September 16

This Day in History

Cold War

Sep 16, 1950:

United Nations essay contest angers Soviets

On this day, Soviet representatives condemn an essay writing contest sponsored by the United Nations. The incident, though small, indicated that the Cold War was as much a battle of words as a war of bombs and guns.

In 1950, the Public Information Department of the United Nations hit upon an idea to stir interest among young people in the work of the United Nations: an essay contest. The theme for the contest was "The Veto." The question posed to the contestants was: "Has the rule of unanimity (the veto) prevented the United Nations from functioning in the political and security field?" The question referred to the fact that resolutions in the U.N.'s Security Council (which handled the most important "political and security" issues) had to be approved by each of the so-called "Big Five" nations--the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and Nationalist China. One negative vote by any of these nations would veto any action on the resolution. It was a particularly timely topic. In June 1950, the Korean War began when communist North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States immediately asked the Security Council to approve the use of U.N. forces to repel the North Korean attack. The resolution passed only because the Soviet Union was absent that day, in protest of the exclusion of communist China from the United Nations.

The essay contest rankled the Soviet's U.N. representatives. The Soviets were famous for using their veto power in the Security Council; they cast 45 vetoes in the first five years of the U.N.'s existence. The chief Soviet delegate to the United Nations, Jacob Malik, launched into a tirade about the essay contest on September 16, 1950. He claimed that U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie had promised to end the contest. He was infuriated to learn that it was still on, and that winners were about to be announced. Malik declared that the contest organizers "aimed at undermining one of the basic principles of the United Nations Charter." Exactly what that "basic principle" entailed was not stated. Lie merely replied that he was "surprised that the Soviet delegation should take such interest in a relatively minor administrative question."

Later that day, the 10 contest winners--including one from Czechoslovakia--were announced. For their efforts, they received free transportation to the United States (no U.S. citizens had been allowed to participate, to avoid any claims of favoritism), were awarded a 30-day stay at the U.N. headquarters in New York, and given $10 a day to cover expenses. Most of the essays concluded that the veto interfered with, but did not destroy, the United Nation's effectiveness.

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