• Email
  • Print

The UN and Its Discontents’: An Exchange

In response to:

The United Nations & Its Discontents from the March 15, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

With reference to two extracts from my forthcoming book, Countenance of Truth, that appeared in The New Yorker last autumn, Brian Urquhart states in “The United Nations and Its Discontents” [NYR, March 15], that “most of the new book has appeared…in The New Yorker, which—quaintly, for a responsible journal—refuses to print critical comments or corrections, even in the case of highly questionable and controversial articles such as these”; going on to say that “Hazzard seems remarkably careless with facts.” Urquhart’s nervous use of the word “seems” is here well advised. As the world knows, The New Yorker, which has no regular correspondence column, does print significant corrections of fact. The magazine also employs a body of fact-checkers whose professionalism I cannot sufficiently praise and whose work on my two pieces concerning the United Nations and the Waldheim case was exhaustive. Urquhart’s readers should be aware that a long letter closely similar to his present article—but without that article’s incongruous opening section—was rejected for publication last autumn by the editor of The New Yorker, who found in it no meaningful corrections of fact to print.

Although claiming to address my forthcoming book, Urquhart has read only The New Yorker extracts and, perhaps, preliminary proofs signalled as incomplete by the publisher, Viking Penguin. He thus singles out as “selective” a quotation that appears entire in my book (the expanded text, however, merely compounding Urquhart’s original distortion). While he complains that I refer to his volume on Dag Hammarskjöld as an “official” study, the word “official” appears fully warranted by Urquhart’s own designation—quoted in my book—of the spirit moving him: “I have, in fact, written the book throughout from the point of view of an international civil servant.” Urquhart further explains, in his foreword, that Hammarskjöld’s trustees gave him “sole access” to Hammarskjöld’s private papers, and that his study “is written mainly from Hammarskjöld’s point of view as Secretary-General.” For most persons, these pronouncements will connote an official, if by no means alluring, category.

Coming upon these figmental objections, I felt that Urquhart’s hands must be calloused from clutching at straws.

Urquhart’s present assessment that U Thant “had a part” in terminating the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is a welcome retreat from his former insistence that the U.N. had, as if by a decisive intervention, prevented nuclear war at that time. In 1982, The New York Times Magazine commented on Urquhart’s unreality in this very matter: “His view of the United Nations as having a major role to play in averting superpower showdowns may strike many as idealized. On the occasions when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war—in the Berlin crises of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962—neither Washington nor Moscow took recourse to the United Nations in any meaningful sense.”

For the U.N.’s ineffectuality—repudiated by Urquhart in his NYR article—in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the reader may consult Urquhart’s own account, in his autobiography, A Life in Peace and War, where some pages on the travels, on that occasion, of Urquhart and U Thant conclude in a brief admission that the cease-fire “ordered” by the Security Council in September of 1965 “did not hold”; and that “in the end it was the efforts of the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, and not the decisions of the Security Council, which achieved at Tashkent in January 1966, a complete ceasefire and withdrawal of forces.” The immediate cause of that conflict—the status of Kashmir—remains unresolved after forty years of U.N. involvement. With respect to Urquhart’s contention that the international relief effort during the chaotic birth of Bangladesh was a “happy” example of U.N. coordination, I need simply point here to Urquhart’s own statement, earlier in his same NYR article, that this episode “displayed the weakness of the system.” A number of published studies of the grave disorders afflicting U.N. relief operations are listed in my book.

In Brian Urquhart’s treatment of all these issues, I find, instead of candor, a mere unmanly eagerness to stay ahead of the game. In almost half a century of employment and association with the United Nations, Urquhart has shown himself—as Alexander Herzen remarked of Lord Palmerston—a keen meteorological instrument, abandoning, as if unstated, a succession of dogmatically asserted but no longer tenable positions and passing over their adverse consequences. That attribute has been especially conspicuous in regard to Urquhart’s performance as chief apologist for Kurt Waldheim’s ten U.N. years. Although he now minimizes his role as “occasionally putting in a good word for Waldheim,” Urquhart acted for a decade as Waldheim’s mainstay with the public and the press—in innumerable public commendations, in writings that included prefaces to Waldheim’s self-serving books, and in busily seeking to neutralize mounting doubts concerning Waldheim’s character and story. While writing now of “the staff that supported” Waldheim, Urquhart is aware that the plight of the U.N. staff under Waldheim was desperate, and that the staff opposition to Waldheim’s misconduct in office was emphatically expressed and amply documented. In Countenance of Truth, I have quoted, also, the recent testimony of Urquhart’s closest senior colleagues, who, far from sharing Urquhart’s favorable view of his former chief, denounce Waldheim’s U.N. leadership as “loathsome.” In 1981, as U.N. staff representatives struggled in vain to bring their predicament under Waldheim to public attention, Brian Urquhart told the press: “In terms of usefulness, not glamor, he’s actually been the best Secretary-General.” It is, frankly, astonishing to find Urquhart renewing, in The New York Review of all places, his praise of Kurt Waldheim.

After Waldheim’s unmasking, in 1986, Urquhart publicly derided Waldheim’s “monstrous ego” and “hide of a rhinoceros”; but he is constrained by his former homage to this disgraceful man, and must shift with that evidence as best he can.

Espousing the themes developed in my writings on U.N. affairs, Brian Urquhart now finds the United Nations “a kind of feudal system” that “cannot respond readily to the great emergencies.” Such admissions come strangely from the foremost advocate of the present structure, who, obdurately hostile to appeals from within and outside the organization, so long labored to foster public indulgence of United Nations’ moral and material failures. Contrary to Urquhart’s statement that no plan has been advanced for a new realization of the internationalist concept, a United Nations study (JIU/REP/85/9) of this very theme has been before the organization, and ignored, for five years.

At the U.N.’s founding, the projected international Secretariat was charged with representing, through defense of principle, the public interest. As no support for that intention could come from the Soviets, every hope for an authentic U.N. civil service rested with the United States, in its then unrivalled ascendancy over the new organization. The capital act in annihilating the concept of an independent Secretariat was the contracting, between the first Secretary-General Trygve Lie and the United States Department of State, of a written secret pact that gave America clandestine control over the composition of the U.N. staff—an illicit control now institutionalized, and eagerly shared, among 159 member governments. It is this basic violation of the United Nations Charter, and the servile acquiescence in it of U.N. leaders, that creates, more than any other single factor, the administrative and operational chaos of the United Nations.

The large archive of that original conspiracy from which, with its McCarthyist consequences, all the Secretariat’s history proceeds, is embodied in the 1949 secret agreement and its contingent documents, in the published record of the purge of the U.N. intelligentsia by McCarthyite bodies abetted by U.N. officials, in the sustained and documented resistance by U.N. staff to that betrayal by their leaders and in the testimony and papers of survivors. All this crucial evidence has been excluded from the record, over decades, by writers on U.N. affairs and, most strikingly, by Brian Urquhart himself. Urquhart’s effort to ascribe Trygve Lie’s resignation—in November 1952, at the height of the scandal over his collusion with the McCarthyist forces—to his position on the Korean War, which dated from June 1950, will provide grim amusement to those who remember the events. (Unfamiliar with the record, Urquhart is also unaware of the account given in Professor James Barros’ Trygve Lie and the Cold War, Northern Illinois University Press, 1989.) When, three days after Lie’s resignation, his legal officer, Abraham Feller, committed suicide, that tragedy was publicly and directly linked—by Mrs. Feller, Trygve Lie, and Ralph Bunche—to the witch hunt and to Lie’s resignation. And even Brian Urquhart will hardly seek, I think, to attribute Feller’s suicide to the Korean War.

Although Brian Urquhart writes of “peace making and peace keeping” in his U.N. years, peace was neither made nor kept in the intensifying world crisis of the past quarter-century. In the years following Hammarskjöld’s death, in 1961, the United Nations’ effort at international conciliation dwindled from an initiative for prevention of conflict to, at best, a hope for a role in the truce or plebiscite agreed by belligerents exhausted by long and terrible wars; and that is its status today. The U.N.’s incapacity even to discuss the Vietnam War and its attendant miseries, to intercede in Biafra or Uganda, to prevent hostilities from running their hideous course in Lebanon, in Iran and Iraq, in Cambodia and Afghanistan, has not, in a context of reduced public expectations, been a focus of indignation or scrutiny, as it should rightfully be. In particular, no thought has been given—even in the wake of the Waldheim exposure and other U.N. scandals—to the inadequacy of U.N. negotiators as a factor in these and many other tragic failures. In the Waldheim decade, United Nations’ potential repeatedly appeared paralyzed by the Secretariat’s obsequiousness to governments, by interior disarray, and by the limitations of U.N. leaders. The organization’s performance in human rights—which Urquhart previously defined as “a fantastic achievement” but now calls “timid, selective, and generally uninspired”—has in fact been unconscionably cruel, with U.N. leaders endorsing abuses that were never, apparently, repugnant to their humanity. The relaxation of East-West tension resulting from last autumn’s momentous events in Eastern Europe owes nothing whatever to the United Nations organization, which fawned on the Soviet tyrants to the last; but arises from Soviet political transformations, and from indomitable human resilience.

Brian Urquhart has stated, as a maxim, his belief that “the worst way to make an argument is by reason and good information. You must appeal to people’s emotions and to their fears of being made to look ridiculous.” His NYR article, with all its conscious and unconscious errors, is presumably an expression of that credo. In the eye of history, however, it will, I think, be those who clung at all costs to official position with its delusive trappings, rather than those who stood by reason and truth, who will “look ridiculous.”

Shirley Hazzard
New York City

Brian Urquhart replies:

Shirley Hazzard’s reaction to my “The United Nations and its Discontents” is strong on personal abuse and vilification, but I couldn’t help noticing that she does not address the major points of the article. Clutching at straws? Yes indeed, and very brittle ones at that. I was also intrigued at the use of the word “incongruous” to describe the part of my article that does not deal with Shirley Hazzard. Presumably this is because it does not fit the stereotype that she seeks to impose on me. “As the world knows,” The New Yorker‘s fact checkers are famous for their diligence. However, their checking of Hazzard’s two articles was not exactly their finest hour, and it is not very sporting of her to hide behind them. Of course I asked The New Yorker to publish comments and corrections, which is a normal practice with serious journals in the free world. Is Shirley Hazzard supposed to be exempt from this practice?

I read Hazzard’s New Yorker articles when they first appeared last fall, and before writing my New York Review article I also studied a bound galley of her forthcoming book. I am delighted to hear that she is scurrying to make corrections in the final publication.

I was amused by Hazzard’s efforts to justify her categorizing of my Hammarskjöld biography as “official.” She knows very well the connotation of “official”—i.e., authorized by an official body, the United Nations. She also knows very well what she wished to convey to the uninformed reader by using that wholly inaccurate word. Her explanation is disingenuous and feeble.

Hazzard seems mostly concerned to refute a number of assertions I did not make. Her method is to switch the ground—for example, from my own remarks about U Thant to a quotation from a 1982 piece in The New York Times about me, which I did not write and had no control over. (The quotation, incidentally, is not so clever either, since it ignores other crises—in the Middle East, the subcontinent, and the Congo, for example—where the UN certainly provided a useful alternative to a superpower showdown. And in the Cuban Missile Crisis, apart from U Thant’s important involvement, Washington immediately resorted to the United Nations, giving rise to the famous debate in the UN Security Council between Adlai Stevenson and Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin.)

On the causes of Trygve Lie’s resignation, Hazzard once again shifts the ground and tries to refute something I did not write. Of course Abe Feller’s suicide was related to the pressures of the McCarthy period—or so one must assume. It may also have been related to Lie’s resignation, although unlike Shirley Hazzard, I am reluctant to play with speculations about a close friend’s suicide. But none of this has any bearing on Lie’s resignation, which took place three days earlier and, according to Lie himself and other contemporary sources, was motivated largely by the Soviet boycott and its effect on his office. I urge readers to try to find a corroboration of Hazzard’s dogmatic assertions to the contrary in the book by Professor Barros that she mentions. Incidentally, there is a full chapter on his resignation in Lie’s memoirs.

On the 1965 India-Pakistan war, Hazzard again shifts the ground. In my article I merely responded to her charge of the Secretariat’s “unresponsiveness” by pointing out that U Thant (and I) went to the subcontinent during the war to negotiate a cease-fire and set up an observer team to monitor it. She answers this by quoting me as saying in my book, A Life In Peace and War, that the cease-fire was later breached, although even Hazzard must be aware that an imperfect cease-fire is a great deal better than a shooting war. She then rambles on irrelevantly about the failure to solve the Kashmir problem.

She is obviously unhappy about my unmasking her bogus account of the UN and the Bangladesh emergency and quotes me as saying that the situation “displayed the weakness of the system.” It did indeed, which is precisely why the success of Sir Robert Jackson in eventually overcoming the weakness of the system and organizing a highly successful relief operation was so noteworthy.

As to Waldheim, I see no reason to repeat what I have already written. I am puzzled, in company with many others, by Hazzard’s overheated but unsubstantiated assertion that the “plight of the UN staff under Waldheim was desperate.” Her reference to the “recent testimony of Urquhart’s closest senior colleagues” that Waldheim’s leadership was “loathsome” is a wonderful example of Hazzard’s penchant for making wildly erroneous statements in order to support her argument. The “colleagues” referred to are presumably. Robert Rhodes James and George Ivan Smith, since she quotes letters to the press from both of them using the word “loathsome.” I know them well, but by no possible stretch of the imagination were they my “closest senior colleagues.” Robert Rhodes James, a fine British historian, was taken on by Waldheim as a speechwriter and researcher from 1973 to 1976. George Ivan Smith was not even working in New York during Waldheim’s ten years in office, but was for a time in the UN’s London Information Center and left the Secretariat in 1973. Closest senior colleagues?

I am taken to task, as is The New York Review, for my “praise” of Waldheim. In my article I cited as examples more than a dozen useful initiatives by Waldheim that Hazzard ignored and continues to ignore in her letter. I refuted her wholesale junking of the historical record of the UN during Waldheim’s secretary-generalship, because I do not accept that her obsessive hatred of Waldheim justifies a total distortion of ten years of history. If this is “praise,” so be it.

It will come as quite a surprise to those who know me or have worked with me to learn that I am “the foremost advocate of the present structure,” and that I am now “espousing the themes developed in [Hazzard’s] writing on UN affairs.” Hazzard’s vast selfesteem and ignorance have again got the better of her here. She evidently has not studied, to take only one example, my book on Hammarskjöld, published in 1972, which describes many of the difficulties of the UN system. Anyone who has worked for forty years to try to improve the UN from within knows very well its defects, and also the great difficulties of improving it. I have written in various forms, including books, UN documents, and articles, on this subject over the years. Hazzard is relatively a latecomer, and not a very original, constructive, or informed one, in this field.

In her pathetic efforts to smear me, Hazzard now includes me in a sort of sub-McCarthyite conspiracy at the UN by alleging that I have “excluded” “all this crucial evidence” about the McCarran/McCarthy period from the “record” in my writings. Because I do not happen to have written a book specifically about McCarran/McCarthy and the UN, does that mean that I have “excluded” crucial evidence from the record? This loony assertion attests only to Hazzard’s desperation. As one who lived with the McCarran/McCarthy tribulations of two close friends (Gustavo Duran and Ralph Bunche), I also find it offensive and impertinent.

Hazzard repeats her assertion that I described the UN’s performance in human rights as “a fantastic achievement.” I was referring, as I have patiently pointed out before, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was indeed a great achievement, and not to the UN’s subsequent uneven performance in this field. She also refers again to an ironic remark of mine about ways to make an argument. The heavy and portentous conclusions she draws from it say more about her lack of irony or humor than they do about my opinions.

Hazzard ends with a long and angry tirade about the UN, once again refuting arguments that I never made, such as that the UN had something to do with recent events in Eastern Europe. As regards the usefulness of the UN, she doesn’t seem to have been following the news recently. Such petulant spoon banging only betrays her frustration at having her thesis demolished, and I shall not waste your readers’ time in responding to it. I suppose that in the absence of serious arguments it was the best that she could do.

  • Email
  • Print