Chapter oneSo Your Father Was Jew!
So, your father was Jew, yes?" United Nations Undersecretary-General Viacheslav Ustinov asked me abruptly.
He was a Russian who squinted constantly and spoke English with a forced, high-pitched voice and a persistent interrogative inflection. Instead of saying "er" between words, he said "myah." His eyes marbled off the wall next to him, cluttered with several pictures, poster-style, of the United Nations building and a large one of the Palace of Culture in Moscow. His shifting eye movements toward me and the wall seemed to be saying, "See? The United Nations may be in New York, but the Palace of Culture is in Moscow!"
Ustinov was the top Soviet official in the UN Secretariat, but not the top Soviet agent. His special assistant who watched over him held that honor, a fact that was well known around the corridors. Arkady Kashirin spoke and acted unmistakably as a member of the Soviet Committee on Government Security, or KGB. He would let you know with side glances and body language that he, Kashirin, was really in charge.
In a sense I outranked Ustinov, for I was understood to be the top American spy, a new commodity with my arrival at the UN. During the Cold War the Soviets had established a considerable covert beachhead at the UN Secretariat, and I had been unofficially appointed by Vice President Bush to monitor their activities. But I probably did not match Kashirin, who held real power over Ustinov as a KGB control. I was one against 274 of them at the time of my arrival, for, unfortunately, I was the only American spy. I knew that all too well, as did Kashirin. Still, I believe that he considered me to be some sort of worthy rival. We owed each other professional courtesy as spies and scoundrels. During the Soviet era, no stigma was attached to being a scoundrel in support of the right cause.
I had entered never-never land only a few days before, arriving from Washington in mid-September 1983. It was not that I was unaccustomed to circuslike environments, for I had already spent twenty-seven years in the U.S. government, including time with several executive departments, two White House staffs, and an international development bank--all organizations in which bizarre professional styles and equally bizarre codes of conduct were standard. I had also spent a considerable amount of time informally lobbying and appearing before the U.S. Congress.
But the United Nations Secretariat seemed to me at first glance to be a loosely supervised playground for alarmingly disturbed adults. Even the Soviet staff members were allowed to engage in whimsical bureaucratic escapades provided they did not run away or defect. I was still too narrow-minded and unprepared for so much lunacy.
Ustinov's question about my father's lineage was one that had never been put to me while serving in the United States government. I asked Ustinov to repeat the question.
"Your father, your father
, he was Jew."
"My father was a Basque with a non-Basque last name. I don't believe he was a Jew."
"Yes, yes," Ustinov insisted. "Your father was Jew. I know. I have very good sources in this building. You have a big file here at UN now. Also, I have article--recent article--about you in newspaper Washington Times
. It say your father was composer. I know!"
Several thoughts occurred to me during this seemingly demented confrontation. Are all composers Jews? Was the KGB moonlighting for the United Nations in Washington, stealing people's records for their UN personnel files? Why did my Soviet inquisitor give a damn who my father was? And more specifically, why was I--until a few days before an assistant secretary in good standing in the U.S. Department of the Interior--being subjected to this blatant anti-Semitic harassment? And why, indeed, was I being put in a position where I had to deny being Jewish in front of this idiot or anyone else?
But what I considered preposterous seemed to be a question of the utmost importance at the UN. Why was the United States sponsoring a Secretariat official who was also a Jew? Did it have any political significance? Was it a tangible and legitimate issue?
I quickly realized that haggling and lengthy arguments were the wrong strategy with the likes of Undersecretary-General Ustinov, who delivered an incoherent combination of smiles and intimidating expressions that did not appear to parallel his words.
"All right, my father was indeed a Jew, and proud of it, too!" I lied belligerently. Ustinov smiled very smugly, but gently, in what he thought was his moment of triumph.
But then he frowned.
"Yes, I thought," he said.
Soviet bureaucrats had to be right--always. I knew about that from numerous encounters with them in Geneva and other places during my Defense Department days. They would never agree with you. You had to make them think you agreed with them to get any point across.
Soon the mystery unraveled, however. The originator of another interrogation was not a Russian. He was a Peruvian.
Two days prior to my courtesy call on comrade Ustinov, I had visited the UN secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, whose policy planning director I had been asked to become by means of an "urgent" telegram-contract from the secretary-general himself.
Don Javier, a Peruvian diplomat, was not much of a conversationalist. His occasional flair for subtle Cheshire cat humor later indicated to me that he was not stupid. Yet during social occasions he used to focus nervously on obvious trivia. At receptions he would say things like "The food is still warm at the buffet" or "So many people here are Polish," at a social gathering at the Polish mission.
"Your name is Sanjuan," Don Javier said at one point during that first meeting, with a slight interrogatory inflection. I had spent the previous first awkward minutes in a belligerent exchange with him, sitting on a couch across from his desk in his six-window office facing the East River from the thirty-eighth story of the UN--a great view except that much of the river traffic there usually consists of garbage scows. He did not look directly at me but in a glancing way, indicating that he saw me only peripherally.
"Yes, Sanjuan is indeed my name! I got it from my father, Don Javier. But then you have known that for a while now!"
"Yes," he replied, now gazing out the windows. "But how did you get the name of a saint? It is not very common."
"Well," I replied, "probably some ancestor of mine, way back at the end of the fifteenth century in Spain, converting from Judaism to Christianity, changed his name to San Juan as a sign of his sincere conversion, or so my father used to conjecture."
The secretary-general--apparently quite disturbed at the possibility that I was of Jewish descent--must have commented about the untoward discovery to a few of his aides. So at least the indiscreet Emilio de Olivares, Javier's assistant, suggested to me, apparently in an effort to ingratiate himself. Nevertheless, Olivares himself probably passed the alarming word around, "The Americans have sent us a Jew in disguise." And I was to be the top and only American spy with White House credentials. This was bad news. The news soon reached Ustinov, who confronted me with the "hidden facts" of my case when I paid him the courtesy call a few days later.
These Ionesco-like scenes did not take place in seventeenth-century Warsaw, nor in Minsk in the previous century, nor in the Kiev ghetto during the reign of Nicholas I of Russia. This was taking place in New York City in late September 1983, inside an international enclave apparently totally removed from the reality surrounding it.
For me it was the beginning of an anti-Semitic journey of ten years' duration that never ceased to amaze me, particularly after I realized that anti-Semitism was an established part of the UN way of life. It was not just a political attitude involving Israel. Anti-Semitism was a cultural mind-set, colloidally suspended or emulsified, that defined the UN "culture."
Yet this was not the only paradox that disfigured an otherwise benevolent and humanitarian UN image. Other quaint forms of racism as well as the indulgence of incompetence and sloth, along with a pervasive ecosystem of corruption, all competed for the UN malpractice trophy.
* * *
I had arrived at the main doors of that famous glass tower on Manhattan's First Avenue without a pass. It was a warm September day. My arrival was awaited in the office of the secretary-general with suspicion and alarm. The American spy was not welcome. The secretary-general himself was a former Peruvian ambassador to Moscow whom I had first met when I was a member of U.S. delegations dealing with the doomed Law of the Sea Treaty and the laws of war.
A uniformed guard had met me at the United Nations visitors' entrance. Tourists in shorts and sandals, some in pin curls with noisy children running around eating lollipops, were being allowed free access to the building. But not I, even on my first day of official duty. There was never much meaningful security at the UN, particularly in those preterrorist days. But the reception accorded to me was special. I seemed to be the present danger. Although I was actually already on the staff of the secretary-general, the guard escorted me in much the way they used with prisoners going to maximum security in Alcatraz. Still another guard halted me after I left the elevator at the thirty-eighth floor.
"Wait!" he commanded.
"Have you forgotten something?" I asked him quite audibly.
"The word 'please,' my friend," I said, again just as audibly.
I told him I had no intention of proceeding anywhere since I did not know my way around and had recently been to the bathroom. He was not amused. Abruptly he pointed his finger to a place behind him by the windows that faced New York's East River.
I did not budge. Finally a secretary came up to me. She kept her eyes mostly closed, her eyelids strangely fluttering, I suppose to signify from the start her lack of patience with me. She did not ask me who I was. She knew who I was all too well. Apparently only I didn't know just exactly what I represented to the occupants of the thirty-eighth floor, the UN sanctum sanctorum. She must have sensed that I was an obvious, pulsating threat. Without a word, but by means of peremptory hand signals--emphasized by long, curving artificial fingernails--she led me to a narrow waiting room. I sat down on a leather armchair from which I could still see the huffy, claw-festooned secretary fidgeting at her desk.
My left eye caught hers. She came back to the door of the waiting room and shut it with unnecessary force.
"An auspicious beginning!" I thought. She soon reappeared and almost shouted with a British accent of palpable Argentine origin, "He will see ju!"
"When?" I asked.
"Immediately!" she blurted.
Before the nonsense about the origin of my name, Perez de Cuellar appeared strangely taciturn, very shy, and, for some reason, somewhat embarrassed. He finally mentioned the weather. I instinctively looked out one of his six windows to verify the gibberish about the atmospheric conditions, and I realized that the helicopters making their approach to the heliport on Thirty-fourth Street were actually flying below the secretary-general's window, perhaps as a sign of homage.
"You were proposed by Vice President George Bush as director for political affairs. How do you feel about that?" the secretary-general asked me hesitatingly.
"Look, Don Javier," I replied, "with all due respect, I believe we both understand enough about politics not to treat this as some sort of job interview. I have a telegram from you that purports to be a full-fledged contract."
The secretary-general nodded nervously. Apparently he was not really a contentious man. He proceeded to show me his collection of Latin American art, most of which hung above the couch.
The title of secretary-general is confusing to many people. It means that he is supposed to be in charge of the UN Secretariat, which is in turn presumed to function as the UN nerve center. The UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council are roughly--very roughly--equivalent to the House and Senate. Thus the secretary-general is like a president--the person charged with implementing the laws or resolutions passed by the assembly and council and with taking executive initiatives as well. But this simple description would be misleading.
From its very inception in the mid-1940s, the UN was conceived as an organization where the victors of WWII would apportion real power among themselves while sharing certain seductive but ornamental functions with the rest of the world. Thus the UN Security Council was to deal with issues affecting security, as its name implied. On it, the uncomfortable partners in the grand alliance against Germany, Italy, and Japan had permanent seats and power to veto initiatives put to a vote. In fact, as the Cold War unfolded, there were only two meaningful participants in the Security Council--the United States, with its surrogates the United Kingdom and France, and the Soviet Union, with the People's Republic of China. Usually outvoted by the total membership of the Security Council, the Soviet bloc relied heavily on the veto for damage control.
The General Assembly, as its name implies, was very "general." There, all the UN member states had and still have one vote. Today the People's Republic of China, with a population of over 1.2 billion, has the same single vote in the UN General Assembly as does the Republic of Belau, created after a plebiscite I organized in the Pacific Trust Territory in 1983 when I was assistant secretary of interior. The population of Belau has exploded from 15,000 in 1984 to over 17,000 today. The concept of one vote per member state reflected the mind-set of the victors of WWII. Let the rest of the world have a forum from which to vent against or endorse the policies of the superpowers. UN General Assembly resolutions, of course, can have symbolic influence. In addition, the General Assembly carries out certain organizational functions that require perfunctory approval. But it is not and cannot be, under the existing representational apportionment, a meaningful world parliament.
The UN Secretariat is more than the administrative-executive branch of the UN. Implied in the concept that the Secretariat is to remain removed from the direct influence of the member states in its operations is an overall attitude of quarantine under which the most nefarious political stratagems are carried out along with the most outrageously corrupt practices, all under the cloak of diplomatic immunity and freedom from oversight.
During that first official meeting, Perez de Cuellar, having gotten nowhere with his first approach, now tried a totally different tack. He explained that I was to direct policy planning for him and the Security Council with a staff ostensibly controlled by the Soviets. But, he added, in hushed tones, as if the walls of his office had ears (they probably did), that I would also be working as his liaison with the White House and U.S. Congress. He knew I had strong connections in Washington, and he expected me to use my good offices with Vice President Bush as well as with his "dear friend," U.S. Permanent Representative Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The UN Gang by Pedro A. Sanjuan. Copyright © 2005 by Pedro Sanjuan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.