Sir Brian Urquhart has celebrated his 100th birthday this year. This is an eventful moment. Sir Brian is one of the most notable figures in the history of the United Nations. Urquhart has spent most of his entire life in service to the UN and, in his tenure, embodied the very narrative of the institution from its inception.
Urquhart served from the opening session of the UN in the fall of 1945 until he stepped down in 1986, just as the Cold War neared its end. His 40-year sojourn in the UN was a time of great fear and great upheaval — with the threat of atomic war hanging over humankind, extreme tensions between Communist nations and democratic ones, a series of conflicts risking mayhem around the world, the decolonization of the planet, the enlargement of the UN’s membership and the UN’s wholesale expansion into new areas of concern: development to population, food, health and environment.
Urquhart always brought a high level of idealism, courage, geniality, genuine warmth and sly British wit over humankind’s foibles and, most importantly, a love for the UN, to his postings. He began his career in the British Army at age 20, in 1939, entering its Airborne Division.
He survived hard times. In August 1942, for example, in a demonstration parachute jump in front of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, his parachute failed to open, cascading him fortuitously into brush but breaking practically all of the bones in his body. At first, he was thought dead. A bystander rescued him.
After a long, painful recovery, he became a 1st Airborne Corp intelligence officer. He was assigned to help with the Allied mission called Operation Market Garden, a parachute assault in September 1944 designed to seize Dutch bridges over the Rhine River. Urquhart divined that the plan was faulty and cautioned his superiors. Nobody listened — and the assault proved to be a disaster.
The troubled affair was portrayed in the film “A Bridge Too Far” and Urquhart’s character appears in it warning of imminent peril. Distraught by his failure to stop the operation, however, Urquhart left the division and enlisted in another unit rounding up German scientists.
At the war’s end, intent on remaking the world, he got a post with the British Diplomatic Service to assist the Executive Committee of the Preparatory Commission of the newly formed UN — setting up its administrative framework. He served as an aide to the UN’s first secretary-general, Norway’s Trygve Lie. The assignment, however, did not work out. He later described Lie as “out of his depth” and “confused, temperamental and insecure.”
Nonetheless, that experience did not dampen either Urquhart’s enthusiasm for the organization or hamper his rise in the world body. Indeed, Urquhart subsequently served four more secretaries-general, adjusting seamlessly to their different styles, personalities, cultural backgrounds and visions.
Lie was replaced in 1953 by the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjold. Urquhart admired Hammarskjold enormously. He saw him as the most capable and impressive of all the secretaries-general he worked for. He later wrote an admiring biography of the man. It was with Hammarskjold that he became deeply involved with peacekeeping. After the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, using his military background, he helped Hammarskjold and his deputy, Ralph Bunche, an American, organize the first genuine UN peacekeeping forces (never mentioned in the original UN Charter), even arranging for the troops to wear the famous blue helmets.
The Suez expedition influenced all future UN peacekeeping missions. Nonetheless, Urquhart was pragmatic about how UN officials should act in the field. He once told me, “The only way I got anything done at the UN was to do what I thought was right and not worry too much about instructions from my superiors.”
Not all of his assignments proved successful. Dispatched to the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire) in the early 1960s, where Katangese rebels were opposing Belgium’s handover of power to local politicians, Urquhart was abducted by some of the dissident troops, clubbed and almost killed. He talked his way out the brutal melee.
Soon after, Hammarskjold died in a mysterious airplane crash in the Congo, in 1961. He was succeeded by the Burmese diplomat U Thant. Some critics viewed Thant as too passive or quiescent, but Urquhart warmed to him, regarding him as a decent and thoughtful man, passionately interested in peace. He and Thant soon had to deal with the intractable complications of the 1967 Six Day War between Egypt and Israel and the ongoing crisis over the Vietnam War. They attempted to shape solutions that were not always workable.
Thant departed in 1971, replaced by the most controversial of all UN secretaries-general, Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian. Urquhart regarded him as a “mediocrity.” Others compared Waldheim to a “head-waiter” who always bowed obsequiously to the great powers. A few critics felt Urquhart should have resigned after Waldheim’s selection, but instead he soldiered on, hoping that he could keep Waldheim from doing severe damage to the UN.
By now, in 1971, Urquhart had risen to one of the most powerful posts in the UN Secretariat, namely the under secretary-general for special political affairs. He handled many assignments: monitoring peacekeeping missions, among those in Cyprus, Kashmir and Lebanon; aiding in negotiating the Namibian peace settlement; and working on nuclear issues, including helping to found the International Atomic Energy Agency.
As he labored on these matters, Waldheim was failing to win a third term. Instead, the UN chose a Peruvian diplomat, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, to be the new secretary-general in 1981. De Cuellar was Urquhart’s final boss. Urquhart found him to be a “quiet and serious” man whom, he felt, was underestimated for his abilities. Pérez de Cuéllar helped end the war between Iran and Iraq, something that few people thought he could have done.
In any event, like his predecessors, Pérez de Cuéllar came to depend mightily on Urquhart. Indeed, it was a tribute to Urquhart’s remarkable diplomatic talents and intelligence that he was able to earn the trust of so many different secretaries-general for so many years, even as he was helping the UN to move into a larger and more expansive role around the world.
After Urquhart’s retirement in 1986, he relocated to the Ford Foundation, until 1995, where he began a career as a writer. He has since authored a well-received memoir, written four books on various aspects of the UN and composed a biography of his fellow UN political under-secretary, Ralph Bunche — whom he has always believed to be an exceptional but unheralded public servant. (He won the Nobel peace prize in 1950.) Urquhart later became one of the prime book reviewers on international affairs for the prestigious New York Review of Books.
(He favorably reviewed my own book on the UN’s founding, “Act of Creation,” there, perhaps the most meaningful of the reviews I received.)
Today he maintains his fascination with world affairs and remains a superb raconteur on global events. Now limited in his mobility, he is cleareyed about the state of his beloved UN. He sometimes shows exasperation as to how the UN is hampered in its duties. He once lamented to me about the Security Council’s lack of action on the Syrian war.
He told me urgently, “We have to remind people as to why the UN originally came into being in the first place — to intervene to stop wars.”
That plainly was the most important goal throughout his brilliant UN tenure.