Moynihan’s Moment: 
America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism
By Gil Troy
Oxford, 368 pages

The United Nations General Assembly’s “Zionism is racism” resolution, adopted on November 10, 1975, was a Cold War high-water mark for the Soviet Union and a low-water mark for the UN. Passed by a 72–35 margin (with another 32 members abstaining or absent), Resolution 3379 sought to delegitimize Israel by equating its entire reason for being to South African apartheid. It came during a decidedly bad period for the United States, following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment and resignation, the slow-motion, self-inflicted defeat in Vietnam, and the unraveling of America’s social structure.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s determined opposition to “Z/r” during his brief tenure (less than eight months) as U.S. ambassador to the UN was a significant contribution to arresting the seemingly inexorable series of American setbacks. Unquestionably, it was a noteworthy historical footnote—but also much more, as Gil Troy powerfully describes in Moynihan’s Moment. Troy has written both a quasi-biography of Moynihan and a history of the evil resolution. Both are comprehensive, well integrated, and fluently narrated. 

Troy rightly emphasizes Moynihan’s insight that “Z/r” was driven by Soviet political ambitions against the West; its purpose was to criticize Israel in order to weaken larger opponents. The wave of postcolonial, secular, anti-Western, Arab nationalism that rolled through the region following the 1956 Suez Canal crisis provided openings for the Soviets, which they handled masterfully. Resolution 3379 allowed Moscow to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities under cover of Third World politics in ways neither Arab governments nor other “non-aligned” countries fully appreciated.

Of course, the Arab states and Third Worlders generally had their own objectives, but, characteristically at the Cold War UN, they were simply playing supporting roles in a Soviet production. Zionism and Israel were not under attack solely because they were Jewish, but because they were Western. To this day, many Americans have still not figured out this central truth, which Moynihan deduced almost four decades ago.

Moynihan understood unambiguously that being America’s UN ambassador was, and is, as much a political post as a diplomatic one. Indeed, the title of former Secretary of State James Baker’s memoir, The Politics of Diplomacy, exemplifies the larger fact that foreign policy is inevitably high politics. While career diplomats may prefer the back room, those rooms are increasingly hard to find, especially in salient positions like the UN ambassadorship. Moynihan saw this reality and capitalized on it, informed by his own experiences in New York politics before becoming a Harvard don. He foreshadowed his approach in “The United States in Opposition,” published in the March 1975 issue of Commentary, which gave both Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford the idea of sending him to the UN (just as a Commentary article later swept Jeane Kirkpatrick to Turtle Bay).

A New York Times headline pithily characterized his views: “Moynihan Calls on U.S. to Start ‘Raising Hell’ in UN.” And indeed he did. Reactions to his tenure at the UN could not have been more varied. Dean Acheson quipped to him: “My respect for you took a precipitous decline when I learned you even considered that ridiculous job.” Mauritania’s ambassador said diplomats “lived in positive dread” of Moynihan’s “manners, his language, and his abuse.” William Safire saw it more accurately, writing that, under Moynihan’s approach, “diplomacy is becoming a two-way street.” 

To achieve this feat, Moynihan grasped, as the State Department had not, that the language of UN speeches and resolutions was part of the larger ideological struggle being waged by anti-Western forces. He rejected State’s conventional approach to diplomacy, which he later called “a form of good manners that is a kind of substitute for ideas.” He saw no point, for example, in trying to minimize the implications of Yasir Arafat’s 1974 assertion to the General Assembly that “whoever stands by a just cause and fights for liberation from invaders and colonists cannot be called terrorists.” Rather than explaining away such repugnant language, or being satisfied with cosmetic changes in the wording of draft texts, Moynihan and those in the U.S. Mission to the UN who shared his understanding sought more fundamental revisions to protect Western interests. Actually describing what was offensive in proposed resolutions and trying to rewrite them violated the clubby customs of the “ambassadors’ union” in New York that allowed so much hostile and irresponsible language to be adopted. Moynihan could not have cared less.

Moynihan was fighting on several fronts at once. Not only did he have to take on the anti-American attitudes rampant at the United Nations, but he also had to confront the rose-colored-glasses view of the UN that was still held by many Americans. In 1975 and for years thereafter, many argued the UN could be a problem-solver once the gridlock of Cold War animosities ended. “Z/r,” however, demonstrated beyond dispute that the UN was simply a reflection of the ideas of member governments, even at its best nothing more or less than the sum of their competing national interests. With blinding clarity, Resolution 3379 shattered whatever contrary illusions many Americans might still have retained from the UN’s 1945 founding in San Francisco. This was particularly true for the Jewish community, which still remembered the UN’s role in modern Israel’s establishment, and which largely and happily accepted David Ben-Gurion’s assertion that “we consider that the United Nations’ ideal is a Jewish ideal.” 

Not after 3379, and that is precisely why remembering how Moynihan confronted his times is so important. The operative word is confronted. Moynihan returned to domestic politics after his “moment.” Even before the vote on Resolution 3379, the media had wondered whether the UN Ambassadorship was simply a stepping-stone to elective office. Moynihan was unequivocal in his denials. On October 26, he said on the Sunday-morning talk show Face the Nation, “I would consider it dishonorable to leave this post and run for any office.” A few days later, Moynihan sent his remark to incumbent New York Senator Jim Buckley, writing, “You were so kind to state at the Al Smith dinner that if I were to run you would resign, and I genuinely regret that I can’t provide you such an easy out.”

Nonetheless, Moynihan left his ambassadorship in February 1976, returned briefly to Harvard, announced his Senate candidacy on June 10, and defeated Buckley in November, effectively erasing his Face the Nation comment from contemporary history. 

However brief Moynihan’s UN tenure, or whatever his motivation for departing, his “moment” was real and important, as Troy makes clear. When “Zionism is racism” was repealed in 1991, Moynihan was present in the General Assembly chamber, and deservedly so. His embodiment of a United States that stands by its principles and its allies, and ultimately vindicates both, remains equally an inspiration for Americans and a clear signal abroad about our leadership and exceptionalism.

No Soviet Union exists today to mastermind an anti-Western atmosphere, and it is no longer needed. The United States, despite its revival under Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush, seems as dispirited now as in the 1970s, and Europe is even worse. America is retreating from the larger defense of the West, as we did in the Cold War’s aftermath. Inevitably, the result is the same: Our diplomats are under attack, our military budget is shrinking, and our international presence is in disarray. 

Unfortunately, in the next four years, there will probably be no change. It was the recently minted secretary of state, John Kerry, who lauded the “global test” for U.S. foreign policy during his 2004 presidential campaign, craving Security Council approval for U.S. efforts to defend legitimate national interests. And it was Kerry who just this past year struggled unsuccessfully for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty and the UN Disabilities Convention. The first represents a massive, unwarranted surrender of American sovereignty, and the second is not a fit subject for international treaties. Perversely, such characteristics are virtues in the Obama-Kerry worldview, not problems.

The achievements of “Moynihan’s moment”—a phrase coined, ironically as it turned out, by William F. Buckley Jr., brother to James—will not be duplicated any time soon.

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