Wentling on Troy, 'Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight against Zionism as Racism'

Gil Troy. Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight against Zionism as Racism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Illustrations. x + 357 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-992030-3.

Reviewed by Sonja Wentling (Concordia College)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2013)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Moynihan’s Crusade against UN Resolution 3379: Just a Moment in Time or the Revival of American Exceptionalism?

Gil Troy’s engaging portrait of the “warrior diplomat” and “scholarly statesman” Daniel Patrick Moynihan puts the late senator from New York at the center of the debate over America’s role in a changing world (p. 257). Moynihan emerges as a “Wilsonian progressive,” an idealist, and an advocate of liberal internationalism, who believed in the righteousness of America’s cause and pursuit of freedom and democracy (p. 47). Troy views Moynihan through the lens of a presidential historian, as a seminal figure in both domestic and international politics. Yet the author’s passionate analysis of the significance and legacies of Moynihan’s 1975 fight against the United Nations (UN) Resolution that designated Zionism as a form of racism suggests more than that. Far from viewing this episode as just a moment in time, Troy reveals his own ideological bias by suggesting that Moynihan’s crusade was the opening act to a civilizational fight that put Americanism and Zionism on the side of freedom and democracy in a global struggle against the forces of totalitarianism and terrorism.

The United States in 1975, the author explains, had reached a nadir in terms of the country’s self-confidence and assertiveness at home as well as abroad. “Post-Vietnam, Post-Watergate America was an unhappy place,” but Moynihan the “contrarian” began to champion America’s cause when it was unpopular to do so (pp. 37, 45). In fact, Troy views “Moynihan’s moment” in “a sequence of often underappreciated events”--such as the “1980 US Olympic hockey ‘Miracle on Ice’ upset of Russia”--which, he claims, “propelled Americans out of their post-Vietnam despair” even before Ronald Reagan’s presidency of optimism (p. 159).

Troy’s biographical portrait of Moynihan as the “scholar politician” while not hagiographic does establish him as the quintessential American character, a Paul Revere of the twentieth century, a defiant Cold War warrior who was prepared to take on the forces of totalitarianism (p. 49). A clear indication that the United States was going to confront a gathering storm of criticism, which lumped together and demanded the end of “imperialism, neocolonialism, racism, apartheid and Zionism” (p. 84), was the uncompromisingly anti-American gathering of the International Women’s Year World Conference hosted by the UN in Mexico City just a few months before the passage of Resolution 3379, which designated Zionism as racism. According to Troy, Moynihan saw the writing on the wall and was itching for a fight. Yet the “warrior diplomat,” he claims, “was focused on the accusers, not the accused” (pp. 61, 103). It was neither his concern for Jews nor Israel that motivated his condemnation of the Zionism is racism charge; his fight was one for freedom and democracy against a Soviet-instigated plot to smear America, its values, and its allies. In fact, Troy explains, Moynihan’s central argument was that the resolution “damaged the UN itself, humanity, and democracy” (p. 150).

Troy emphasizes that Americans on the right and the left heeded Moynihan’s “politics of patriotic indignation” in the fall of 1975 by repudiating UN Resolution 3379 (p. 159). In the immediate aftermath, American Jews and non-Jews, African American civil rights leaders, union bosses, clerics, and theologians showed righteous “anger,” thereby catapulting Moynihan to “American pop hero” (pp. 158, 179). In the short term, the resolution that was intended to isolate Israel ended up creating an enhanced Holocaust awareness among American Jews, and strengthened American concerns for Soviet Jewry and American ties to Israel. Yet the long-term fallout would not prove as positive, and that is where Troy’s narrative shows an enviable command of the larger story. Both Zionism and the United States as the champion of freedom and democracy would come under repeated criticism by the UN. In fact, the relationship between the United States and the UN would become more strained in the years to come, with rare moments of unity amid growing estrangement.

Indeed, it was nothing short of irony that the very country that was primarily responsible for creating the UN in 1945--as an international organization steeped in Wilsonian ideals and Franklin Roosevelt’s diplomacy--would find itself under assault. Moreover, that same organization that condemned Zionism as a form of racism in 1975 had been instrumental in endorsing a Jewish state in 1947 and recognizing it in 1948. Troy provides an overview of the first twenty years of the UN, where predominantly European countries followed America’s lead, only to suggest that by the 1970s this international organization had evolved into a very different club of nations, with Third World countries challenging the American superpower and its allies. Due to the forces of decolonization, many more nations crowded the UN General Assembly and in a tense Cold War climate the Soviet Union saw an opening to stoke the flames of anti-Western sentiments. Israel’s triumph in the 1967 war signified a major turning point that transformed the Jewish state from David, the underdog surrounded by hostile Arab nations, into Goliath and satellite of U.S. interests in the Middle East. Even more worrisome was Egypt’s shift toward the United States as a result of the Yom Kippur War and Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy. This new geopolitical reality inspired the Soviet Union, explains Troy, “to use ideology to bind the Third World together, ensuring loyalty while annoying the Americans” (p. 98).

Yet the Soviet scheme went beyond the rhetoric of anticolonialism and anti-imperialism. The Soviets, the author insists, embarked on a campaign to demonize Zionism by tying it to the rhetoric of anti-Semitism and treating it as “a form of Jewish Nazism” (p. 75). However, the discussion of the Soviet motivation to assail the legitimacy of Zionism as a national movement deserves closer scrutiny. Troy seems to share Moynihan’s conviction that UN Resolution 3379 “emanated from Moscow’s suffocating totalitarian worldview” (p. 103), but he does not look beyond official Soviet pronouncements. The reader learns little about the causes and motivations of Soviet anti-Zionism and whether domestic or foreign policy reasons fueled its campaign. In his book Russian Antisemitism, Pamyat, and the Demonology of Zionism, William Korey suggests that Soviet leaders supported UN Resolution 3379 in order to get an international “moral sanction” for their domestic campaign against Zionism.[1]

While a discussion of Soviet motivations together with a detailing of the history of Russian anti-Semitism would prove beneficial, Troy does an excellent job in taking the reader behind the scenes of the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Moynihan’s domestic nemesis, it appears, was the enigmatic and ambitious National Security advisor turned secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who is described as the détente diplomat in contrast to Moynihan, the warrior. Moynihan emerges as the cowboy who took on what he considered “the defeatism” of Kissinger’s foreign policy of retreat (p. 202). It is a battle of the titans, Moynihan’s idealism versus Kissinger’s realism, but also evidence of an inherent tension within the tradition of American foreign policy.

Kissinger’s role during Moynihan’s fight at the UN is reflective of an emerging American Jewish ambivalence about equating Zionism with Americanism, and hence wholly identifying Israel’s interests with those of the United States and vice versa. Troy acknowledges that the internal debate among American Jews over the nature and legitimacy of Zionism in a postmodern world has muddied the waters a bit and this invites the question of whether Moynihan’s good versus evil struggle has been rendered obsolete. The author, however, clearly endorses Moynihan’s worldview and with it the basic tenets of neoconservatism that pit U.S. liberal internationalism and Zionism against the forces of totalitarianism and terrorism. It is an “us versus them” paradigm, the inevitable struggle between freedom and terror, a struggle that continues beyond the Cold War framework in what Samuel P. Huntington has described as a “clash of civilizations” (Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order [1996]).

Troy states that he was surprised not to find much research on his topic, and he certainly has to be commended for trying to fuse together a story that encompasses more than just a chapter in the rich career of Moynihan. It is a daunting task to place “Moynihan’s Moment” within the larger context of American political, intellectual, and cultural history. His narrative touches on aspects of American Jewish history, the U.S. relationship with the UN, its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, American sympathy and support for Zionism and Israel against the backdrop of growing domestic criticism and self-doubt about the morality of America’s cause, and the emergent ideological struggle between the New Left and its neoconservative detractors. His use of oral history, with a great number of intellectuals, politicians, close friends of the late senator, and most important Moynihan’s wife Liz, make the story most engaging and more personal in character, but his tour de force touches on so many different topics and histories that the reader would benefit from a detailed bibliography of secondary sources.

Moynihan certainly captured a decisive moment in the Cold War struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, but the legacy of his fight at the UN is still open to debate. Should one agree with the author that Moynihan’s denunciation of Resolution 3379 was the beginning of America’s reassertion of moral authority? Troy, who has published two books on the Reagan Revolution (Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s [2007] and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction [2009]), views Moynihan’s “patriotic indignation” as laying the groundwork for Reagan’s “assertive and affirmative Americanism” (p. 271). Yet this assertiveness has come under considerable attack at home and abroad, and even more poignantly, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Troy begins his discussion of UN Resolution 3379 by designating it as a Soviet plot to undermine and embarrass America’s mission and values. Hence it seems only too fitting that the Cold War “smear” was rescinded just nine days before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet, Troy laments, the anti-Zionist libel persists and continues to this day, and the damage it caused to Israel’s legitimacy might be irreversible. Ten years after Moynihan’s death the line of demarcation between the forces of freedom and totalitarianism seem murkier than ever, and both the UN and the United States find themselves weakened and overwhelmed in a much more complex and multipolar world. The local has become global and the global has become local, the “us versus them” paradigm seems obsolete, and the neoconservative liberal internationalism appears on the defensive and reluctant to engage in the world. And maybe, as Troy’s book’s title implies, Moynihan’s unapologetic call for moral absolutism rooted in American exceptionalism was most needed in 1975, albeit it created reverberations that continue to influence the debate over America’s role in the world to this day.


[1]. William Korey, Russian Antisemitism, Pamyat, and the Demonology of Zionism: Studies in Antisemitism (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), 35.

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Citation: Sonja Wentling. Review of Troy, Gil, Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight against Zionism as Racism. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. June, 2013.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=38556

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