McGill University historian Gil Troy has just written an account of the moment in November, 1975 when the United Nations declared in General Assembly Resolution 3379 that Zionism was a form of racism and the United States, led by Ambassador Daniel P. Moynihan, mounted a loud and politically important protest. Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism deserves and will doubtless receive good reviews, but this piece will not be among them—because I was Moynihan’s special assistant during the seven months of his service in the UN trenches, and my husband, Leonard Garment, and I are in Troy’s book as both participants and sources. Nonetheless, there are some events to which there can never be too many witnesses.
It is hard to wrap one’s arms around the breadth of Moynihan’s career. He was born in 1927, abandoned by his father, and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, where his mother ran a bar. During World War II he joined the Navy and saw a vastly expanded world. By the late 1940s he had gained a PhD from the Fletcher School at Tufts and a Fulbright Fellowship at the London School of Economics. Returning home, he began his intertwining careers in academia and Democratic politics.
In 1965, as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration, he wrote a report, titled The Negro Family, which called attention to the role of absent fathers and out-of-wedlock births in America’s African-American underclass. The fierce criticism of Moynihan’s report began his estrangement from fellow liberals. He became counselor to a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and after that Nixon’s ambassador to India. Following his return from India, he wrote an article in Commentary, “The United States in Opposition,” which argued that liberal Western nations were outnumbered and outvoted in international forums and must start mounting a vigorous defense of their principles in those places. The article led to his 1975 appointment by another Republican president, Gerald Ford, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
At the time Moynihan received the appointment, the resolution declaring Zionism, alone among nationalisms, to be a form of “racism and racial discrimination” was making its way through UN conferences and committees to the floor of the General Assembly. Moynihan recognized the resolution for what it was, a means not just of delegitimating Israel and its allies in the West but of deflecting attention from Soviet abuses of human rights, not least those of Soviet Jews. His indignant reaction resonated with the American public. In 1976, after fighting the resolution at the UN, he became the Democratic U.S. Senator from New York, catapulted into the front ranks of the party from which he had been more or less alienated for a decade. As senator, Moynihan took many positions and received many honors, but Troy thinks the fight against Resolution 3379 was Moynihan’s greatest moment, and it is hard to argue with him.
I was along for the ride. When I was a graduate student at Harvard, I had served as one of Pat’s teaching assistants—we called them “section men”—in a course titled “Social Science and Social Policy.” By the time he was appointed to the UN and looking for a special assistant, I had finished my doctorate and was teaching at Yale. I had obvious drawbacks as a candidate for the job. Among other things, I was—am—not just a Jew but a very short one. Moynihan, Irish, was 6’5″ tall. I was not going to be able to do some of the defining jobs of a special assistant, which are to open the door for the boss and, if necessary, hold an umbrella over his head.
On the other hand, I had a knack for channeling Moynihan’s prose style, and, as a student of Harvey Mansfield, I was just acquainted enough with Leo Strauss to be habitually looking for the secret threads that wind through politics. In those days no one had a surer sense than Moynihan about which of those threads, properly pulled, could rip open the curtains and expose the reality behind them. I was not the first or last Moynihan aide to have such skills. But, in the fall of 1975, there I was, and Moynihan, as he did for years afterward, knew what he needed. When I agreed to go to the UN with him and asked Yale’s political science department for a leave, my chairman said, “If you go, you’ll never come back.” I thought he was being overly dramatic.
When I arrived at my office in the U.S. Mission to the UN in July, the newly appointed Moynihan was in Geneva at a meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council. My first task came in an urgent message from Pat’s secretary: “The Ambassador wants you to get that Disraeli quote from Bea Kristol.” I had exactly no idea why Pat was in Geneva or what Disraeli had to do with it. But, with help from Bea—Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian of Victorian ideas, who, like her husband Irving, was Pat’s close friend—I pieced it together.
On July 9, a reporting cable had arrived in Geneva from Barbara White, a Foreign Service officer with ambassadorial rank, who had been the chief U.S. representative to the UN’s International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. The final declaration of the conference had called for the elimination of evils including “Zionism,” “apartheid,” and “racial discrimination.” The United States, along with Israel, had voted against the declaration. Ambassador White’s cable called it “regrettable that the ‘no’ vote was necessary, and particularly unfortunate that we were isolated in company only with Israel.” But, she continued, “I do not consider it of great importance to the outcome of the conference.” The United States, she said, “achieved its principal objective.”
Ambassador White’s cable had raised the literary (and moral and political) hairs on the back of Pat’s neck and sent him hunting for the quote—it turned out to be from Disraeli’s novel
Contarini Fleming—that he paraphrased in his answering cable: “Few ideas are correct ones, and which they are none can tell, but with words we govern men.”
Ambassador White’s chirpily oblivious cable had perfectly illustrated the State Department’s determination to ignore words, true or false, if they threatened to throw a wrench into the diplomatic gears. Moynihan saw the lie coming and began to mobilize.
The mobilization took different forms, some of which were political. Soon after Pat arrived back in New York, he instructed me to get in touch with Carl Gershman and begin making arrangements for a reception at the U.S. Mission in honor of the Social Democrats, U.S.A. Again I was clueless. Gershman? The Social Democrats, a marginal political group—a splinter of a splinter? Well, not exactly. During the years when Vietnam tore American liberalism to shreds, the anti-communist left—including the Social Democrats, civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin, and the American labor movement under the leadership of Lane Kirkland—preserved a sense of the stakes in the struggle and the means by which that struggle would be waged.
Moynihan’s mobilizing also involved, as was usual with him, data. As he waged his campaign against the Zionism resolution, we often heard from our State Department colleagues that we should not lean too hard on other nations to support us in multilateral forums like the UN because we had a countervailing interest in maintaining good bilateral relations with them. It was not worth antagonizing Brazil over a UN vote, the argument went, when our trade and security relations with Brazil were so much more important.
Pat set me to investigating the question of which UN member nations really had significant bilateral relations with the United States and which did not—in terms of investments, exports, imports of oil and other critical materials, and strategic considerations. This was not a trivial exercise: At that time, in order to find out how much we imported from Gabon, one actually had to fly to Washington, sit down in the bowels of the Commerce Department, and tally figures by hand. It turned out that with half the member nations of the UN, there wasn’t much reason for us not to lean on them to get them to vote with us.
When the report was done, I was sent to Washington once more, to hand it personally to Richard Cheney, then second-in-command to Donald Rumsfeld in the Ford White House. Again I was behind the curve. Why not send the report by ordinary diplomatic pouch? Why fly me to Washington for a personal White House meeting? I did not know the answers when I got on the plane at LaGuardia. But by the time I left the White House, after a conversation with Cheney of surprising seriousness about what Moynihan’s new “multilateral” policy sought to accomplish, I had learned a lesson in how to deliver a message.
The weeks that followed were a time of perfect clarity for me—as the Zionism resolution progressed toward a vote in the Third Committee, the United States tried unavailingly to stop it, and the country erupted. Thousands of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, began sending pro-Moynihan,
anti-resolution letters to the U.S. Mission to the UN. Columnists voiced support in major newspapers. With the patriotism of a first-generation American, the Zionism of a little girl whose mother worshipped Golda Meir, and the pro-labor sentiments of a child forbidden to cross the picket line at a rest stop on the New York Thruway, I could not imagine, politically speaking, being anywhere else.
In Troy’s book I come across as a tiny Madame Defarge, knitting the names of our enemies into my memos. That was more or less the way it was. Looking back, I see that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, by whom Pat so often felt misused, was himself blindsided and even hurt by what he saw as Moynihan’s pursuit of his own foreign policy. I understand that people in the State Department, habituated to make the best of bad situations, may not have deserved the excoriations we heaped on them for doing what they had, after all, been trained to do. But Moynihan was pulling on a central thread of history, and there is no denying the excitement that came with helping him do it.
The famous speech that Moynihan made after the General Assembly’s passage of the “Zionism is racism” resolution grew out of a memo to us by political theorist Charles Fairbanks, who argued that the UN resolution, by perverting the meaning of the word “racism,” an offense against the idea of human rights, degraded the language of human rights. We did not always have this language: It arose from the view of certain 17th-century philosophers that individuals exist independent of their governments and, therefore, can legitimately assert claims and demands against these governments. That is, they have rights. Later political philosophies like Marxism have no concepts that justify and protect these rights, no new words to replace the old ones.
No one could have grasped this reasoning more quickly than Moynihan. On the night before his speech, he—and his wife, Liz, and Norman Podhoretz, and I—were in the UN Ambassador’s apartment on the 42nd floor of the Waldorf-Astoria working on the draft. When he delivered the speech on the General Assembly floor, he put the case thus:
When the old language is worn out and destroyed, no new Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson will arise to renew it . . . What we are witnessing . . . unless we can stand in its way, is the most crippling blow yet dealt in the irreversible decline of the concern with human rights as we know it.
He concluded as he had begun, with a peroration that was—well, Moynihanesque:
The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.
The applause throughout the country was loud and long; the criticism in the diplomatic corps and the State Department was quiet and ominous. Isolated within the State Department, Moynihan left his UN post to return to teaching at Harvard. But there was a second chapter to the excitement: his 1976 campaign for U.S. senator from New York. Troy’s book says the idea of running for the Senate didn’t enter Moynihan’s mind until after the furor erupted over his fight against the Zionism resolution. In truth it is hard to say what entered Pat’s mind and when it entered; there was hardly a brain more capable of entertaining more ideas simultaneously. But Moynihan’s narrow primary victory over Representative Bella Abzug, supported by the same liberal-conservative coalition that had sustained Pat at the UN, did for the state’s Democratic Party what his UN performance had done for the country as a whole, providing it with a reminder of certain shared values that a decade of America’s internecine political warfare had not torn loose.
As later years showed, neither coalitions nor clarity have much staying power in politics. But I was there when the issue was self-evident, the energy was abundant, and the loyalties were unclouded. I was lucky.
O’Brien himself didn’t consider his history of Zionism to be anything more than a bit of haute vulgarization, but it is much more than that. It is one of those uncommon works of political history in which a man who knows how the world works tells a great story with dazzling literary skill.
Many authors have passionate readers, but few have drawn as many self-consciously nutty fans as Saul Bellow.
There is more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, but today instead of words we offer images.
Dozens of books on Jewish history, culture, and literature are published each month. Here are some debuting this November.