Book Review: A Dangerous Place by Daniel Patrick Moynihan

This book review was originally published in the December 18, 1978 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

War of Words

by Daniel Patrick Moynihan with Suzanne Weaver
Atlantic-Little, Brown 297 pages; $12.50

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the most controversial and explosive U.S. ambassador ever appointed to the U.N. During eight stormy months in the post in 1975-76, he bruised so many feelings that a scandalized delegate said his colleagues were in “positive dread of his manners, his language and his abuse.” The delegates will not be any happier with the ex-ambassador’s account of his U.N. days. His scathing description of the organization: “Envision the British Home Office of 1900 enlarged five hundredfold, teeming with the incompetent appointees of decadent peers and corrupt borough councillors, infiltrated and near to immobilized by agents of the Black Hand, Sinn Fein and the Rosicrucians (some falsely representing themselves as devotees of Madame Blavatsky).”

For all his scorn, Moynihan does not want to quit the U.N. or ignore it; on the contrary, he insists on taking it more seriously as a forum to advance U.S. values and interests. He faults the American liberal intelligentsia for its reluctance to do ideological battle, for what he calls its failure of nerve. That is surely not his problem. His U.N. performance was so audacious that critics wondered if it were calculated to advance his own political ambitions. Though Moynihan vowed not to quit the U.N. to run for office, he did just that. He won election to the Senate in New York at least in part because he was such a resolute champion of Israel.

Yet his U.N. stance was not inconsistent with views he had expressed all along. He landed the job, in fact, after writing an article for Commentary magazine urging Americans to stand up for their principles and talk back to their totalitarian detractors. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Moynihan that he wished he had written the article himself. Notes Moynihan: “He said I would know this was the highest compliment he could pay another man. I did.”

At the U.N., Moynihan lived up to his words. Certainly, the intemperate Third World attacks on the U.S. and Israel de served some kind of strong rebuttal. He replied to Idi Amin’s ranting assault on Is rael by calling Uganda’s dictator a “racist murderer.” He excoriated the rest of the U.N. for tolerating vicious abuse of the world’s dwindling democracies. “There are those in this country,” he said, “whose pleasure, or profit, it is to believe that our assailants are motivated by what is wrong about us . . . We are assailed because we are a democracy.”

Trying to assuage indignant Africans, the U.S. mission drafted a press release in which the ambassador would have acknowledged that while some of Amin’s remarks were offensive, others deserved wide approval. Moynihan balked. “I let it be known,” he writes, “that not one god damn thing Amin had said had won my ‘wide approval.’ ” It began to dawn on Kissinger that his ambassador was more than he had bargained for. Bit by leaked bit, the Secretary indicated his displeasure, until a rebuke via James Reston’s column in the New York Times persuaded Moynihan that his job was at an end.

In his book, Moynihan settles some scores with the man who more or less dumped him. While professing to admire Kissinger’s energy, ambition and daring, Moynihan portrays him as a Machiavellian who never says what he means. He claims that Kissinger’s former aide, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, once told him: “Henry does not lie because it is in his interest. He lies because it is in his nature.” (Denying he made such a remark, Sonnenfeldt says that it “sounds so much like a Moynihan aphorism.”)

Still, the break between these two gifted public servants was baffling be cause they have much the same approach to world affairs. Unsentimental to the point of acidity, both appreciate the imperatives of power and have no illusions about their Communist opponents. Perhaps it was style as much as anything that separated them: the difference between a man whose words were always guarded and one whose words never were, between a man who practiced quiet diplomacy and one who sought public confrontation.

Their dialogue is likely to continue. Moynihan, apparently, wants to run for President. Failing that, he will remain in the Senate. Kissinger, meanwhile, has said that he, too, might like to run for the Senate in New York in 1980. If he were elected as New York’s “junior” member, would the Senate be big enough to contain two such irrepressible and combustible personalities?

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