A Life in Peace and War

Brian Urquhart, Harper and Row, New York, 1987, 379 pages

By William H. Barton (reviewer) | 1988-06-01 12:00:00

For those involved in the United Nations, the name of Brian Urquhart is known as a model of an international public servant. In this book, he has given us as a legacy an account of the U.N. during those eventful forty years.

It is appropriate that Urquhart's autobiography is published at this moment in United Nations history. His story is an eloquent account of the accomplishments the Organization can claim. Almost incidentally, it shows the author's pivotal role in holding the secretariat together at a time of indifferent leadership.

After Westminster School, Urquhart went to Oxford in 1937, but left to enlist in the army in September 1939. As intelligence officer to the Airborne Division, his character was first tested.

In 1944, planning began on the disastrous airborne attempt at capturing the bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem and Nijmegen. Urquhart was uneasy about it and tried to convince his superiors that his concerns were justified. Two days before the battle, he was ordered to go on sick leave. Later, when the extent of the disaster had become obvious, he was recalled to duty and found his position an embarrassment. "There is nothing like proving to be right for making a person unpopular." He was transferred out.

At war's end, Urquhart became private secretary to the Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations. His career with the United Nations had begun. When Trygve Lie was selected to be the first Secretary-General, Urquhart became one of his personal assistants.

"I felt sorry for Lie. He had had an honorable career in Norway... But as Secretary-General of the new world organization he was out of his depth. He was a naturally suspicious man with a hair-trigger temper... jealous of his position and at the same time nervous of it."

The Lie years, from 1945 to 1952 include the decision to set up the Headquarters in New York; the creation of Israel, the assassination of Bernadotte and the Arab-Israeli war; the Korean war and the problems it created for Lie in dealing with the Russians; McCarthyism and the secretariat; Lie's decision to resign in 1952, and Hammarskjold's election.

The Hammarskjold chapters cover Suez and the opening of the U.N.'s involvement in the Congo, when Urquhart served, at great personal risk, as resident representative in Katanga.

Hammarskjold was killed in 1961 and U Thant was chosen as Secretary-General. During his term he faced the problem of the war in the Middle East, which resulted in the end of the first United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF).

The Canadian Government was critical of U Thant's acquiescence to Nasser's demand that the Force be removed from Egypt without consulting the Security Council or the General Assembly. But Urquhart saw resort to the General Assembly as futile, since many nations supported the Egyptian position. Resort to the Security Council would have been impractical because UNEF was a creature of the General Assembly. Bunche and Urquhart decided to take the maximum time to make the withdrawal, creating time to try to talk Nasser around. However, their strategy was undermined by the Western governments.

"The Egyptian government was deeply provoked by an announcement from Ottawa that two Canadian warships were being moved to the Mediterranean and by bellicose Canadian statements insisting on UNEF's right to stay in Egypt as if it was an occupation force. When Egypt riposted by declaring that, because of these statements, it could no longer assure the safety of Canadian soldiers in UNEF and demanded their withdrawal, the Canadian contingent was withdrawn in forty-eight hours, leaving UNEF with no logistic units or aircraft."

Paul Martin and Urquhart had two interesting views of events. Martin was a convinced supporter of the United Nations. He believed the General Assembly or the Security Council should have been convened and faced with the responsibility of dealing with the matter. And, as far as Canada was concerned, the warships were there to facilitate evacuation of Canadian troops. Canadian diplomacy was being exerted to curb the initiatives of some of our more bellicose friends. The game always looks different depending on where you sit in the stands.

Urquhart's assessment is that these events, and the war that followed, dealt the U.N. a crushing blow.

"The United Nations had been shown to be divided and ineffective... The real cause of the war - the unresolved and bitter conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors - could be safely ignored in favor of an identifiable scapegoat."

Could the war have been prevented? Urquhart believes that Nasser was determined to fight. If U Thant had convened the Security Council, the result would have been the same, "but the scapegoat would have escaped."

In 1971, U Thant was succeeded by Kurt Waldheim as. Secretary-General. Urquhart gives him credit for being conscientious and ready to accept suggestions. He was never too tired or too indifferent to undertake an awkward journey or make a difficult telephone call. But he was a ditherer, hating to come down on one side or the other of a contentious issue.

During Waldheim's term the U.N. was involved in the October, 1973, war in the Middle East, which led to the re-establishment of UNEF and the creation of the force on the Golan Heights, the renewal of hostilities in Cyprus, the Lebanon crisis of 1978, and the efforts to obtain independence for Namibia.

Although Waldheim wanted a third term, Javier Perez de Cuellar was selected for the job.

"I had known Perez de Cuellar well for many years. He was well-qualified by experience and ability -- a quiet, highly intelligent and civilized man with a wide knowledge of the job..."

The closing chapters of the book touch on the Falkland war, Namibia, the situation in the Middle East, and the financial crisis in the U.N., which he identifies properly as a political crisis.

My friendship with Brian Urquhart go back to 1955. I had the opportunity, as a member of the Canadian Delegation and the Canadian Mission, to work with him on many of the issues described in his book. It was a source of great satisfaction to me that in 1987 Brian was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security.

A more extensive version of Barton's review of Urquhart's book was printed in Bout de Papier, Winter 1988. Our thanks!

William H. Barton, Chairman 'Board of Directors, Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, served as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN Office in Geneva (1972 -'76) and as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York (1976 -'80).

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1988, page 24. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by William H. Barton here

Peace Magazine homepage