NEW YORK — Six years into what was otherwise an idyllic childhood in the British countryside, Brian Urquhart's artist father hopped on his bicycle and rode away forever. Firmly refusing to acknowledge the abandonment, his mother took a job teaching in a girls' school to make ends meet. Young Brian was enrolled there, the lone boy amid 200 girls.
Soon he was transferred to another school, a place straight out of Dickens. For recreation, the "elderly bachelor" headmaster, "who was, I now see, homosexual, sadistic and alcoholic," had a penchant for beating his students.
Later there was Oxford, a magical place in those prewar years. But war came. Urquhart became a British intelligence officer, miraculously surviving a 1,200-foot fall from an unopened parachute. He locked horns with his superiors, vociferous in his opposition to the Arnheim operation that would cost 17,000 lives. In 1945 he became the second man recruited to a fledgling organization called the United Nations.
This is not, it is wise to point out at this juncture, the plot outline for a novel by Graham Greene. True, Brian Urquhart does have the thick, silvery hair assigned to all fictional diplomats, and his face--"like something out of an Egyptian tomb," as he describes his own visage--is creased with the lines earned by a man whose idealism has weathered 40 years of global strife. He is at once colorful and learned, quoting freely from Sir Isaac Newton or the Old Testament. Urquhart is witty too, another requirement, it would seem, of the real or romanticized diplomat.
At 68, he is also opinionated, particularly about those world leaders with whom he has worked over the years.
One year after his retirement from his post as U.N. under secretary general, he has written a memoir, "A Life in Peace and War" (Harper & Row, $25), marked by strong views about many of his well-known colleagues in the world diplomatic corps.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, now the president of Austria, is a "living lie," Urquhart writes, a man who "lacked the qualities of vision, integrity, inspiration and leadership that the U.N. so desperately needs." Privately, Urquhart contends that Waldheim "duped" his fellow officers of the U.N. by concealing his record of service in Hitler's army. "I don't respect him," Urquhart said. "What he did was completely outrageous. To tell lies like that, particularly since we all spent a great deal of time defending him on the basis of what we thought was his war record."
'Flat Lies Inexcusable'
Waldheim's "greatest transgression," Urquhart said, was "to tell flat lies. That is inexcusable."
By contrast, Urquhart praises former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold as "an exceptional man with a strong and independent sense of mission" whose "informality and modest manner concealed a strong and determined nature and an almost evangelical passion for his work." His book, however, characterizes Hammarskjold as difficult, with "relentlessly high intellectual and ethical standards" that made him "intolerant of incompetence and impatient with slow or confused performance."
Urquhart describes former U.S. representative to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick as an "embattled defender of the faith, venturing out from (her) fortress in the U.S. mission mostly to do battle with the infidel, to chastise offenders and to worry about the loyalty of putative allies." Kirkpatrick and her associates in the U.S. mission, Urquhart writes, "seemed to be more preoccupied with punishing reprehensible behavior or trying to score points off the Soviet Union."
"She had a very fixed idea of what she was there for," Urquhart said. Often, he added, that preconception led to an unfortunate kind of stridence.
"My view is that a great power has to conduct itself with a great deal of serenity and perspective," Urquhart said in discussing his book. Even though "it is absolutely true that the whole U.S.-bashing business in the U.N. had gone much too far," he said, "I don't think it can afford to get upset if people say nasty things. I don't think you can conduct a policy on that basis."
Like his book, a conversation with Brian Urquhart is sprinkled with the great names of contemporary diplomatic history. Of Adlai Stevenson, President Kennedy's U.N. delegate, Urquhart remembered, "he was a wonderful man and a charming man. I don't know if he had the ruthlessness to be President." Besides, Urquhart said, sometimes Stevenson was prone to inappropriate remarks.
"Perhaps because of his lack of rapport with the Kennedys, he too often seemed unsure of or sorry for himself and made lackluster wisecracks," Urquhart said, "which did no credit to his view of his responsibilities.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was "absolutely amazing," he said, a woman who had "an extraordinary capacity for presenting complex ideas in simple language."