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Trouble at the UN: From Khrushchev to Chavez | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- The recent UN General Assembly meeting has been one of the most controversial of its kind in sixty years.

The Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressing the meeting from the podium where U.S. President George W Bush had stood before him said, “Yesterday the devil came here. It still smells of sulphur today.” He continued, “I feel ashamed to stand in the same place that evil itself had stood (referring again to the American President). Chavez then lifted a copy of the book, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” by Noam Chomsky, a leftist American university professor. Whilst showing the book to the Assembly, Chavez said, “This is an excellent book that elaborates on the details of the American imperialist policy”. He advised all those present to read the book, (the book was published three years ago but did not receive any media attention in the U.S. Following Chavez’s speech, however, sales of the book have significantly increased). Chavez then visited Harlem in New York where he described Bush as a racist and a persecutor of America’s black population, Latinos and other minorities as well as an “alcoholic” and an addict of oil. He said: “Bush is not a President, he is an oil merchant. He conspired with oil companies to increase the price of fuel and these companies have made profits of billions of dollars.”

In addition, at the 61st General Assembly of the United Nations, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad launched an intense attack on President Bush (though this one was void of insults). He criticized the United States as he asks, “Which governments object to these [nuclear] rights? Governments that they themselves benefit from nuclear energy and the fuel cycle.” Alluding to the United States, he adds “Threats with nuclear weapons and other instruments of war by some powers have taken the place of respect for the rights of nations and the maintenance and promotion of peace and tranquillity.”

President Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the invitation alone to participate in a session caused major uproar as a number of members of the Jewish community protested angrily against the invite. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-defamation League for Jews, said “it’s like the Council inviting Hitler.” The President of the Council Richard Haass who was formerly the principal advisor to the previous Secretary of State Colin Powell and who is also Jewish, stated, “In the past, we have invited Yasser Arafat, President Robert Mugabe and John Adams.”

However, the most controversial visit by a foreign head of state that had caused much disruption to the General Assembly of the United Nations took place on 10 October 1960 when Nikita Khrushchev, Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party who arrived in New York to visit the United States for the first time. At that time, the Cold War between the two blocs; the Communists (led by Moscow) and the West (led by Washington) was intensifying. The crisis had reached its peak when five months beforehand, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down as it flew over Soviet territory and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured.

Khrushchev stood in Red Square in Moscow, on Labor Day, and criticised the United States, saying, “The United States has attacked our sovereignty. We will not allow anyone to encroach on our sovereignty, especially if it is the leader of colonialism and imperialism in this world.” This news surprised the Americans owing to the dramatic manner of the announcement, although they were not surprised by the clear propaganda of communists.

Relations were increasingly becoming intense as the Soviets had shot down the U-2 spy plane whilst arrangements were being made to hold a summit in Paris to be attended by the four superpowers, the United States, Russia, Britain and France.

Khrushchev stipulated three conditions to the then American President, Dwight Eisenhower, the first of which was an apology from the United States to Russia. Secondly, the punishment of the responsible parties (CIA), and finally, to stop any spy planes from flying over Russian territory again. Eisenhower approved the third condition only, provoking an angry response from Khrushchev who stated that he would boycott the summit in Paris, knowing that this would be tantamount to the failure of the summit and that the United States would be the cause of this failure. This is exactly what happened and to what William Taubman referred in his book, “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era”. Khrushchev arrived in New York within this tense atmosphere. On the first day of his visit, he went to see the Cuban President Fidel Castro who staying in a hotel in Harlem, New York. Outside of the hotel, Khrushchev gathered journalists around him and told them, “This is what they call American freedom. Here we are in an area that has been subjected to racial divisions and that condemns the capitalist system.

Khrushchev left Harlem and returned to his hotel. He stood on the balcony of his suite on the second floor and delivered a speech to reporters who had gathered there. He spoke about the disadvantages of the capitalist system and the advantages of the socialist system. He sang a verse of the ‘Internationale’, the socialist anthem that reads:

“Arise, you prisoners of starvation!

Arise, you wretched of the earth!

For justice thunders condemnation:

A better world’s in birth!

No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,

Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!

The earth shall rise on new foundations:

We have been nought, we shall be all!”

Khrushchev left the hotel and headed for the meeting hall of the United Nations General Assembly, where he sat with his associates from the Soviet delegation and listened to the then General Secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjِld.

Four months before the UN summit, the United Nations had sent troops to Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) after a military coup led by Joseph Mobutu, right-wing chief of the armed forces (supported by the United States) took place deposing Patrice Lumumba the liberal Prime Minister (supported by Moscow). However, the United Nations had failed to ensure the safety of detained Lumumba or determine his location. He was killed under controversial circumstances after only three months in power and Moscow held the United Nations responsible for the murder. Hence, Khrushchev was already angry when he arrived at the United Nations headquarters. As Hammarskjold began to address the meeting, Khrushchev pounded his fists on the table in front of him in protest and continued to do so until he had drawn the attention of other delegations around him and until other delegations from Eastern European countries joined in.

It was then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan’s turn to address the meeting from the podium. Khrushchev had remained silent for quite some time and only interrupted Macmillan when he talked about the failure of the Paris summit and claimed that the Russians were responsible for this failure. At this point, Khrushchev shouted in Russian, “You were the ones who sent U-2s over our territories. We did not send planes over your territories. You are the spies, imperialists and colonialists. You are the criminals and the aggressors.” In response, Macmillan turned towards the President of the session, Frederick Boland of Ireland and calmly said, “I would like a translator.”

The next day, Khrushchev returned to the General Assembly hall to deliver a speech in the name of his country. Once again, he waged a severe attack on the United States and other Western countries. He said that the United States “enslaves nations in the name of freedom. This freedom is false, and American streets are filled with oppressed blacks as well as other races.” He attacked the CIA and said that it spied on all countries in the world and assassinates anyone who opposes American expansionist policies. His speech was received by a loud applause from members of the delegations of the Communist bloc. However, Khrushchev noticed that the Mexican delegation did not applaud him and this led to confrontation and shouting between the Soviet leader and the Mexicans (despite not understanding each other). Soviet and UN security officers intervened and led Khrushchev back to his seat.

The following day, Khrushchev returned to the General Assembly hall and remained quiet until the head of the Philippine delegation (pro-American) launched a strong attack on communism and communists (as communist groups had resisted the Philippine Armed Forces in the south of the country). The head of the delegation accused Moscow of funding guerrillas [in the Philippines]. He said, “Those who have expansionist ambitions in South East Asia must be stopped. Those who had occupied Eastern Europe will not be able to expand into South East Asia.” It was clear that he was implying the Soviet Union and in particular, Khrushchev. The Soviet leader was enraged and took off his right shoe and with it, hit the table in front of him continuously (noticeably, the shoe did not have any laces and Khrushchev’s son later commented on this incident in his published memoirs saying that his father did not like shoes with laces because he was “the son of a peasant farmer” and did not know how to tie shoelaces).

Andrei Gromyko, the minister of foreign affairs for the Soviet Union who sat next to Khrushchev was embarrassed by the leader’s actions; however he did not express his opinion at that point. When Khrushchev returned to Moscow, he met with members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and presented a report on his visit, mentioning the shoe incident. Gromyko was not proud of the President’s actions in New York and indirectly criticized him during the meeting. On the other hand, Khrushchev expressed pride of his behaviour at the General Assembly and asked the members of the Committee if they had seen the event on television. He happily stated, “I went to America and I hit them with my shoes.” He added, “The United Nations is divided into a majority and a minority, and we are with the minority. My shoes however, drew the attention of the majority and made clear to them that we are a noisy minority.” He said, “They heard us thanks to my shoes.”