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What the Bullies Did to Uncle Abe

June 26, 2005|Peter Birkenhead | Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Los Angeles.

The first headquarters of the United Nations in New York was a hotel room. Room 786 of the Waldorf Astoria, to be exact. It had two windows, a bathroom, and a queen-sized bed.

I know this because the man who checked into that room and opened the United Nations for business was my great-uncle, Abraham Feller. Uncle Abe was the first general counsel of the U.N., and he helped write the organization's Charter, which was ratified 60 years ago today.

I've been thinking about Abe a lot lately, not only because of the anniversary of that supremely hopeful day in 1945, but because of the recent re-ascendance of the bullying, paranoid style of politics that drove him to jump out a window to his death just seven years later.

In 1952, Abe was still at the U.N., addressing global problems like the crises in Korea and Iran. But in Washington, Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his powers, and McCarthy's chief henchman, Roy Cohn, was pursuing Uncle Abe because of Abe's association with Alger Hiss when they worked together at the State Department. (Hiss had worked on the founding of the U.N. as well, but subsequently was accused of passing secrets to the Soviets and was convicted, in 1950, of perjury).

Like many of Cohn's targets, Abe was not, and had never been, a member of the Communist Party. He in fact despised Soviet ideology and was a proud American patriot. But he was also a Democrat, an intellectual, a former New Dealer and a strong believer in the United Nations. In other words, he was exactly the kind of person who offended anti-communists in those days.

Uncle Abe's life was turned inside out. He was called to testify before Cohn's grand jury in New York, which was investigating subversives in the U.N. secretariat. Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran's Judiciary subcommittee on internal security had subpoenaed him as well. As general counsel, Abe had had to fire people who had refused to testify before the panels. At night, he couldn't shake a sense of dread.

Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the U.N., said in his autobiography that Abe was "a victim of the ... awful pressure of the hysterical assault upon the United Nations that reactionaries were using and promoting for their own ends." But on Nov. 13, 1952, when Uncle Abe threw himself from the 12th floor window of his apartment, those who had tormented him were unapologetic. "If Feller's conscience was clear," said McCarran, "he had no reason to suffer from what he expected from our committee."

In my family, Uncle Abe was accorded hero status, which I'm sure served as a balm for the wrenching pain of his suicide. A portrait of Abe hung on the wall in my grandparents' house, and even when I was a child I could see the humanity and intelligence in his eyes.

When I was 5 and about to start school, I asked my grandfather whether all the terrible stories I'd heard about first-grade were true. You know, the ones about homework so hard it made you cry, and giant-sized fourth-graders lurking around every corner, waiting for the chance to put chewing gum in your hair and stick you to the ceiling. My grandfather assured me those stories weren't true, and that if I made it through I might get a chance to do great things, just like Uncle Abe with his funny, old-fashioned haircut up there on the wall.

But Uncle Abe himself had been a victim of bullies, I later realized -- bullies who hounded him for his associations, spread lies about his past and made his life untenable because of their hatred for the organization he worked for.

Today, I hear echoes of that bullying in the angry, ideological, solipsistic attacks on the U.N. I hear it when conservatives dismiss the other countries of the world, when they talk about "going it alone," when they threaten to drop out of (or emasculate) the institution my Uncle Abe helped create, or when John Bolton says it is a mistake to "grant any validity to international law."

I wonder if some them would feel differently about the U.N. if they actually went there and took a look around. If they did, they might stumble upon the Abe Feller Memorial Reading Room. It's a small, unassuming place, as I'm sure Room 786 at the Waldorf is. Or the little house in Appomatox Court House, Virginia, where Lee surrendered to Grant, or the Wright brothers' garage. It's hard to imagine, when you're in rooms like that, that history is made in them. But it's important to, I think. It's important to remember that people made history in them, people with nephews and haircuts and worries. History doesn't only happen on battlefields.

When they leave the reading room, maybe they could walk across town to 65 Central Park West, and spend some time in apartment 12A. It's a three-bedroom, with seven windows, a bathroom and a small kitchen. Maybe they'll look around, and maybe they'll imagine the real and human life that Abe Feller lived when he lived there, and painful life he ended when he jumped from its window.

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