Bradford Morse: a career in public service, capped by guiding a UN agency

A big, bluff man strides into a conference room 21 floors above Manhattan. A team of secretaries glides in and out of a large conference room as he begins to reminisce to a visitor. Telephones ring. The sun sparkles on the East River below. This could be the chief executive of a large corporation. But few chief executives can look back on a half-dozen different careers in which:

He is widely credited with helping to save countless lives by setting up the first United Nations office to coordinate global famine relief to Africa.

He served for 15 years as the highest ranking American at the United Nations. A firm defender of the UN dream, he plunged into such diplomatic hornets' nests as Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and organizing development projects ranging from the construction of thousands of paved roads in Africa's starving Sahel region to studying the migration patterns of red locusts in Africa which destroy maize (corn) crops.

He rescued the UN's largest single agency (the UN Development Program, whose present budget is about $1 billion a year) from near-bankruptcy when he took it over in 1974. He sold the official limousine he inherited, dismissed the chauffeur, and toured the world in tourist-class air seats to drum up cash.

He studied law in Boston, advised senators in Washington, virtually ran the third-largest department in the government of the Eisenhower administration (the Veterans Administration), and won six successive terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican from a previously Democratic area centered around Lowell, Mass.

Bradford F. Morse recalls all of this and more over coffee, breaking off now and then to take urgent calls. Nostalgia hangs in the air: Mr. Morse has just announced that he is retiring from the UN at some point after May next year.

He has a two-year-old daughter from a second marriage and has told friends he would like to spend more time with her. But he intends to stay active in the InterAction Council (a private group of about 30 former heads of state including Helmut Schmidt, Takeo Fukuda, James Callaghan, and Pierre Trudeau of which Morse is secretary-general) and the Salzburg Seminar (a private, 40-year-old non-profit group whose officials report contributions from the Austrian government, the United States Information Agency , the Ford, Rockefeller, and other foundations, and more.)

The seminar gathers leaders from West, East, and the third world at ten seminars a year in Schloss Leopoldkron near Salzburg, Austria. Morse has just been appointed the organization's president.

Yet what Morse really wanted to talk about the other morning was global development. The two words sound formidably dull, but in fact they mean trying to enable as many people as possible to lift the quality of their lives through higher incomes, more opportunity, greater freedom.

Morse has tried to do this first in the US and then as a world-traveling UN official. He is much liked in the UN system, by people who pay tribute to his human warmth while wondering how he finds time to focus on many different organizations and issues every day.

``Yes, he's taking two different jobs in his `retirement','' says one longtime associate, ``but for Brad, two jobs at a time is just routine. . . .''

Says another senior UN official: ``Here is a kind, decent human being who has always worked hard to help other people.''

Comments M. Peter McPherson, head of the US foreign aid agency in Washington: ``Brad brought political skills to his job as the first UN coordinator of African famine relief. Those skills were needed to get things done, enabling his staff to concentrate on the daily details. On Africa he has done a fine job.''

For years now, Morse has been preaching the UN's role as the supporter and coordinator of what he calls ``invisible'' development.

``The UN Development Program [UNDP] doesn't have anything that appeals to the heartstrings, like refugees, or children, or disaster victims,'' he said. ``We work instead in a number of different fields: agriculture, food, forestry, fisheries, health care, atomic science, medical research, education, civil aviation, meteorology, transport. . . .

``We coordinate. We facilitate. We don't build buildings or dams that you can touch, feel, and see. We provide technical cooperation. . . .''

UNDP, he argues, helps countries develop their ``human capacities'' -- ``we help create and release human energy.''

Why, he asks, is Japan a great country despite having few natural resources? What makes Switzerland respected? Morse's answer: the abilities of their people.

Only about 10 percent to 20 percent of a country's growth is the combination of labor and capital, he says. The rest is human energy and productivity.

Morse was asked by UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar to launch the UN Office for Emergency Operations in Africa in early 1985. Critics said it was too late, too powerless, too bureaucratic.

A year later, Morse and his Canadian deputy Maurice Strong receive plaudits from governments and private agencies for providing a central focus to scattered UN efforts, and for coordinating efforts in the field by a number of agencies including the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, both based in Rome.

Morse said he had always wanted to work with public affairs.

After teaching law at Boston University from 1949-53, he served as a Lowell, Mass., city councilor and then moved to Washington as counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee, working on ammunition shortages and Pentagon oversight.

He served on the staff of Sen. Leverett Saltonstall (R) of Massachusetts until 1958 when he became No. 2 man in the Veterans Administration.

In September 1960 the Fifth District Congressional seat in Massachusetts fell vacant when the incumbent passed on 10 days before the Republican primary. Morse jumped in as a write-in candidate and won. Given little chance to defeat his rival Democrat in November with Democrat John F. Kennedy running for president, Morse won by virtually ignoring television, using radio extensively, and concentrating on reaching people in constant touch with the wider public: store owners, barbers, and more.

He kept on winning the seat throughout the 1960s, setting up the Wednesday Group of moderate GOP House members, heading a group of members supporting peace through law, and serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

In 1972 the Nixon White House asked him if he would replace the late Ralph Bunche as UN undersecretary-general.

On Oct. 3, 1973, Morse hit the headlines by physically separating two General Assembly delegates (from Chile and Saudi Arabia) on the assembly podium as the two men shouted insults at each other.

Since 1974 he has repaired the financial fortunes of UNDP. This year member states pledged $736 million, $36 million above target. A number of other smaller agencies under his command spend another $300 million.

Is he optimistic as he prepares to leave the UN?

``Well,'' he says, ``we haven't had a third world war. The UN has its weaknesses, of course, but it has achieved more than people give it credit for.''

Avoiding political issues, he cited the UN's social and humanitarian ones: helping push up life expectancy, cut infant mortality rates, boost literacy, and working to streamline international air travel, mail, radio broadcasts and more.

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