On November 10, 1975, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism. After the vote, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, rose to speak, his voice shaking with anger. “The United States rises to declare,” proclaimed Moynihan, “before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” In his speech, Moynihan recognized the U.N. resolution for what it was: an attack on Israel, and its right to exist, and a totalitarian assault on democracy itself, motivated by both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. Moynihan’s eloquent defense of the State of Israel made him a political celebrity and paved the way for his 1976 election to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve for 24 years.
In Moynihan’s Moment, McGill University historian Gil Troy recounts the dramatic story of Moynihan and America’s fight against the Zionism-as-racism resolution, and Moynihan’s heroic political efforts to prevent its passage. At the time of his appointment as U.N. ambassador in 1975, Moynihan enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of America’s most thoughtful and prolific policy analysts and public intellectuals, having spent two decades alternating between positions in government and positions in academia. After serving for four years as a top aide to New York governor Averell Harriman, and then completing his Ph.D. in international relations, Moynihan served in various domestic-policy posts in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, including a stint as a special assistant to Kennedy’s secretary of labor, Arthur Goldberg. He subsequently became director of the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies and a tenured professor at the Harvard School of Education. “Even though he spent few years actually being that,” notes Troy, “he was defined as a Harvard professor for the rest of his life, the model of the scholar-politician.” In 1969, he joined the Nixon administration, with a cabinet-level position as “counselor to the president” for urban affairs, and also served as a “public delegate” on the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Moynihan returned to Harvard in January 1971, but in January 1973 he accepted President Nixon’s nomination to be ambassador to India.
As Troy discusses in some detail, Moynihan owed his appointment as U.N. ambassador to an influential article he had written for Commentary magazine. Moynihan had been writing for Commentary since 1961, and the magazine’s editor, Norman Podhoretz, had become a close friend. In January 1975, as Moynihan was resigning his ambassadorship to India and preparing to return to Harvard, Podhoretz commissioned him to write the article “The United States in Opposition,” which was published in the March 1975 issue and caused an immediate sensation. For the first time since becoming Commentary’s editor in 1960, notes Troy, Podhoretz called a press conference to promote a particular article. With its provocative thesis that the U.S. now stood as a minority, in opposition to the coalition of Soviet-backed Arab and Third World dictatorships in the U.N., it caused an immediate sensation. Moynihan told his friend (and White House chief of staff) Donald Rumsfeld that he had never provoked such a response “in all my scribbling.” Rumsfeld brought the article to the attention of President Ford, who, in turn, showed it to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Highly impressed with Moynihan’s essay, which he proclaimed to be “one of the most important articles in a long time,” and one that he “wished he had written,” Kissinger quickly approved Ford’s suggestion that Moynihan be appointed ambassador to the U.N. This was a decision that Kissinger would come to regret: Moynihan lasted as ambassador for only eight months, resigning in response to the fervent opposition Kissinger had mobilized against him at Foggy Bottom.
Troy brilliantly analyzes Kissinger’s incessant efforts to undermine Moynihan’s position. As Troy demonstrates, Moynihan’s U.N. speech marked the rise of neoconservatism in American politics, inspiring the beginning of a more confrontational foreign policy, one that rejected Kissinger’s détente-driven realist approach to the Soviet Union — which was behind Resolution 3379 — as nothing short of appeasement. In denouncing the resolution, as Carl Gershman would later note, Moynihan was “declaring ideological war — or at least mounting an ideological counterattack” on Kissinger’s policy of détente, which, because it ignored Soviet human-rights abuses, was seen by many as a failure.
“Five years before the anti-Communist trinity of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul, and Margaret Thatcher put Western policy on a more moralistic footing,” notes Troy, “Moynihan blazed the trail.” The appointment of the author of “The United States in Opposition” as ambassador to the U.N. signaled a new, robustly unapologetic style of diplomacy to confront the new alliance among the Soviet Union, the PLO, and their Third World allies, and their collective efforts to delegitimate Israel and its right to exist. Moynihan’s campaign to block the resolution had precipitated a threat against his life by the head of the U.N.’s Palestinian delegation.
Moynihan called Resolution 3379 “a political lie of a variety well known in the 20th century and scarcely exceeded in all that annal of untruth and outrage. The lie is that Zionism is a form of racism. The overwhelming truth is that it is not.” Moynihan proclaimed that, in the approval of this resolution, the “abomination of anti-Semitism . . . has been given the appearance of international sanction,” and that the General Assembly had granted “symbolic amnesty — and more — to the murderers of 6 million European Jews.”
Troy discusses in illuminating detail the bitter rivalry between Kissinger and Moynihan, and Kissinger’s efforts to sabotage Moynihan’s diplomatic career both before and after Moynihan’s U.N. speech. Kissinger was especially jealous of Moynihan’s newfound public celebrity. “Moynihan’s ascendance,” Troy points out, “threatened Kissinger. Kissinger enjoyed his status as the Harvard wunderkind, dazzling bureaucrats and reporters; he did not want to share the spotlight with another articulate intellectual with a crimson glow.” Moreover, Moynihan’s confrontational and ideological approach to foreign policy and international diplomacy contrasted sharply with Kissinger’s diplomatic strategy.
Troy’s book also sheds new light on Kissinger’s privately voiced criticism of Israel in the aftermath of Moynihan’s fight against the U.N. resolution. “One major problem you will have is on Israel,” Kissinger warned Moynihan. “We must dissociate ourselves a bit from Israel. . . . They are desperately looking for a spokesman and they will work on you. . . . I don’t want Israel to get the idea that our U.N. mission is an extension of theirs. . . . We have to show Israel they don’t run us.” On November 10, the very day of Moynihan’s speech, Kissinger grumbled that “we are conducting foreign policy. This is not a synagogue.” In the days following Moynihan’s speech, Kissinger and his aides “mocked Moynihan’s Israel obsession. They wondered if he planned to convert.” “At some deep level,” Troy suggests, Kissinger, America’s Jewish secretary of state, resented the fact that “Moynihan was defending the Jewish state.” For several weeks, both privately and publicly, Kissinger vented his anger at Moynihan’s defense of Israel. The more Moynihan attacked the U.N. and defended Israel publicly, the angrier Kissinger became. “I will not put up with any more of Moynihan. I will not do it,” Kissinger fumed. Only eight months after his appointment, Henry Kissinger fired Moynihan.
Beautifully written, and rich in its insight and analysis, Gil Troy’s compelling study of “Moynihan’s moment” is the definitive account of this episode and of why its legacy is an enduring one. “In a lifetime of article writing and speech making,” Troy aptly concludes, “this may have been Moynihan’s greatest effort.” In the immediate aftermath of his U.N. speech, as Troy points out, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan had become a symbol of America’s renewed patriotism and confidence.” He had also become a hero to New York Jews, who, in 1976, helped elect him to the U.S. Senate, where he would continue to speak out against the U.N. resolution and seek its repeal. Moreover, as Troy points out, “Moynihan’s stand against Soviet and Third World bullying in the United Nations helped inspire Reagan’s more aggressive approach there.” In 1985, President Reagan, who had earlier called the 1975 resolution “outrageous,” “hypocritical,” “stupid,” and “vicious,” added his voice to the growing campaign to rescind it; ultimately, on December 16, 1991, 111 countries voted for the measure that repealed it. (Nine days later, the Soviet Union collapsed.)
Moynihan was in the General Assembly chamber during the December 16 vote. He toasted this “moment of truth and deliverance,” which dramatically exorcised “the last great horror of the Hitler-Stalin era.” Sixteen years after his historic U.N. speech, Moynihan’s courageous fight against the Zionism-as-racism resolution had been vindicated.
– Mr. Dalin, a rabbi and a professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University, is a co-author (with Jonathan D. Sarna) of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience.