The Security Council began the formal process of picking a successor for Thant on 7 December 1971. China (with Beijing representing it for the first time), proposed several Latin American candidates, but they were vetoed either by the United States or the Soviet Union. At a second meeting, on 17 December, several other individuals were vetoed, including Ambassador Kurt Waldheim of Austria, who was opposed by Britain and China. At a third meeting, on 21 December, Waldheim was chosen to be the fourth Secretary-General of the United Nations. In sharp contrast to his predecessors, Waldheim proved to be a man without courage or honor, and over the next decade, the United Nations endured a leader incapable of defending or promoting the great principles of its Charter.
By the time U. Thant’s ten-year tenure as Secretary-General was up, the first virulent stage of the "Cold War" was over. The United States with its vast postwar economic boom receding into memory and mired in a ruinous war in Viet Nam, found it necessary to adjust to a range of new realities. It did so in many ways. In 1971, the Nixon Administration cut the link of the US Dollar to the value of gold (at $35 to the ounce), ending the system of fixed currency exchange rates that had provided a floor for over two decades of steady economic growth. This was a blow to major US allies in Europe and Asia with large holdings of the suddenly devalued dollar. Meanwhile, initiatives towards the Soviet Union led in 1972 to the Berlin Pact and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). Secretly, Washington was also unfreezing relations with China. In Latin America, the election of the Marxist Salvador Allende to the Presidency of Chile in 1970, the return from exile of Juan Peron in Argentina in 1973, and growing leftist insurrections in a number of other countries, set the scene for harsh right wing reaction actively supported by Washington.
Kurt Waldheim of Austria seemed perfectly attuned to the new period of detente. A career diplomat from a neutral European country, capable of relating with empathy to the West, the East and the rising Non-Aligned Movement, he had been Ambassador to the UN (1962-1968), and Foreign Minister (1968-1969). Returning to New York in 1969 as Ambassador again, he began a campaign to become Secretary-General; it was the first time anyone had openly campaigned for the job. His competition included Max Jakobson of Finland and Carlos Ortiz Rozas of Argentina, who got as many or more supportive votes in the Security Council’s secret balloting, but were vetoed by the Soviet Union. China vetoed Waldheim twice to signal its preference for a developing country candidate, but then let him through.
Despite having a strongly anti-Nazi father — or perhaps because of it — 18-year old Waldheim joined several Nazi youth organizations in pre-Anschluss Austria. When this was first revealed he denied it; faced with documentary evidence, he said it had been a matter of survival. But other choices were obviously more than that: marriage to a passionate Nazi supporter whose father was an influential figure in the party; a doctoral dissertation that concluded the Third Reich was the savior of Europe in its confrontation with the non-European world. After serving with the German Army in France and the Soviet Union (where a wound in the leg got him the Iron Cross, second class), Waldheim was an intelligence officer with units in Yugoslavia and Greece that killed or deported over 120,000 civilians. The Austrian General he worked for in Greece was later convicted of war crimes and executed. Yugoslavia reported Waldheim to the UN War Crimes Commission in 1948, but did not follow-up. All this was simply ignored in Waldheim’s official resume; it had him as a student in Vienna during the war.
At the end of the war he spent several weeks in an American interrogation center in Austria. Later in 1945 he applied for the post of Personal Assistant to the new Austrian Foreign Minister, a strongly anti-Nazi figure who had worked for US intelligence during the war. Waldheim was hired after American intelligence sources vouched there was “nothing negative” in his record. Based on a close examination of the available evidence, Robert Herzstein, author of Waldheim: The Missing Years, concluded that he was not a war criminal as much as a bureaucratic accessory; but he added: “Throughout the postwar period, including his tenure as UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim was a US intelligence asset who expected to be — and always was — protected by his friends in the American intelligence community.” Whether that is true or not, it is certain that Washington had written records of Waldheim’s past. It is hard to imagine that Moscow, London, Paris, Athens and Belgrade were ignorant either.
During a decade when UN member States were acrimoniously divided over such issues as the demand for a New International Economic Order and the declaration of Zionism as racism, Secretary-General Waldheim was content to mouth a cautious litany of pieties, saying whatever would ingratiate him most with his immediate audience. As UN administrator, he had occasion to demonstrate often his amazing lack of fixed principle. When the Soviet Union demanded that its nationals — already prevented by Moscow from holding career appointments — should have their UN pensions channeled through the government, the Secretary-General acquiesced without a murmur about the independence of the international civil service. He did nothing as UN salaries took a beating from the rampant inflation of the 1970s and some affluent countries began to top off the salaries of their nationals in the Secretariat, in blatant disregard of the Charter. He said and did nothing even when UN staff members were among the thousands who “disappeared” in right wing Latin American dictatorships guilty of massive violations of human rights.
On the grounds that the General Assembly wanted greater attention to the Charter provision that “Due regard shall be given to the importance of recruiting the Staff on as wide a geographical basis as possible,” Waldheim ignored the more strongly phrased Charter requirement that the “paramount consideration in the employment of the staff and in the determination of the conditions of service shall be the necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity.” Ambassadors routinely influenced internal UN decisions; staff participants in appointment and promotion processes were often bluntly told that such and such a candidate was unstoppable because of powerful backing from his/her mission. On one occasion, a lovely young lady was inducted into the Secretariat with no qualifications other than being the niece of a President; she told colleagues that the main reason for her presence at the UN was a messy divorce back home.
The only time Waldheim exposed himself to risk was towards the end of his second term, when the United States Embassy in Iran was taken over by young revolutionaries, and he went at Washington’s request to Tehran. The trip was a disaster. Before and during his visit, Iranian television repetitively played footage showing Waldheim bowing and scraping to the deposed Shah and his sister. It was given out that he had accepted gifts of diamonds from the hated Pahlevis, who were accused of looting the country of some $30 billion. When the Secretary-General went to make remedial obeisance at a cemetery for the Martyrs of the Revolution, a screaming crowd chased him away. He was denied a meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini, made to walk through an enraged crowd to attend a meeting of the Revolutionary Council, and sent back to New York in ignominy.