William vanden Heuvel interviewed by James Wurst and Dulcie Leimbach, October 2, 2014
JAMES WURST: What have been some of your activities outside of the UNA?
VANDEN HEUVEL: My principle NGO activity has been the legacy and projects relating to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I was the founder and the chairman of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. I was the founder of the Roosevelt Study Center in Europe. I was the founder and chairman of the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy. I have raise well over a hundred million dollars for the Roosevelt enterprises over the last forty years. The UN to me was a service that I was making in the spirit of the Roosevelts but I was not the principal force, even in the days when I was chairman [of UNA]. Ed Luck and Jim Leonard ran the organization in my tenure as Chairman.
JAMES WURST: Quite a few people who have had leadership positions within the UN have worked for the US government and then after the government went to the UNA. How would you describe during your time the relationship between the UNA and the United Nations secretariat, the secretary general, the senior staff?
VANDEN HEUVEL: The UNA-USA was the strongest of the UNAs in the world so it was a very important organization to the UN itself. The Secretaries-General always showed great respect for it and were always very cooperative. Rupert Waldheim was Secretary General when I was at the UN and then Pèrez de Cuèllar. They always came to the UNA events. They were always accessible for meetings. So the UNA was an important organization. There was also the World Federation of United Nations Associations in which Arthur Ross and I took special interest.
JAMES WURST: Can you give me some specific examples? I know you talked about Jeff Laurenti talking about election monitoring and how that developed within UNA and it was adopted.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: I was curious about some things Ed Luck said, for example that UNA originated the idea for UNFPA, the family planning agency with money from the Rockefellers. The idea came from UNA which was total news to me.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m not familiar with that. The Rockefellers always had an interesting role. I remember one dinner when we honored the Rockefeller family and we had the surviving brothers and Senator Rockefeller. They always were supportive and helpful.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: They gave the land for the UN headquarters.
JAMES WURST: You said something about UNA and WFUNA [World Federation of United Nations Associations]?
VANDEN HEUVEL: WFUNA was not an important organization in the context of the UNA. It was important to Arthur Ross. And that’s why I helped. When I left as chairman of UNA, I became vice chairman of the WFUNA. But their problems on money were very difficult. I believed its principal role should be the organizing of UNAs in various countries.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: And did they do that? Were they good at that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: They were not good at that but they helped. And they got UNAs in remote places of the world like Georgia, like Afghanistan. I always thought WFUNA had a great possibility. And again there were angels. There was a fellow by the name of Hilary Barrett Brown who personally financed WAFUNA to the extent of a hundred thousand dollars a year for a decade.
JAMES WURST: Barrett Brown? Do you know what his background is?
VANDEN HEUVEL: He was an Englishman, very interested in the UN but now long dead.
JAMES WURST: Ms. Ross has given us access to her files and I think there’s something in her files about him. You said he was English?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes.
JAMES WURST: I think we’ve got some material on him.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Arthur’s file should have a lot on the issues that we were dealing with.
JAMES WURST: Actually I think Arthur Ross gave a lot of his material to Seton Hall.
VANDEN HEUVEL: And does Seton Hall have a good archive?
JAMES WURST: Oh they’re they are wonderful. They are organized, helpful, enthusiastic. We’ve been working with them for almost two years now. They’ve been great.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Can’t they give you the documents that show who the chairmen were and history?
JAMES WURST: Well that’s the thing they gave us all the documents that exist. I’ve been through every single box and there is no comprehensive list.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: The boxes came from UNA. Seton Hall wasn’t accumulating these.
JAMES WURST: On the Strategy Council?
VANDEN HEUVEL: it’s the right thing to have I’ve been so consumed by the other responsibilities I’ve had the Four Freedoms Park which was really a monumental thing for like five or six years.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: The new park on Roosevelt Island?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah I was chairman of that. I built it, I raised the money for it.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Is that UN related at all?
VANDEN HEUVEL: The fact that the UN is 300 yards away and I never made a speech without pointing out that Roosevelt’s dream was not a dream but a practical concern with an organization that could preserve the peace and prevent war that’s the United Nations. When we opened it on October 17, 2012, President Clinton attended but the next day I had the secretary general come and the ambassadors from the United Nations to say that this is committed to the United Nations, this park. And it gave me comfort that every day when an ambassador came to work he had to look at the Four Freedoms Park.
JAMES WURST: That was wonderful because we’ve been there for decades and every day you would look across and see this derelict piece of island and I know at one point they were planning to tear down that old ruin there is some kind of old TB hospital for quarantines and they were going to tear it all down and build condos. So thank you for the park.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I stopped all that.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: So is that a state park?
VANDEN HEUVEL: it’s a state park but it’s privately run. It’s a Conservancy, it’s called the Four Freedoms Park and Memorial. In honor of Franklin Roosevelt. I mean it’s astonishing the impact that that park has had. We’ve had 300,000 visitors and it’s not easy to reach – it’s not walking across the dog path in Central Park. You have to take the tram. Wherever I go people come up to me and say all I had the most magnificent experience there.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: I love visual from afar to go to the top of the international peace Institute it looks right down on it. so is it hard to raise money for that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Oh sure. I had to raise $54 million for that.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Where did the bulk come from?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well 70% came from the private sector and then the city and state made a contribution.
JAMES WURST: The UNA had no involvement right?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Right, this was a Roosevelt thing. This was designed you know in 1973 and it lay fallow until 2005 and there is no money for it then either. So I undertook when I became emeritus at the Roosevelt Institute I knew that the only way they would allow the Park to go forward was if you’d say you’d raise the money yourself. If you didn’t ask for anything. So I said that I would do that. And if we didn’t succeed than we didn’t succeed but at least we wouldn’t have left this great dream untouched.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: The 54 million was just too construct and landscape it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes.
JAMES WURST: So you need donations to keep it going?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes, the Conservancy runs it and has to maintain it. But you know Mario Cuomo called me the other day in said, Bill, you know I’d like to go see the park.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: So people rally around the park.
VANDEN HEUVEL: People rally around. It’s everything’s to someone like Cuomo, it’s Roosevelt. You know the things you fought for all your life. I never give a speech without pointing out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by Mrs. Roosevelt which is the greatest document in history emerging from an organization. It centered around the four freedoms as is the charter of the UN. I’m constantly doing battle with people to get them to understand that every generation has got to interpret this commitment separately. This is the foundation commitment of our nation, to build an organization that can preserve peace and prevent violence and at the same time do so many other things like promote human rights and state development.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Were the younger Roosevelts involved?
VANDEN HEUVEL: There’s a lot of Roosevelts. Did you see the Ken Burns program on the Roosevelts?
JAMES WURST: It’s the worst time of year because of the general assembly and so I’ll have to wait for it.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Did you like it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I thought it was fantastic. Though there are certain parts I disagreed with. But I worked with Ken Burns in developing it. I mean it’s the most extraordinary history it shows, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor, but it shows the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and there’s nothing to compare to it.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Since then? Teddy set the tone though.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Teddy sort of comes across as a wild man.
JAMES WURST: Wasn’t he?
VANDEN HEUVEL: He was. In my judgement, his accomplishment was conservation and the National Park system.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: He was an imperialist but he had other positive qualities.
VANDEN HEUVEL: He won the Nobel Peace Prize. And what he did for conservation was extraordinary.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Right, it was totally different for the US.
VANDEN HEUVEL: And he was the first President to confront the powerful trusts.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: He stood up for workers’ rights.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Right. Theodore Roosevelt advocated it and Franklin Roosevelt accomplished it. Franklin voted for Theodore Roosevelt and in fact admired him more than any other person. He was Eleanor Roosevelt’s uncle.
JAMES WURST: I have seen this in several histories. I don’t know if this is wishful thinking on somebody’s part but let me ask you: the idea was that if Franklin had lived he would’ve resigned the presidency to become the first Secretary General of the U.N.
VANDEN HEUVEL: It is reputed to have been said to one of the secretaries, “Let’s get through this election but what I really want to do is be Secretary-General of the UN”. Totally unlikely to have been possible but had he lived through his fourth term, the U.N. would have had a much stronger foundation under his leadership. In any event, Eleanor Roosevelt carried on in his name and she made formidable contributions to the U.N.’s work.
JAMES WURST: Absolutely.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: How does she come across in the PBS series?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Very well.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Was there any new information about her? I felt that the two episodes I saw sort of went over the same material.
VANDEN HEUVEL: The last episode is after the president’s death so it’s about her.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: But it doesn’t mention her role in UNA I understand?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Not in UNA, but in the UN it does.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Which is sort of profound that they would gloss over eight years of her life, the last years of her life and not mention role in UNA. Why do you think that was the case?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I don’t know.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: It puts us in good stead because we’re going to have a whole chapter and we’ve gone through the Clark Eichelberger archives at the New York Public Library which have at least two boxes on her role. I mean she went from city to city week after week promoting the UNA and the UN so the fact is she had a huge role she doubled the membership ranks of UNA.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Did the membership ranks of the UNA ever exceed 30,000?
JAMES WURST: that’s another thing we’re having a little trouble with…
DULCIE LEIMBACH: We’ve seen 50,000 but it’s hard to believe because there is no documentation.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I remember meetings with a number of congressmen – and we took the position that there were 30,000 and 117 chapters.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: I think those kind of calculations are continuing with the new UNA.
VANDEN HEUVEL: That’s one of the things that I tried to get the UNA to confront constantly. You can’t live on an organization chart. You’ve got to have something that really brings people. People give their time something if they really believe in it that’s why the minefield program or programs of that kind were very meaningful. They give the possibility of the chapters taking a much more active role.
JAMES WURST: Were you involved at all in the merger between the UNA in the UN foundation?
VANDEN HEUVEL: No, I had completed my tenure by then.
JAMES WURST: And Ted Turner with this billion dollar gift, where you at that event?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes I was at that event.
JAMES WURST: How do you remember it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I was also on the board of Time Warner.
JAMES WURST: You were?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Ted Turner was a living presence. When was that? 95?
JAMES WURST: 97. But you were at the dinner, what do you remember about that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I remember nobody knew it. I mean he didn’t tell anybody.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Just John Whitehead like a half-hour before.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes, I remember John saying to me you know it’s can be a spectacular evening here. And he’s lived up to that commitment even though he lost $7 billion in stock market value in the next two years.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: I’m curious about why he ended up creating his own foundation.
VANDEN HEUVEL: He wanted to be assured of effective programming, etc. It had a connection to the foundation within the UN. The UN had gotten around establishing a foundation. And therefore this was a connection the links of these programs were to be approved at the UN so people understood that they had. Also you had an international board of directors and international events. We had a Norwegian Foreign Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Four Freedom awards which we give internationally every year always had a UN representative.
JAMES WURST: So just personally what do you remember about the dinner? Because few people up in the audience and well they tell stories what did you hear? As I said no one knew except for John Whitehead.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Yes, there was a reception for Turner before and the big donors. There was an undercurrent of talk that something spectacular was going to happen this evening. Nobody knew what it was except John Whitehead.
JAMES WURST: I’m going to try to talk to Ted Turner.
VANDEN HEUVEL: it shouldn’t be impossible. He’s not totally inaccessible. He’s written about it.
JAMES WURST: I know is written about it but I’d like to be able to quote him directly. Did you hear one billion when he said it? Because other people had said they just thought he said million of them are like oh yeah that’s nice.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Most people thought it was one million. Even $1 million would’ve been cheered at that dinner. But he was a man giving $1 billion. At that time it was about a tenth of his net worth. Within a matter of two or three years it was 50% of his net worth.
JAMES WURST: yeah that was the thing it wasn’t $1 billion it was $1 billion in stock.
Is there anything else at this point that you’d like to add?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I spent a lot of difficult hours on UNA questions.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Like what?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Often the fundraising and UNA’s financial needs, and choosing the operational leadership.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Could you touch on that, the leadership?
VANDEN HEUVEL: It was Arthur Ross who got to Bill Luers. And I think that worked out well for Bill, with his diplomatic background and coming off of being president of the Metropolitan Museum. He was the right person for the position. Most ambassadors couldn’t do that. But Bill had Metropolitan Museum experience and raised hundreds of millions. He was articulate and he knew everyone. A lot of people owed him favors. It’s very hard in America, the only country in the world where the UN is controversial – this idea of not paying dues and obligated commitment of the government of the United States. When you think of the enormous amount of time it is been spent over the years not in supporting the UN but just in collecting the money of the United States owes. The U.N. enemies have tried often to throttle the UN and make it’s work impossible. UNA has been the principal – I would say the principal – American voice urging the Congress to live up to its responsibilities. It’s always a congressional problem, not a presidential problem.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: But Bill mentioned the other day was that nobody in Congress liked the UN because we are the biggest dues payer and it’s not clear what we’re getting from it.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I wouldn’t say that. We had many congressmen who strongly supported the U.N. We had Senator Claiborne Pell for 50 years in Rhode Island he carried the UN charter in his back pocket. He was at San Francisco in 1945. I knew him very well through the International Rescue Committee. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there are people like Sheldon Whitehouse now from Rhode Island there are a lot of people in the Congress who appreciate the UN. But it’s not a subject you can deal with easily. I once had lunch with Bill Clinton in 1995, it was the 50th anniversary of Roosevelt’s death. I was invited along with [Arthur] Schlesinger, [John Kenneth] Galbraith, and [Ted] Sorenson to the White House to discuss what liberal attitudes were today. Knowing how Clinton operated I had prepared a memorandum to him on the UN, saying how important this was for the United States and how the president could do certain things and make things happen. I said you know Mr. President, every poll shows that over 70% of America wants the UN to succeed. That should be reflected in our government response. He says yes but 15% don’t want the U.N. to exist and that 15% vote on that issue, the 70% do not. I was trying to convince him that if you have that residual support reflected 70% who want the UN to work, then lead into that strength and develop the needed support. Presidents don’t do that. Apparently, in politics the 15% who vote negatively on the U.N. are more powerful that the 70% who are supportive but are concerned with other issues as well. The 15% are powerful. You know the gun lobby. They’re the same people as the gun people and the tea party people.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: The old sovereignty issue.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I was North Carolina once giving a speech. Someone came up to me and said, you know the UN is the antichrist and that a U.N. army is being trained in maneuvers going on in Louisiana and that there were training grounds with black helicopters flying around.
JAMES WURST: Agenda 21.
VANDEN HEUVEL: It’s hard to catch up with that kind of irrationality. The problem is the UN only works if the United States supports it.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: The US dominates the UN.
VANDEN HEUVEL: We should be so proud of the UN and its accomplishments. It’s an institution that reflects democratic values better than any other.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Right, were trying to create good governments.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Go to Korea if you want to see why the United Nations has been so important to both the North and the South. Without the UN intervention by Harry Truman, Korea would all be all North Korea. Instead, because of the UN, South Korea is a country of 70 million people, one of the most dynamic countries in Asia. And essentially a democracy. I was hoping Obama would take advantage of this weapons of mass destruction threat in Syria. When the Russians came in and offered to work with us to get the Syrians to sign that treaty, that was an opportunity. There were only five countries that that hadn’t signed it. This could’ve been a great step forward if Obama was prepared to say this is how the UN should work. That’s why you have the Security Council and the five permanent members because those five permanent members are supposed to represent the power of the world and to make it enforce its purposes.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Will the Nobel Prize to go to the OPCW? But it doesn’t have a direct link with the UN it’s actually not part of the UN so that connection might have been lost.
VANDEN HEUVEL: No but the weapons were destroyed.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Weapons were destroyed and they shut the mission down yesterday. They said that the job is done even though…
VANDEN HEUVEL: They are playing this foolish resumption of the Cold War in Washington. Dick Holbrooke was a great friend of mine and when he got Helms to come to the Security Council I thought it was an insult to the United Nations. To have somebody come saying we’ll decide whether this organization is worth financing. That was the wrong message. Sometimes I’ve often thought the UN would be better outside of New York.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Out of New York?! Where?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Geneva.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Oh Geneva, but then the US would have less control over it. I think that was a big concern.
VANDEN HEUVEL: There’s no matter of control at the UN the US controls it.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Well they like having across the street from the US mission.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Because it’s a great honor for us to have the UN here.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: it’s a great boon to the New York economy. $2 billion
VANDEN HEUVEL: Gillian [Sorenson] is the best source of that when she was the head of the UN office under Mayor Koch. She wrote the annual report about how UN was a great economic boon to the city. But look at the way Koch treated the UN. Bloomberg never paid any attention. His sister was the NYC Commissioner for UN Affairs.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Right, Marjorie Tiven. But then Bloomberg was isolated because of Israel, but that is turned around and we back the climate change work. So you know there’s something there for everybody if they just take the time to look.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, we are in the position where we have to support Israel right or wrong. It doesn’t enhance your credibility.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Right, and then bombing Syria without going through the Security Council raises red flags.
VANDEN HEUVEL: We don’t even go to the Congress as I believe the Constitution obliges.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Going to the Congress.
VANDEN HEUVEL: There has not been a declaration of war since Roosevelt went before Congress on December 8, 1941 but there has been endless war.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: It’s a long tradition. So you think will be the next secretary-general? It’s got a be a woman, you think it has to happen?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Probably. Kofi Annan was certainly the greatest of my lifetime. He was very effective but we undermined him. He was not a tool of the US. Remember when Madeleine Albright was around there was some fight with Boutros-Ghali, we didn’t like him. But he said something very effective, one day, of the Security Council., asking that the Security Council not vote new programs without the funds to carry them out. I wrote the Secretary-General a letter commending him and he was so pleased with the letter he sent it to the members of the Security Council.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Oh really, how do they take it?
VANDEN HEUVEL: Madeleine Albright called me up at midnight and said how dare you take a position that the United States government does not want. I said it’s because I’m a citizen and not an Ambassador, Madeleine, and I think you’re wrong. They play this game in Kiev in the Ukraine it’s a very very difficult game to win.
JAMES WURST: if you can come up with or maybe can remember maybe it’s in these files that incident with a letter to Boutros and be very interested to see it.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I’m sure I have that somewhere. If I were president of the United States I would know that Russia is indispensable to settling Syria. And I would know this that Russia is the largest nuclear force in the world. And that the most important wish you have is the containment of nuclear weapons. And I would not play the game in the Ukraine of pushing NATO membership. We gave a commitment to Gorbachev that we would never do that. I would not sacrifice all that and resume the Cold War.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: What’s your impression of [US Ambassador] Samantha Power?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I had dinner with her the other night. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s a wonderfully vivid speaker.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Apparently she is well-liked on the Security Council whereas Susan Rice was not well-liked for obvious reasons. As far as I can tell she hasn’t done much diplomacy with Russia.
VANDEN HEUVEL: One time when I was ambassador to UN without instructions from the department, there were some reports that the Central African Republic just killing hundreds of children in a violent massacre. We were in the Security Council and I used the occasion to denounce that action of the President of CAR then he demanded a diplomatic explanation of whether or not this was the US position. The State Department said the Ambassador William vanden Heuvel spoke out of turn. The President of CAR then threatened to kill me. I was involved in a big story at the UN on April 30, 1980 (which was the eve of May Day) and Oleg Troyanovsky, who was the Russian ambassador and a wonderful man who spoke English beautifully. He and I were talking in the Security Council before the meeting began and suddenly we were attacked from behind as though we had been shot , covered with red, happily not blood, but red paint.
DULCIE LEIMBACH: Oh really?
VANDEN HEUVEL: We both were attacked by a group of Trotskyites who wanted to show that the United States and Russia were the most war-making powers in the world. There was little or no security in those days – this was 1980. So as we were going out I was asked by the press what did what did Amb. Troyanovsky say to you? I said Oleg had observed: better red than dead! It made Troyanovsky the hero of the Kremlin. He didn’t really say it, it was my comment. So they then sent him to China as the ambassador there, the top diplomatic post. That was the cover picture on the Daily News that day, covered with red. It looked like I’d been shot.
I wonder if I’ve been much help to you.
JAMES WURST: You cannot over-estimate what you’ve done for us today.