332. Memorandum by Ralph Bunche of the United Nations Secretariat1

This a purely personal statement. The viewpoints are my own. U Thant has not been consulted about it, nor is he aware of it. The same applies to Adlai Stevenson.

The plight of the United Nations today is desperate; its future is gravely threatened. Never in its history has the Organization been in such dire trouble, the representatives of its Member States so frustrated or its effectiveness so diminished. This critical situation must be weighed against the indispensability of the United Nations if peace is to be saved and the world is to survive in civilized form.

The salient facts of the deep United Nations crisis over the arrears in payments and Article 19 of the Charter are the following:

The General Assembly has been in session for two months but has been unable to take up any of the urgent work on its agenda. Consequently, the United Nations has already suffered a severe loss in both effectiveness and prestige throughout the world; and it could be reduced before long, if the present impasse continues, to a completely ineffectual body which would sooner or later wither away.
The conviction is growing, I believe rapidly, amongst the Members of the United Nations that there is very little basis for hope that an accommodation can be achieved on the issue of the arrears and [Page 725] the application of Article 19 through negotiations at the ambassadorial level here at the United Nations. This unavoidably leads to the conclusion that only the President of the United States and the leaders of the Soviet Union, acting either separately or in direct communication as in the case of the Cuban crisis, can resolve the difficulty and thereby save the United Nations.
Although the problem itself is important in terms of principle and morality, of Charter interpretation and application, it does not affect directly any vital security, political or economic interest of the United States as, for example, Cuba, nuclear testing or Panama would and did, or of France and the Soviet Union.
After prolonged negotiation, the specific issue on which the future of the United Nations now depends is the following:

The Russians, although refusing to admit any legal obligation to pay the special assessments for the United Nations peace-keeping operation in the Congo and in Gaza-Sinai, have stated a willingness to make a substantial voluntary contribution of an unspecified amount which, however, would not be pledged or paid until the General Assembly actually resumes its “usual procedure” (meaning voting) and until assurance is given that the question of the applicability of Article 19 will not be raised during the current session of the General Assembly. But they flatly refuse to disclose to anyone beforehand the amount they intend to contribute. They say to do so would be submitting to unacceptable “pressure”.

The United States, on its part, refuses to accept as good enough the Soviet promise of a contribution, even though publicly declared, since no indication is given of the amount to be contributed and no assurance is provided as to when anything will be paid. The United States insists that at least the Secretary-General and/or the President of the General Assembly must be informed of the amount which the Soviet Union intends to pay and must determine this to be satisfactory in the context of Article 19 before any voting can take place in the General Assembly without Article 19 being invoked. The United States, as Adlai has put it, doesn’t take to the idea of buying a “pig in a poke.”

Almost everyone at the United Nations, Delegates and Secretariat officials alike, has been seeking intensively to find a way out of this dilemma with, regretfully, no success.

I have not the slightest doubt in my own mind about the soundness, legal and moral, of the United States position on Article 19. I have great doubts, however, that the United States position can attract enough votes in the General Assembly to sustain it conclusively. This is because it is almost certain that many member states will abstain on a show-down vote, even though they accept the United States interpretation of Article 19 and are sympathetic to the American position. They would be motivated, I believe, not by lack of courage or principle, but by a conviction that if France and the USSR and other financial delinquents [Page 726] should be actually deprived of their vote under Article 19, they would walk out of the Assembly if not the entire Organization, rather than pay up their delinquencies under what they would consider to be conditions of duress and humiliation. This would reduce the General Assembly, and possibly the whole Organization, to futility, since it would no longer be representative of the main groups of powers in the world.

The membership of the United Nations, of course, is sharply divided over the proper interpretation of Article 19, with a significant number, including France and the Soviet Union, vigorously opposing the American interpretation of the Article. It is not, therefore, an open and shut case.

The United States has made important concessions on the issue. It has gone along with two postponements of the Assembly. It did not force the issue at the outset of the Assembly’s session and permitted it to get partially organized and under way through actions by consensus, acclamation and informal procedure. The United States does not demand actual Soviet payment in advance of the resumption of the formal voting, if a formal pledge of an adequate size is made. It is not insisting that the Soviet Union pay up to the very last cent of its arrears. The United States has also declared its wish to avoid a confrontation on this issue.

The Soviet Union contends that it also has made important concessions, but can go no further. Soviet spokesmen assert that the original Soviet position, as stated emphatically to U Thant by Mr. Khrushchev himself last August, was that the Soviet Union would pay “not one kopek” to the United Nations for the “illegal” United Nations peace-keeping operations. Subsequently, the Soviet Union agreed to make a voluntary contribution for an amount which would not be disclosed until the Assembly resumed its normal procedure. Later still, the Soviet Representative indicated that this would be a substantial contribution; and then announced it publicly. A Soviet contribution of any amount in this context does, it would appear, compromise the original Soviet position. He also agreed to the postponements of the Assembly and he claims to wish to avoid a confrontation on the issue.

There are not a few at the United Nations who reason that the present paralysis of the General Assembly suits quite well the inner policies of the Soviets in that they have always favored the Security Council with its veto over the Assembly, and therefore they could be only happy at seeing the United States at least sharing the blame for the Assembly’s plight, if not taking the major part of it.

Contrary to popular notion, no formidable sums of money are involved. The United Nations indebtedness to Governments and for [Page 727] replenishing the Working Capital Fund, other than the unamortized principal of the United Nations Bonds, amounts to 86.7 million. Of this amount, $6,642,000 is owed to the United States, principally for the Congo operation. A contribution of $21.7 million from the Soviet Union would meet the existing requirements of Article 19. This is not primarily a financial problem, therefore, although because of the impasse over this issue of Article 19 the United Nations is in most serious financial shape.

It is tragic that the bright future of the United Nations should thus be darkened by an issue that derives from its past. The arrears relate primarily to the huge Congo operation, which is over, since the United Nations Force left the Congo at the end of last June. The Gaza-Sinai Force remains, but is not very costly. There is ample reason to believe that agreement between the United States and the USSR on future peace-keeping operations and their financing could be reached in time once the issue of the arrears on past operations would be settled. France, presumably, would then come along, albeit reluctantly.

In the prevailing circumstances, there would seem, on this issue to be mainly the following courses of action open to the United States Government:

To proceed to a direct confrontation on the issue in the Assembly, bearing in mind, however, that any clear-cut “show-down” on this issue is unlikely since it is certain to become enmeshed in an endless and acrimonious procedural wrangle, with confusion compounded by the injection into the debate of a multitude of inefficacious proposals for solution of which there is already a profusion. Moreover, the voting, when ultimately reached, would almost certainly be inconclusive in resolving the issue, which-ever way it went—and it might well go against the United States because of the necessity of mustering a two-thirds vote.
To accept, although not initiate, another extended postponement which, however, may not hold much promise while holding the United Nations up to ridicule, unless the purpose would be to afford an opportunity for a direct appeal to the President of the United States and to the leaders of the Soviet Union to collaborate in finding a solution.
To adopt a possible “summit” approach to the Soviet Union, with a view to a dialogue between the President and the Soviet leaders, as there was between Kennedy and Khrushchev in the Cuban crisis.
To test the good faith of the Soviet Union on its promise of a substantial contribution by announcing a willingness, in the interest of preserving the United Nations and reviving the General Assembly, to accept the Soviet announcement of their intention at its face value and act accordingly. This would mean agreeing, before the Soviet contribution is actually made or formally pledged, not to invoke Article 19 for [Page 728] the rest of the nineteenth session of the General Assembly. There would, naturally, be those who would decry such a course as a “surrender” to the Soviet Union, particularly if the Soviet contribution should then turn out to be not substantial enough to be satisfactory in the context of Article 19. But there would be many others, including, I believe, the overwhelming majority of the Members of the Organization, who would consider this to be an act fully justified by its purpose of salvaging the international organization, and who would see it as a gesture of magnanimity and statesmanship worthy of the richest and most powerful country in the world. There can also be little doubt that the Soviet Union would be the target of severe disfavor from the overwhelming majority of the Members of the United Nations should it not then live up to the expectations aroused by its promise to contribute.

In taking such a step, the United States could, in fact, largely cover and safeguard its position on Article 19 by an explanatory statement which could include all necessary reservations and which could emphasize that from the beginning the sole purpose of the United States in raising the issue of Article 19 has been to protect the Charter and the strength of the Organization in its peace-keeping role, and that its present step is a continuation of this policy. At the worst, the United States would be holding up on Article 19 only until September, when the next session of the General Assembly convenes. The principle of collective financial responsibility should, naturally, be strongly reasserted. The supporters of the United States position would need to be consulted so as to avoid any feeling by them that they were being “let down”.

Fully recognizing the risks in pursuing this latter course, I would nevertheless think it worthy of serious consideration.

The United Nations unquestionably has been, and will be further, weakened because some of its members fail to meet their Charter obligations by refusing to pay some of the assessments due. But the very nature and existence of the United Nations is rooted in the fact that some states, members as well as non-members, cannot always be relied upon for good and honorable conduct. The “good guys” seem always to carry more than their share in any organization or institution, domestic and international alike. Moreover, it is only realism to face the fact that a United Nations, even with some delinquent members, particularly if these should be France and the Soviet Union, is still preferable by far to no United Nations at all, or to an ineffective one, as it would surely be without those two countries.

The domestic political repercussions to the suggested course would probably be strong, at least for a while. For even in the United States today, magnanimity can be mistaken for weakness and statesmanship for lack of nerve. In this case, however, so much is at stake that risks of some kind are not only inescapable but justifiable. After all, twenty [Page 729] years of achievement and advance in international organization and order, as well as the future effectiveness of the United Nations, are in serious jeopardy over an issue which does not directly affect the vital interests of any of the countries mainly concerned.

It would not avail very much to save the Charter and lose the Organization.

Ralph J. Bunche
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, United Nations, Article 19, Vol. 2. No classification marking. The memorandum was given to Bill Moyers of the White House staff who forwarded it to President Johnson on February 5. (Memorandum from Moyers to Johnson, February 5; ibid.) The President passed the memorandum to Bundy. In a March 2 memorandum to the President, Bundy commented, “I don’t think there is anything for us to do on this one right now.” (Ibid.)