the rank of Ambassador in 1957. As UN Ambassador, he was active in issues of decolonization and was the Chairman of the Afro-Asian Working Group on Algerian Independence. In 1959, he served as one of the Vice-Presidents of the Assembly's fourteenth session. In 1961, U Thant was Chairman of the United Nations Congo Conciliation Commission and Chairman of the Committee on a United Nations Capital Development Fund.U Thant’s tenure as Secretary-General commenced on 3 November 1961, when he was unanimously appointed Acting Secretary-General by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council, to fill the unexpired term of the late Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold. He was then unanimously appointed Secretary-General by the General Assembly on 30 November 1962 for a term of office ending on 3 November 1966.
On the election of U Thant as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, President John F. Kennedy issued the following statement: "The election of U Thant is a splendid achievement in which the whole world can rejoice. Please express the congratulations of the United States Government to the United Nations membership for their action in electing so distinguished a diplomat to succeed the late Dag Hammarskjold. In preserving the integrity of the office of the United Nations Secretary-General, they have reaffirmed their dedication to the United Nations Charter. To Ambassador U Thant, please express my personal congratulations, and assure him on behalf of the people of the United States that as he begins one of the world's most difficult jobs, he has our confidence and prayers."
After the expiration of the first term, U Thant was re-appointed for a second term as Secretary-General of the United Nations by the General Assembly on 2 December 1966 on the unanimous recommendation of the Security Council (resolution 229, 1966). His term of office continued until 31 December 1971.
From his first years as Secretary-General, he placed great emphasis on moving forward the UN’s development agenda, and the 1960s were termed the UN Development Decade. During this time, many new nations in Asia and Africa joined the UN, and U Thant articulated and supported their concerns for a more equitable world economic system.
U Thant received honorary degrees (LL.D) from the following universities: Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada (25 May 1962); Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts (10 June 1962); Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey (12 June 1962); Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts (2 June 1963); Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts (13 June 1963); Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (16 June 1963); University of California at Berkeley, California (2 April 1964); University of Denver, Denver, Colorado (3 April 1964); Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania (8 June 1964); New York University, New York (10 June 1964); Moscow University, Moscow, Soviet Union (30 July 1964); Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario (22 May 1965); Colby College, Waterville, Maine (6 June 1965); Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (14 June 1965); University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada (28 May 1966); Hamilton College, Clinton, New York (5 June 1966); Fordham University, Bronx, New York (8 June 1966); Manhattan College, New York (14 June 1966); University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan (30 March 1967); Delhi University, New Delhi, India (13 April 1967); University of Leeds, England (26 May 1967); Louvain University, Brussels, Belgium (10 April 1968); University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada (13 May 1968); Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts (19 May 1968); Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey (29 May 1968); University of Dublin (Trinity College), Dublin, Ireland (12 July 1968); Laval University, Quebec, Canada (31 May 1969); Columbia University, New York City (3 June 1969); the University of the Philippines (11 April 1970); and Syracuse University (6 June 1970). He also received the following honorary degrees: Doctor of Divinity, The First Universal Church (11 May 1970); Doctor of International Law, Florida International University, Miami, Florida (25 January 1971); Doctor of Laws, University of Hartford, Hartford, Connecticut (23 March 1971); Doctor of Civil Laws degree, honoris causa, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, (30 May 1971); Doctor of Humane Letters, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (7 June 1971).
U Thant retired from the UN at the end of his second term in 1971. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1973 and died in New York on November 25, 1974. He was survived by his wife, Daw Thein Tin, a daughter, Daw Aye Aye Thant and four grandchildren .He was 65 years old. His mausoleum is in Yangon, Myanmar where he is buried.
U Thant was born at Pantanaw, Myanmar, (Burma) on January 22, 1909, and was educated at the National High School in Pantanaw and at University College, Rangoon.
Prior to his diplomatic career, U Thant's experience was in education and information work. He served as Senior Master at the National High School, which he had attended in Pantanaw, and in 1931, he became Headmaster after winning first place in the Anglo-Vernacular Secondary Teachership Examination.
He was a member of Burma's Textbook Committee and of the Council of National Education before World War II, and was an Executive Committee member of the Heads of Schools Association. He was also active as a free-lance journalist. In 1942, U Thant served for a few months as Secretary of Burma's Education Reorganization Committee. In the following year, he returned to the National High School as Headmaster for another four years.
After World War II, U Thant joined the main nationalist party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and in 1946 served as its chief spokesman.
With independence from Britain in 1946, he became the first government’s Director of Broadcasting and in the following year, he was appointed Secretary to the Government of Burma in the Ministry of Information. In 1952, he attended the UN General Assembly as a member of the delegation. In 1953, U Thant became Secretary for projects in the Office of the Prime Minister with additional duties as Executive Secretary of Burma's Economic and Social Board. Increasingly responsible for issues related to Burma’s foreign relations, he travelled extensively overseas. In this role, he helped organize the Bandung Conference of Asian and African leaders in Indonesia in 1955, the precursor to the non-Aligned Movement, and served as the conference secretary.