When he went to work at the United Nations in 1948 as a 25-year-old intern, Robert Muller was a pessimist who was convinced there would be another world war within 20 years.
Muller had ample reason to be pessimistic, having grown up in Alsace-Lorraine, a French region near the German border. Wars between the two countries had caused Muller's grandfather to undergo five changes of nationality in his lifetime. During World War I, Muller's father was a German soldier; after the war, he served in the French army. And, during World War II, Muller himself fought in the French underground while his cousins fought on the German side.
"If these two civilized countries could not make peace," Muller reasoned, "how could I ever imagine that on this planet people as different and far away as Russians, Chinese, Americans, Latinos, Africans, blacks, whites, rich and poor--people with almost 5,000 religions and 5,000 languages--how could they ever make it? My conclusion as a young man: Impossible."
But today, after 38 years of serving in the United Nations, Muller, the U. N.'s assistant secretary general, is an optimist.
Indeed, as Muller told his audience at the Church of Religious Science in Huntington Beach on Friday night, "I'm often accused at the United Nations as being the optimist-in-residence at the U. N."
"I think if one deals with the problem of peace, one has to be very optimistic," said Muller, adding that without optimism everything is hopeless. "I believe that hope and a belief in the success of the United Nations on this beautiful planet is an essential ingredient of success."
In fact, on the basis of his experience in the U. N., Muller goes so far as to assert that "peace is already coming to this planet."
That global good news was only part of the largely positive message that Muller shared with an audience of some 700 who paid $15 each to listen to the unassuming, German-accented U. N. official deliver his speech entitled "World Peace Can Be Achieved--The Means of Doing It Now."
2 Standing Ovations
Muller, 62, was given a standing ovation at both the outset and the conclusion of his 90-minute talk in this, the United Nations' International Year of Peace. Afterward, dozens of audience members waited in line for more than an hour to have the ruddy-faced, bespectacled Muller autograph copies of his books, including his latest, "What War Taught Me About Peace" (Doubleday, $14.95).
Muller, who will retire from the U. N. in March, bases his optimistic view of the possibility of world peace on the fact that since the United Nations was established 40 years ago there has not been a world war.
And it is within those 40 years that "we've had some of the most incredible upheavals on this planet," he said, mentioning the population explosion, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, environmental problems and the energy crisis. Given these new problems, combined with the age-old problems facing the world, Muller added, "I can tell you it is a true miracle we have survived this period."
"At the end of my many years at the United Nations I have come to the conclusion that we have really passed the first big hurdle, maybe that from now on peace is the accepted and desired norm on this planet."
'War Was the Norm'
When he was young, Muller recalled, "I was always told that there would always be war. You had the military parading in every village; they were visible all the time. War and the military was the norm and the people gave up hope that there would ever be peace.
"Today the situation is radically changed. The people want peace. Peace is the ideal and war is the horrible exception. In other words, there is no glory in war anymore."
While visiting foreign capitals around the world, Muller said, he has asked heads of state if they believe they can still obtain glory through war and their immediate answer, he said, has been "no." He then asks if they believe they can obtain glory by being a great peace maker. They all reply "yes."
"Now this is a fundamental change--that you no longer have heads of state who come to their jobs with the idea that they're going to be a Napoleon . . . or an Alexander. And it is the peace makers today who are the people who are respected and loved by the world.
Handful in Conflict
"That (change) is a great achievement which we should not underestimate. As a matter of fact, when you look at the world today--a world of almost 5 billion people--out of 159 nations you have barely a handful--about six or seven--who are in conflict. The rest are at peace. They don't move out of their borders anymore. They no longer covet the territories of their neighbors. There is no joy in this anymore."
While acknowledging that some of the countries currently involved in wars have deep differences that may never be resolved, Muller emphasized that at least the conflicts are contained.