The Man Who Never Ceases To Try

Dr. Robert Muller wrote the following informal essay about Kurt Waldheim based on his experiences as Director of the Executive Office of the Secretary-General. Dr. Muller is now Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Never give up a fight for a good cause. Try your very best even in the face of insuperable difficulties. Be satisfied only after having exhausted every possible way.

Anyone who has worked closely with Secretary-General Waldheim knows that some of his happiest moments are when he boards a plane. Until the last minute, he remains active and tense, engaged in international business which requires his urgent attention. There is always an Ambassador, if not several, at the airport to discuss with him a last moment problem or crisis. Also present are some of his aides, who expect decisions or instructions on a variety of problems. But once he is in the plane, his tenseness disappears. He knows that for a while no problem will trouble him, no phone will ring, no visitor will knock at his door. He takes a seat, relaxes, adopts a happy composure, orders a light drink, nibbles at an appetizer and turns to his companion with a smile: ”Thank God, for a few hours we will have peace. We will enjoy our dinner, talk a little, watch a film and sleep without being disturbed.”

But he does not keep his promise for long. After a while he opens his briefcase and extracts notes, letters, documents and draft speeches for study. Once, to my surprise, I saw him draw out and pensively hold in his hand a compass. He commented:

“My daughter Christel put this compass in my briefcase. She thinks I travel too much and fears that someday I might get lost! This compass is supposed to help me find my way back home!”

One of the most striking characteristics of Secretary-General Waldheim is his extreme endurance and extraordinary faculty to recuperate. As intense as he is when he negotiates or handles a problem, as easily he can erase all worries from his mind and relax in a total fashion. I have seen him enter his car after a day of very intensive work, almost on the verge of exhaustion and say:

”Please do not talk to me. I need a few moments of complete rest.”

He then closed his eyes, reposed during the short trip to his hotel, showered, and that night delivered a full hour’s speech extempore. Once I marvelled at this capacity and he simply answered:

”I have no merit whatever. I have inherited this faculty from my father who was a wiry, indefatigable man.”

One of our early trips took us to Paris where the newly elected Secretary-General paid his first official visit to the French Government. We lodged at the Hotel Crillon, where a suite had been placed at his disposal by the French authorities. It was the time when negotiations on Vietnam were going on in Paris and when the U.S. had resumed its bombardments. At an early stage of our sojourn, Mr. Waldheim said to me:

“I am in Paris on an official visit to the French Government and I know that I am not supposed to deal with the Vietnam problem here. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the fact that talks are taking place in this city. I feel that I must do something. I cannot remain silent and inactive. I must offer my good offices and help, even if I should be turned down. What do you think?”

[Dr. Muller answered:] “You are absolutely right. Some of the parties in the talks do not want the UN to be involved and they will turn your offer down. Nevertheless, beyond the political considerations, there is the human aspect. Many people will not understand that you are here in Paris and remain silent about this atrocious war. You should simply do what your daughter Christel would expect you to do, namely offer your services, even at the risk of being turned down and criticized.”
His mind was already made up, guided by his extraordinary instinct of what was the right course of action. He entered forthwith into a period of intensive diplomatic consultations, demonstrating once more his tremendous energy.

Towards the evening there was little left to do, except wait for the answers of the parties concerned. The Secretary-General wanted to relax and take a stroll in the streets of Paris. He loved that city where he had been stationed as a young diplomat and where one of his children was born. He suggested that we have dinner in a quiet place, without any security escort. I could well understand his wish and we devised a way of fulfilling it. He called his security guard who had accompanied us from New York and asked him to stay in his room and wait for an important telephone call. In the meantime, we would go downstairs and have a quick sandwich at the snack bar. But instead we used a secondary exit of the hotel, avoided the French security, and soon found ourselves in the streets of Paris all by ourselves.

He asked me to suggest a nice, cozy restaurant where we could relax and enjoy a good dinner. I proposed that we walk along the Grand Boulevards between the Madeleine and the Porte St. Denis where I knew a good fish restaurant. It was a long and pleasant walk. There was so much to see in the streets of Paris. The people are so alive, so “individual,” so strikingly different from one another. They form one of the greatest human shows on Earth, which explains why one can walk for miles in Paris without tiring.

We were speaking German to each other, he in his Austrian variation, I in my Lorraine dialect. We commented on people, on street scenes and compared the language we used. It can indeed be an intellectual delight to discuss the meaning and etymology of the endless variations of Germanic languages. I remember that he explained to me the origin of the word "gewurschtelt," which I had used for passing judgement on a woman dressed in sloppy garments.

We finally arrived at the fish restaurant near the Porte St. Denis. I knew this neighbourhood well, for my father, like many Alsace-Lorrainers, liked to stay near the Care de I'Est when he came to Paris. In front of the restaurant was a magnificent display of seafood: oysters, sea urchins, clams, lobsters, shrimps, mussels, all resting on rich beds of dark green algae or on white crushed ice amid strings of golden yellow lemons. A man wearing a leather apron prepared these delicacies and served them to the customers in the restaurant. The dining place was very cozy, pleasant and peaceful. There were only a few patrons and we enjoyed admirable service. We started with a large tantalising platter of oysters, continued with a mouth-watering fish soup and took as plat de resistance a friture of small fishes and mixed seafood. Accompanied by a dry muscadet wine, it was quite a memorable treat.

The Secretary-General was fascinated by a French worker dressed in blue overalls who was sitting alone at a table facing us. The man was enjoying his food tremendously. He was the solitary actor of a real gastronomic feast. He was savouring each fibre of food and drop of wine. His concentration on sheer nutritional pleasure was an extraordinary sight, and the Secretary-General commented:

“Look how this man enjoys himself. The pleasures, behaviour and instinct of the common people are admirable. They know the best places and how to enjoy themselves. I have concluded a long time ago that the people’s instinct is the surest thing on Earth. You cannot fool people. They have such common sense. You must explain to them the issues you face and the policies you wish to pursue. The people know perfectly well how difficult our problems are. They do not expect us to solve them miraculously overnight. But they constantly want us to do our best and to never cease to try. I will obviously not be able to solve the Vietnam problem here in Paris. The people know it perfectly well. I might not even be able to meet with the parties concerned. But the public will be happy to learn that at least I tried. They will appreciate it. I can be satisfied only when I have tried everything and have not left a single stone unturned.”

Thus I learned in a little fish restaurant near the Porte St. Denis one of the fundamental characteristics of the new Secretary-General: He was a man who never ceased to try and who was endlessly stubborn at it.

We returned to the hotel. The guard had received in the meantime an important telephone call and the Secretary-General spent the rest of the evening in diplomatic consultations. when we met, the Secretary-General would take on a radiant face and say:

“Robert, do you remember the fish restaurant and the worker eating his seafood so fervently? It was my first evening of escape and relaxation since I became Secretary-General and I will never forget it.”

What I have not forgotten either is a thought that came to my mind one day after having observed Mr. Waldheim in his talks with Government officials. I had asked myself the question:

“If a world war were about to break out, what kind of Secretary-General would you like to see at the helm of the world organisation? What type of man would have the best chance of helping avoid a world conflict?"

After careful thought, I concluded that I would have the greatest confidence in a man who would never cease to try, who would work day and night, indefatigably, without a moment of rest or relent, without neglecting the slightest avenue of hope, a man who would work himself to exhaustion, appealing to governments, hanging on the phone, holding consultations and making diplomats work as hard as he. For only a man with an iron will would have a chance to win under extreme, critical circumstances.

The same rule applies to all international civil servants. We must believe in our vocation and task. We must work relentlessly and stubbornly against the greatest odds and disbeliefs on Earth. Even without the faith of so many people, we must try to carry the human story to ever higher levels of peace, justice and righteousness. We must never give up. We must fight for our beliefs in the good human cause. We must try our very best, even in the face of insuperable difficulties and be satisfied only after having exhausted every possible way and turned every possible stone.