One of America’s greatest supporters of the United Nations, Ambassador William vanden Heuvel, died on June 15 in New York City at age 91. A son of European immigrants, vanden Heuvel grew up in the upstate city of Rochester, N.Y. He was a young man of enormous energy and idealism. He greatly admired Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and sought out his own life of activism at home and abroad. After graduating from Cornell Law School with highest honors, he joined a New York City law firm — a choice that soon led to service in Thailand as an aide to the United States Ambassador William Donovan; assistance to the renowned International Rescue Committee; an unsuccessful run for US Congress; and work for Robert Kennedy when he was US attorney general and later US senator from New York.
I wrote two years ago in a review of vanden Heuvel’s invaluable memoir, “Hope and History,” about how vanden Heuvel soon began to gravitate more and more to the UN — the body that had been created by his hero, Roosevelt, viewing it as the best way to resolve global problems. Almost as an epiphany, in 1977, another Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, appointed vanden Heuvel to be the new US envoy to the European office of the UN in Geneva. There he took on the responsibility of serving as the US delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights, the US representative to GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and liaison to the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization and the International Red Cross, among other agencies. By the end of Carter’s presidency, vanden Heuvel shifted back to New York City to become the deputy US permanent representative to the UN.
His immersion in UN matters became the north star of his life. After Carter’s defeat, vanden Heuvel left his UN post and focused ardently as a private citizen on the organization. With other philanthropists in the US, he helped raise funds for the financially stricken World Federation of UN Associations, or Wfuna, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the work of more than 100 national UN Associations. His efforts saved the organization during a troubled financial period.
He also spent years collecting gifts, donations and, finally, Congressional appropriations totaling more than $50 million to establish the brilliant Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, across the East River from the UN. The park was designed, first, to honor Roosevelt’s espousal of the Four Freedoms during World War II — freedom from want and fear, freedom of speech and worship — and, second, to commemorate FDR’s role in founding the UN.
In yet another UN-related action, vanden Heuvel assisted the National Organization on Disability in establishing a Franklin Roosevelt International Disability Award, which is given annually at the UN to the representative of the country that has made the most significant progress in improving the lives of disabled citizens. The award is the only privately organized one given at the UN, and the secretary-general always attends the ceremony.
Vanden Heuvel spoke out repeatedly about where he felt improvements to the institution could be made. For example, almost 20 years ago, in 2003, in a prophetic speech, he outlined a 10-point program to enhance the operations of the body. Among other things, he suggested that the UN develop a nation-building agency. That idea, indeed, came to fruition just two years later, through reforms enacted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the time. Vanden Heuvel continued to advocate for the organization in various public ways, delivering lectures, writing op-ed pieces, sending letters and speaking around America. He was not always praiseworthy of the UN. He deplored the fact that it has not been able to stop the cycle of wars around the planet.
Still, at the same time, he feared, as he said, “a sense of fatalism” was settling over the UN because of its failures to live up to the organization’s Charter. Hence his mandate, as he mentioned in his memoir, is “to humanize the United Nations to allow ‘the peoples’ who have created it to participate in building the peace that was promised at its creation.” His loss to the UN is immeasurable.