Brian Urquhart is a unique public servant, and in several ways. He is the only living person to have served in senior political positions in the Secretariat of the United Nations from its beginnings in 1946; he has, more than anyone else, been responsible for the success the UN can claim in organizing forces to keep the peace in Cyprus, the Middle East, and Africa. Yet among all the “realists” who run governments today, Urquhart has remained a man who insists that moral principles must count in the affairs of the world, and that decent behavior toward the powerless, the poor, and the homeless would advance the interests of nations further than the hard-headed Realpolitik they usually espouse. There is, I think, a danger that his moving and beautifully written memoir will be read with respect and a knowing regret that, with few exceptions, the world powers did not behave the way the author would have wished. After dutifully praising him, the “realists” are likely to ignore his experience and turn back to their preoccupation with short-term competition for power. Urquhart’s book will have been read as the reflections of a nice, frustrated gentleman of good intentions who was condemned to live among savages.

On the evidence of his book, Urquhart was often frustrated and defeated, but he was never simply well-intentioned or “nice.” There is no nastiness but much anger, coolly controlled, in his book. To him, the trouble with acting morally is not that it has not been tried, or that it sets an impossible, prophetic standard for human action. In one political crisis after another, successes happen when people act with decency and disinterest; the failures have most often been brought about by the narrow-minded “realists.” Urquhart’s book is a passionate indictment of the holders of power for having failed to achieve even their own aims, of the geopoliticians of both superpowers who have maneuvered to strengthen their blocs but who have failed for the last forty years to achieve the peaceful relations and cooperation in solving conflicts that would clearly be in their own interest. The relations among the great powers have remained static, while the wars, and the alarms of wars, on the periphery have been very costly. The only international crises that have been resolved to the benefit of everyone, including the geopoliticians, have, in Urquhart’s view, been those in which the “realists” meddled least. After forty years at the United Nations, he is more persuaded than he was at the beginning of his career that virtue is its own reward; even for the selfish, it is a far more effective political principle than self-interest.

Sometimes Urquhart seems to be on the verge of writing satire. The sensibility that emerges in his prose owes something to the tone of Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal. What fashioned this sensibility? Urquhart is reticent about his personal life, except in the opening pages, where he gives a candid and immensely moving account of his childhood. His father abandoned Urquhart’s mother, leaving her to provide for herself and for two small boys. His childhood memories are those of a poor relation of well-connected businessmen and professionals. He won a scholarship to Westminster School, the boys’ school in London that is part of the Abbey, where he took part in the coronation of George VI. Even the “skeptical, rather left-wing adolescent” he was at that time became “totally involved in the mystique of the occasion.” He was among the King’s Scholars in the balcony of the Abbey who shouted vivats at the climactic moment, when the crown was placed on the king’s head, as the “incantations of organ, trumpets, and choir soared and resounded through the vast space.”

Urquhart has not remained an Anglican, as he was taught to be at school, and he has no formal ties to the stern nonconformist Protestantism of his mother. But he has never lost the code of behavior he absorbed at home and at Westminster School. He opens his book by recalling, “My mother’s favorite word was ‘worth-while.”‘ Of his days at Westminster School, he writes:

What I did not realize at the time, and what the experience of the war increasingly brought home to me, was the extent to which I had absorbed, without knowing it, the ethos and the standards of an ancient English school. Those daily services in Westminster Abbey with ringing Anglican church music and the superb language of the prayer book, the exhortations of the masters about conduct and civility, the spirit in which games were played, and the code of conduct which governed our relations with each other were all things we had mocked, but in the end the laugh was on us. Most of us went out from Westminster with an ingrained idea of the concept of service. A lifetime later I can still quote, at the risk of seeming priggish, the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola which we said every week in the Abbey and which seems to me, even for the non-religious like myself, to state the concept of service in its best form:

Teach us, good Lord, to serve thee as thou deservest;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labor and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do thy will….

I never thought about it when I was young, but later, in times of stress or trouble or danger, I heard the prayer in my head and took a lot of comfort from it.

Urquhart’s school days, if we are to understand schooling as a preparation for life, ended during the Second World War. He had enlisted from Oxford before completing his degree, and for the first few years of the war he was indistinguishable from hundreds of other patriotic young officers. He was transformed by his part in the Battle of Arnhem.1 The British army, under the command of General Montgomery, was stalled in late 1944 on the northern end of the front. An airborne attack to capture the bridges over the Rhine would, it was thought, end the war in one brilliant assault (to the glory of Montgomery). Urquhart was then the intelligence officer of the Airborne Corps, which was to carry out the attack. The British top brass were panting to launch the operation and Urquhart was alone in his conviction that it would fail. The German army, even in defeat, was no pushover for lightly armed airborne invaders who were to be dropped beyond their air cover and with no certain routes of supply.


Urquhart’s objections were resented and he was sent home, since his dissenting presence was embarrassing. In ten days he was recalled. The operation had been a disaster; bringing him back to headquarters would insure that he would not talk and lay blame on senior generals. Urquhart asserts that “the Arnhem tragedy had a deep and permanent effect on my attitude to life.” Henceforth he was no longer an optimist, or even very sure of himself. Above all, he had become “deeply skeptical about the behavior of leaders.” He was to live with the knowledge that human vanity and ambition would always be stronger than wisdom and principle.

Throughout history, other young officers have watched their commanders throw away lives, needlessly or foolishly, but most have walked away from such horrors eager to forget and grateful to be alive. Urquhart could not forget; he never forgave the generals at Arnhem, and he seems to have continued to look for their avatars in the prime ministers and kings whom he would meet during the next four decades on the top floor of the UN Secretariat Building, or wherever in the world he was to go as an emissary of the secretary-general. Generals and politicians are divided in his memoir into the many who sought only their own advantage and the few who worried about the pain and hunger of the powerless.

The quondam King’s Scholar from Westminster School appraises the secretaries-general under whom he served by the same moral outlook by which he judges power-seeking dictators and statesmen. He admired U Thant, the now nearly forgotten third secretary-general, almost without reservation. Urquhart is firm in his defense of U Thant against the often repeated charge that his efforts to stop the war in June 1967 between Israel and the Arabs were ineffective, particularly when he failed to maintain the UN peace-keeping force in Gaza. On the contrary, so Urquhart maintains, war was inevitable because the superpowers did nothing themselves and watched with apathy while U Thant flew in desperation to Cairo to try to reason with the theatrical Gamal Abdel Nasser. Urquhart admires U Thant as a man wholly devoid of self-interest who lost his health in defense of peace.

In his critical view of Kurt Waldheim Urquhart is applying the same principle: he admires the selfless and condemns the self-seeking. He is furious that he “spent a decade working intensively with, and publicly defending, a man who had deliberately told lies about his past.” Waldheim, “emerging as a living lie, has done immense damage not only to his own country but to the United Nations and to those who have devoted, and in some cases sacrificed, their lives for it.” Urquhart’s explanation for Waldheim’s conduct is that he believed “that the truth would stand in the way of his relentless pursuit of public position and office.” Nonetheless, Urquhart finds that Waldheim had some good qualities. In 1972, for example, over the objections of several heads of UN agencies, he appointed the highly competent Sir Robert Jackson to run relief operations following the India-Pakistan war. He also praises Waldheim for his courage in making certain political appointments on the basis of merit. But he shows him to have been much preoccupied with his public image and with protocol.


Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general, is described without particular admiration or even affection. According to Urquhart, Lie was a man of small imagination and substantial vanity. He was jealous of the attention given to his subordinate, Ralph Bunche, when he mediated the Israeli-Arab war of 1948–1949 and achieved armistices on all fronts. At one point Urquhart and Lie were not on speaking terms and Urquhart requested a transfer from UN headquarters. Still, he gives Lie credit for being fair and evenhanded (and not biased in favor of Israel, as many have maintained).

The secretary-general whom he admired most and even revered was Dag Hammarskjöld, whose official biography he wrote while serving as the UN chief political officer.2 Hammarskjöld evidently regarded himself with unshakable self-confidence not as the senior executive officer of an alliance of states but as the servant of mankind. The major political success of his first term in office was the ending of the Suez crisis in the fall of 1956. He conceived the idea of interposing the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) between Egypt and the Israelis. Urquhart was the senior officer in the Secretariat who had had extensive military experience, and did more than anyone else to put a multinational force together from scratch in a very few days. These military detachments were not there to use their guns or to impose peace. The Swedish infantry company that the UN placed at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba was there not to fight anyone but rather “to provide a pretext for the Egyptians not to reoccupy the coastal batteries commanding the Strait of Tiran.”

This first experiment in peace-keeping set the pattern for many that were to follow: UN forces were placed in international trouble spots to inhibit hostilities by their presence. They were not there to act as armed enforcers, for the moment that they begin to shoot, even in self-defense, they become parties to the quarrel. This principle was not followed in the Congo in 1961 and, in Urquhart’s view, the failure to do so destroyed the effectiveness of the United Nations Organization there as an impartial peace-seeker. Urquhart had no patience with any of the leading characters in the struggle between the fragile government in Leopoldville, led by Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba, and the rebels in the mineral-rich Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe, who wanted to secede. He writes with contempt of the Belgians, who carried out decolonization in such a way as to guarantee that the relations among the Congolese factions would degenerate into bloody fighting. Urquhart himself was brutally beaten by rebel troops in Katanga when he tried to persuade them to act with restraint. But in his view, the ultimate culprits were the Soviets and the Americans. They made the Congo into a cockpit of the cold war both in Leopoldville and in Katanga, each side maneuvering for position among the contending, and for the most part erratic, new leaders. Whatever chance there was to quiet the situation was destroyed, and the heroic efforts of Ralph Bunche and all the resources that the UN Secretariat could marshal could not succeed in stopping the slaughter or in feeding the hungry.

Hammarskjöld himself went to the Congo in early September 1961 to try to end the secession of Katanga, and it was there that he met his death in a plane crash, the result, Urquhart writes, of an error on the part of the pilot. Urquhart was privy to all the evidence that was turned up in the investigation of the crash, and he flatly denies the still-persistent rumors that Hammarskjöld was murdered. He is equally firm in confronting the even more persistent rumor that Hammarskjöld was homosexual. In Urquhart’s opinion, this detached and self-involved Swedish aristocrat was one of those rare people who are asexual. Hammarskjöld’s detachment was such, so Urquhart believes, that no one could get close to him, and Urquhart was himself kept at some distance throughout his years of close association with him.

But even when he contemplates Hammarskjöld, Urquhart remains down-to-earth. He admires the mystical inner life that is revealed in Hammarskjöld’s posthumous book, Markings, which he helped to see published, but he remembers being put off by a change that he perceived in Hammarskjöld after he was unanimously re-elected for a second term as secretary-general. Hammarskjöld had begun “to hear voices,” to imagine himself as a messianic figure. Despite Urquhart’s sorrow at his death, there is more than a hint of unease at the thought of what he might have done if he had survived. Urquhart, a profound moralist, does not cast the secretary-general as a kind of secular pope preaching to the world, any more than he imagines him to be a highly paid bureaucrat who survives in office by being a political eunuch. The task is to live always amid the untidy realities of the world’s problems, doing what one can and being always willing to take the maximum risks to stretch the limits of the possible.

This tough-minded moral realism Urquhart found, supremely, in Ralph Bunche, for whom he worked for many years and whom he succeeded. Bunche in action, at the height of his powers, suggests the image of the United Nations Secretariat at its very best, and he set the standard by which Urquhart measures others and, I suspect, himself:

I have never forgotten Bunche in the Congo. He remained calm, humorous, kindly, and firm in every sort of impossible situation, and was the main source of whatever common sense and compassion there was in that madhouse. He sat imperturbably in the snakepit hour after hour, day and night, receiving a constantly changing and usually pathetic cast of visitors and supplicants, writing directives, cables to Hammarskjöld, letters to the government, or instructions to our different sectors in the Congo. He was never excited or nervous, even when the mutineers arrested him early on in July, baffling them on this occasion by continuing calmly to write the cable he had been writing when he was arrested. He did not mind taking unpopular decisions and being regarded as obstinate, for he was determined to do what he thought best in a situation which became daily more confused.

Like Bunche, Urquhart has spent much of his time and energy on the intractable problems of the Middle East. He does not believe that reason and political flexibility are likely to prevail there in any near future, but he does insist, correctly, that all of the successes in peace-making, even those of the mid-1970s under American auspices, have ultimately required multinational peace-keeping help. The UN forces organized by Urquhart still stand guard on the Golan Heights, and no shots have been fired there for years. Peace will never be made simply by balancing all of the power interests, large and small, in the region. All such attempts have failed, one after another, for almost forty years. Disinterested mediation may be the only real hope.

At the end of his forty years of service, Urquhart left, deeply worried about the future of the United Nations. The super-powers have been conducting practically all of their bilateral relations elsewhere. The organization, as he quietly makes clear, has its share of timid and self-serving bureaucrats. The third world majority in the Assembly has done many mindless things, such as resolving that “Zionism is racism,” and these actions have weakened the standing of the organization in decent opinion. Had he finished his book some months later, he would no doubt have found some hope in the return to the UN by the major powers, who are now using its mechanisms to try to find a solution to the Iran-Iraq war. He would perhaps see some confirmation of his conviction that the powerful nations can assure their own safety only if they help one another cool down the fires in the developing world.

Urquhart’s book can be read for its many anecdotes and vignettes and even for some amusing gossip about famous people; but Oxford undergraduates have always disguised their seriousness about large issues in playfulness. All of the stories nonetheless illustrate and support his fundamental point: that there is no substitute in politics for decency. Urquhart is not a pessimist; he does not think that his side will lose, or even that it is losing. On the contrary, the lesson of his life is that international civil servants like Hammarskjöld and Bunche—and one can add Brian Urquhart—have made a difference, and that they have won some genuine victories:

Reason, justice, and compassion are small cards to play in the world of politics, whether international, national, or tribal, but someone has to go on playing them. If you hold on to your belief in reason and compassion despite all political maneuvering, your efforts may in the end produce results. A determined effort to do what seems objectively right may sometimes eventually transcend the vicissitudes of politics. After the Congo experience I became less upset by outside criticism but more cautious in assessing the validity of what we were trying to do. I also learned that immediate success often has very little to do with lasting achievement, and that the judgment of history on many controversial issues will be very different from the fashionable judgment of the time.

Urquhart’s predecessor and mentor, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for achieving the armistices that ended the first Israeli-Arab war. Urquhart has achieved perhaps more difficult things; he has done much to keep the divided island of Cyprus from exploding into war, and again and again in the Middle East he has been the man who organized what amounted to political first aid. His memoir should be read with attention, not least in the chancelleries of the world, by those who care about virtue and honor in public life.

This Issue

November 5, 1987