For a number of years I was professionally associated with Kurt Waldheim. He was a courteous and easily approachable colleague, an eager conversationalist and a reliable conduit of grapevine information. He was elastic in his attitudes, somewhat vacuous in his positions, noncommittal in controversies between the big powers and cautious in his proceedings. As an Austrian diplomat, representing a country poised on the edge of the East-West divide, his natural inclination tended toward the camp of the nonaligned states.

Waldheim was eager to cultivate social contacts with Israeli diplomats and representatives of American Jewry. Not that he neglected Arab company. Why should he? Arabs were numerous, munificent and nonaligned.

As secretary-general, he administered an institution that tolerated for more than three decades the practice of belligerency by member states against a fellow member; that watched passively the extinction of millions of people in Cambodia; that ignored the nightmare of Idi Amin's savage rule but deplored the rescue of his hostages at Entebbe; that condemned international terrorism but invited its most notorious instigator to address its general assembly; that had failed to settle a single major conflict but refused to welcome the peace treaty negotiated between Egypt and Israel.

To stem the steady decline of the United Nations would have needed a personality of strong character and accomplished statesmanship. This was the last thing the powers were looking for when they approved Waldheim's candidacy. They preferred an amenable political weatherman. His record as secretary-general was neither better nor worse than that of the organization itself.

What made his appointment exceptional, however, was his Austrian origin. The United Nations, arisen out of the alliance that eliminated the Nazi axis, elected to its highest post a man who had fought as an officer in Hitler's army. It was not considered a sufficient reason for his disqualification, moreover, that Waldheim had dissembled at the time his pre-war Nazi associations and the complete details of his war record. He was elected because political expediency prompted the principal powers to wipe the slate clean of Austria's voluntary or imposed collaboration with Nazi Germany.

After the years of the Anschluss in which Austria's identity had been submerged by its "return to the Reich," its post-war diplomacy succeeded in impressing the world community that the country had passed its darkest years not as part and parcel of Nazi Germany but as its victim.

Now 15 years later, documentary revelations originating in Austria have cast a heavy cloud on Waldheim's war record, veracity and credibility. The omissions by now admitted by him, and explained on grounds of failing memory, are deeply disturbing. His alleged commissions, however, if proven true, would be more alarming. They would constitute a deception of the world commmunity, a blow to the United Nations and a stain on Austria's regained reputation.

The reactions of certain sectors of the Austrian population arouse anxiety. Have those sectors not yet severed their emotional and ideological ties with the Nazi era? It would be tragic if the Austrian people were democratically to restore a stigma from which they so successfully freed themselves.

It is misleading to present the international debate on Waldheim's past as a confrontation between the Jewish and the Austrian peoples. It is between Austria's present democratic respectability and the bitter truth of its past.

In his recent memoirs Waldheim complains bitterly about the hardships he and his family suffered when returning at the end of the war from Salzburg to Vienna in a crowded cattle car. He fails to remember the hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings who were transported by order of his compatriot Adolf Eichmann, in cattle cars, to destinations from which they never returned.

Waldheim claims neither knowledge nor recollection of the mass deportation of Jews from Salonica, though he was stationed in the vicinity as an intelligence officer on the staff of Gen. Alexander Loehr, who was sentenced to death in Yugoslavia for atrocities German special forces committed under his command. Waldheim also claimed failure to remember his joining the Nazi SA equestrian corps in 1938, his war service in the Balkans and the war crimes committed by the army group in which he served.

The facts ought to be impartially examined by a body of international renown and longstanding judicial practice -- for instance, the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. Waldheim should take the initiative to dispel the doubts. A readiness to cooperate with such an inquiry would serve his own dignity, the standing of his country and the reputation of the United Nations.