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Character Sketches: Kurt Waldheim by Brian Urquhart

Kurt Waldheim, the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations.
UN Photo/D. Burnett
Kurt Waldheim, the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations.


I have written about Kurt Waldheim not only because I worked with him for ten years, but also because his story sheds light on many of the peculiarities of international life – the lackadaisical attitude of the most powerful governments toward the United Nations, the triumph of ambition and persistent mediocrity, and the extent to which public figures can, for a time at least, get away with telling lies about themselves.


In 1971 Kurt Waldheim of Austria and Max Jakobson of Finland were the rival candidates to replace U Thant as Secretary-General of the United Nations. I knew Jakobson as a forthright and thoughtful ambassador. I had met Kurt Waldheim several times when he was the Austrian ambassador to the UN, but he had left little impression. The five permanent members of the Security Council, still in shock from the dynamism of Dag Hammarskjöld, had evidently identified Waldheim as someone who would not make waves or rock the boat, and he won the contest.

The UN Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) was established in 1948 – the world body’s first-ever peacekeeping operation – with the aim of monitoring a cessation of hostilities following the partition of Palestine. Over the years, its functions changed, but its military observers have remained in the area, helping prevent isolated incidents from escalating into major conflicts. Due to tensions and violence in the Middle East, Secretary-General Waldheim was a regular visitor to the region throughout his terms. Shown here, the UN chief visits an UNTSO patrol base in the vicinity of Saassa village, near the Golan Heights in southern Syria. UN Photo

Waldheim had little public standing except as an unmemorable foreign minister of Austria, but that did not prevent him, on arrival at the UN, from posing as a world statesman who would radically upgrade the UN and its Secretariat. He was dismissive, even contemptuous, of his predecessors, an attitude that I was not prepared to accept in silence. He evidently regarded me as a representative of the old order which, with his superior wisdom and expertise, he was going to sweep away. I could, of course, have left in disgust, but the UN was my vocation and I had always felt that I worked for the institution rather than for some transient secretary-general. I was also determined to try to carry on the tradition of international service created by Dag Hammarskjold and Ralph Bunche.

At the time, the Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs was a key senior official in the UN Secretariat. Ralph Bunche, who had occupied the post for nearly twenty years, had died three months earlier and had not been replaced, and I was running his office, so inevitably I saw a great deal of the new Secretary-General. Much of the time he was insufferable. (We were exactly the same age). Waldheim had not yet understood the peculiar nature of his new job and routinely blamed his early mistakes on his subordinates, particularly those who had tried to prevent them. He was acutely nervous of governmental criticism or public disapproval.

At one of our early meetings, on the dangerous situation in the Indian subcontinent, Waldheim was particularly rude, in front of a number of other people, to me and one of my colleagues. After the meeting, I told him that, because he was the Secretary-General of the UN, I would never respond to his offensive remarks in front of other people. If, however, he insulted me again in front of others, I would resign and would not hesitate to explain to the press, governments, and anyone else who was interested, why I had done so. Waldheim apologized handsomely, and he was never rude to me again. I like to think that he also began to treat other members of his staff with more respect.

I gradually began to realize that Waldheim had qualities that did not readily present themselves to casual acquaintances or to the public. He was conscientious, hardworking, and had great physical stamina. Once he accepted an idea, he was prepared to follow it up, and he was never too tired to undertake an awkward journey, have an unpleasant interview, or make a difficult telephone call. For his part, Waldheim began to find out who actually did the work in the Secretariat, and on whom he could rely. He also realized that people who disagreed with him might sometimes be right and were therefore more useful than yes-men. He discovered that my office had a lot of experience in running difficult operations, was rather good at it, and that we were respected and trusted by governments.

In 1973, the October, or Yom Kippur, war in the Middle East, a serious enough crisis on its own account, developed into a dangerous potential confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The creation and rapid deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to pin down the very shaky ceasefire between Israel and Egypt seemed to be only practical way to eliminate this threat. When the Security Council called urgently for such a force, we had a plan ready which the Council approved the same day, and we were able to get soldiers on the ground between the Israelis and the Egyptians within 17 hours of the Council’s decision, thus resolving and extraordinarily dangerous international crisis. Waldheim rightly got a lot of credit for this performance. Even Henry Kissinger was impressed. After this episode, Waldheim appointed me to Bunche’s old position as Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, a post that in the normal course of affairs would have been filled by an American political appointee. I greatly appreciated this mark of confidence.

United Nations
Kurt Waldheim: the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations

A look back at some of the highlights of the career of Kurt Waldheim, the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations.


Waldheim worried a great deal about his “image,” as he called it, but his efforts to tackle this problem often made things worse. He was too anxious to get credit and tended to be too accessible to the media, who become bored with the clichés and bland, non-committal statements which are often all the UN Secretary-General is able to say publicly. Because the international position of the Secretary-General imposes strict limits on what he can say to the media, mystery and aloofness, as practiced by Dag Hammarskjold, are often the Secretary-General's best approach. In trying to convince him of this, I once told Waldheim that if the Loch Ness Monster came ashore and gave a press conference, it would never be heard of again, but I don't think he got the point.

Waldheim did not have intellectual interests, and I don’t remember ever seeing him reading a book for pleasure. He was wedded to official life, even to its endless official meals, and he was determined not to be separated from it. In 1976, his first term as Secretary-General was coming to an end, and he desperately wanted to be re-elected. I told him that second terms had not proved happy for his predecessors, but if he wanted one, the best way to get it was simply to get on with his work. This was the last thing he wanted to hear, so he did not include me in his frantic re-election campaign. The prospect of running for office brought out the worst in Waldheim. He seemed to become a man without real substance, quality of character, and swept along by an insatiable thirst for public office. Although it was quite unnecessary, he wooed governments, ambassadors, and the press blatantly and shamelessly. And he was re-elected.

As in previous decades, membership of the United Nations continued to grow. Shown here, Secretary-General Waldheim and senior officials from Djibouti and Viet Nam, as well as the President of the General Assembly attend the flag-raising ceremony at UN Headquarters in New York, marking the two countries admission to the world body – its 148th and 149th members. UN Photo

The last five years with Waldheim were perfectly tolerable as far as I was concerned. I think he really came to care about the United Nations as an institution, as well as about the problems we're trying to deal with. He certainly did well enough for all governments, except China, to wish to keep him on for a third term. Waldheim's efforts to secure a third term far exceeded his earlier campaign. As he buttonholed, cajoled and wheedled everyone in sight, he became a figure of farce. Ministers and diplomats scurried nervously along the corridors, dreading the familiar grasp of the Secretary-General’s hand on their elbow. He was defeated by the Chinese veto.

As the world was to discover later, Waldheim had a flexible way with the truth. When taken by surprise he was apt to make off-the-cuff statements, and when they caused uproar, he would try to deny or alter them. Once in Jerusalem, when he had, after a very long day, publicly referred to that city as the capital of Israel, I persuaded him, with some difficulty, to say simply that he had misspoken, and the story died instantly, but that was an exception. He told a journalist with a tape recorder at the Cairo airport that the Israeli raid to release the passengers of a hijacked aircraft at Entebbe was an infringement of Ugandan sovereignty, as indeed it was. When there was an angry reaction in the United States, he tried for days to maintain that he had been misquoted, thus blowing up a trivial incident into a major story. He would spend hours editing the transcripts of his press conferences and was irritated when I pointed out that one hundred or so correspondents, many with tape recorders, had already heard what he had actually said. Even so, I never suspected that he had also edited the story of his military career.

Waldheim had never been a member of the Nazi Party, but during the war he had served, as had most young Austrians, in the German army. It is hard to understand why he should have lied about the last three years of his military service, as an intelligence officer in the Balkans, claiming that he had been wounded on the Russian front and returned to civilian life in early 1942. United States intelligence had interrogated him extensively about the Balkans in 1945, so the United States had always had the true story of his military career in its files, as had other governments, but they had failed to recall this at the time of his election as Secretary-General. When the story of his misrepresentations came out in 1986 when Waldheim was President of Austria, it was regarded, especially in the United States, which had voted three times for him as Secretary-General, as a scandal and as highly damaging reflection on the United Nations.

Having worked closely with Waldheim and publicly defended him on the basis of his false version of his military career, I felt betrayed and angry, and I said so in my memoirs. In 1995, when I was visiting Vienna, I received word that the former president urgently wanted to meet with me. We met in a gilded room in the Hofburg. Waldheim began to berate me for “unfriendliness,” and I replied that in my whole professional career he was the only person I had worked with who had deliberately lied to me on a matter of importance. It was a sad and unsatisfactory conversation.

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