December 22

This Day in History

General Interest

Dec 22, 1971:

Waldheim elected U.N. secretary-general

The United Nations General Assembly votes to ratify the U.N. Security Council's nomination of Austrian diplomat Kurt Waldheim to lead the U.N. Waldheim went on to serve two terms as head of the world body, leaving the post in 1982.

In 1986, during a campaign for the Austrian presidency, documents were uncovered revealing that he had served as an intelligence officer in German army units that had committed war atrocities in the Balkans during World War II. Waldheim, who had previously claimed that he spent much of the war in Vienna, admitted that he had lied about his wartime record but denied any knowledge of atrocities. He went on to win the Austria presidency despite the allegations but became an international pariah.

After the annexation of his country by Nazi Germany in 1938, Waldheim was conscripted into the German army and served on the Russian front until 1941, when he was wounded. Waldheim claimed that he spent the rest of the war studying law in Vienna, but it is now known that he was an interpreter and intelligence officer for German army units stationed in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and Greece from 1943 and 1945. Waldheim's units engaged in brutal reprisals against Yugoslav partisans and civilians and deported most of the Jewish population of Salonika, Greece, to Nazi death camps. There is no evidence that he personally killed, tortured, or deported anyone, but he did provide the logistical and intelligence support that enabled others to do so. He won praise and promotion from his Nazi superiors, and evidence indicates that on one occasion he ordered a group of prisoners shot.

After World War II, Waldheim returned to Austria and entered the diplomatic service. He led Austria's first delegation to the United Nations in 1955 and served as the Austrian ambassador to Canada in the late 1950s. He then worked in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and in 1964 became his country's permanent representative to the U.N. In 1968, he became minister of foreign affairs in the Austrian government and in 1970 returned to the U.N. as permanent representative. In 1971, he was an unsuccessful candidate to Austria's presidency, a largely ceremonial post, on the conservative People's Party ticket. In December 1971, he was chosen by the U.N. Security Council to be U.N. secretary-general, and on December 22 the General Assembly approved the nomination.

As head of the United Nations, Waldheim was an efficient but not particularly dynamic world leader. He made visits to Cyprus and the Middle East to help resolve conflicts there and coordinated a massive relief effort to Bangladesh, devastated by war and natural disaster. In 1976, he was reelected. During his second tenure as head of the U.N., he attempted, with little success, to end the Iran-Iraq War and the Sino-Vietnam War and to gain the release of American hostages in Iran. In 1981, a third term was blocked by a Chinese veto.

In 1986, Waldheim ran for Austria's presidency again, but the campaign was heavily tainted by reports of his possible participation in war crimes during World War II. Waldheim admitted that, contrary to earlier statements he had made about his past, he had indeed served in the Balkans during the war but denied any knowledge of atrocities. This denial, contradicted by the evidence, was evidently acceptable enough for the Austrian electorate, and in June 1986 they voted to make him Austrian president.

Waldheim's tenure as Austrian head of state was marked by a period of international isolation for the country, and he chose not to run for reelection in 1992. In 1987, the United States barred him from entering the country as a private citizen because of his war record. Details of the investigative report that the U.S. Justice Department used in making this decision were first made public in 1994, implicating Waldheim with a far greater involvement in war-time atrocities than was previously suspected.

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