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Books: In Camera

3 minute read
Curtis Prenedgast



280 pages. Putnam. $7.95.

Why did Ultraconservative William Buckley overcome his loathing for the United Nations and accept an assignment last year as U.S. representative on the U.N. Human Rights Committee? “Pure undiluted Walter Mittyism” seized him, Buckley confesses. Single-handed he would hold the world body spellbound as he read from Solzhenitsyn or pleaded the case for Ballet Dancer Valéry Panov. He would cajole, mesmerize, seduce, intimidate the delegates. The soaring Buckley vision of man’s rights, in fact, might “repristinate” the jaded international bureaucracy.

The U.N., alas, was to remain un-repristinated, for Buckley found himself ventriloquized. By federal statute—Harry Truman’s way of muzzling Eleanor Roosevelt when she occupied the same U.N. chair in 1945, Buckley suspects —he could not, utter anything to the U.N. Assembly in New York that had not been dictated by Washington. With his oratory stilled, but not his newspaper column or the daily jottings which form this witty journal, Buckley soldiered on. He handled his quota of agenda items: Status of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Measures to Be Taken Against Ideologies and Practices Based on Terror or on Incitement to Racial Discrimination or Any Other Form of Group Hatred; Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population in Occupied Territories.

Buckley soon learned the U.N. folkways: that the Soviet Union’s Yakov Malik has “a deeply cultivated propensity for lying”; that the U.N.’s reputation as “the densest collection of oratorical bores in the history of the world” owes most to Saudi Arabia’s Jamil Baroody; that racism at the U.N. is what white does to black, never the reverse. He found that the U.S. is excessively concerned about not giving diplomatic offense and that around the U.N., the convention is simply to ignore Soviet infractions against the organization’s stated ideals. As a result official hypocrisy reaches scandalous proportions. In fact, writes Buckley, “the U.N. is the most concentrated assault on moral reality in the history of free institutions,” and it does not do for Americans “to ignore that fact or, worse, to get used to it.”

Would Buckley abolish the U.N. or pull the U.S. out? Not at all. His book comes out as a lament for the U.N.’s failed trust. Walter Mittyism seizes Buckley again as he imagines a coup in which U.N. military advisers take over and forbid the Arabs to bemoan the plight of the world’s poor without sharing their oil, or the Africans to excoriate racism without subduing their own racists. In Buckley’s fantasy U.N., too, Eastern European representatives would be required to ask Soviet permission every time they rise to speak. Buckley concludes that the world would settle for a little practical progress at the U.N., just for the sake of truth. As the Walter Mitty in him died, a U.N. reformer was born.

Curtis Prendergast

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