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The Straight Story

Chuck Lichenstein, 1926-2002. An honest diplomat heads off into the sunset.

12:00 AM, Sep 5, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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OUR OLD FAMILY FRIEND Chuck Lichenstein had his 15 minutes of fame back in 1983. At a moment of high tension in the Cold War, he delivered a remark, while representing the United States at the United Nations, that precipitated headlines and inspired cartoons far and wide. All these years later, the episode is what the obituary writers have singled out to mention from a long, productive life in and around politics. And it actually deserves remembering.

Chuck was serving as chief alternate U.N. delegate at the time, under Ronald Reagan's first ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick. On September 1, the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet that had strayed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people aboard; initially the Kremlin had denied knowing anything about it. Later that month, New York and New Jersey had refused the Soviet foreign minister permission to land at civilian airports on their soil. Bristling, a Soviet diplomat questioned whether the United States was an appropriate location for the United Nations. To which Chuck shot back that any nation inclined to depart our shores was welcome to do so.

"We will put no impediment in your way," he went on. "The members of the U.S. mission to the United Nations will be down at the dockside waving you a fond farewell as you sail off into the sunset."

The comment was pure Chuck, vivid and "engage," with a minimum of adjectival padding. It prompted a small flap as to whether it is actually geographically possible to see a setting sun behind a ship leaving New York harbor (Chuck insisted it is, from the docks he had in mind); and it spurred a noisy new round of the perennial debate over the usefulness of plain speaking in international affairs. On that score, Chuck had already taken his stand.

At the time flight KAL 007 was shot down, Ambassador Kirkpatrick was out of the country, so Chuck sat in the U.S. chair for the emergency session of the Security Council on September 2. He spoke with a bluntness seldom heard in that chamber:

"It [the Soviet Union] has . . . behaved with complete--and, I must add, characteristic--contempt for the international community and for even minimal standards of decency and civilized behavior. Its refusal to admit the truth--to accept responsibility for this act--it is lying openly, brazenly, knowingly. In doing so it is--ironically--showing its true face to the world, the face that is so often hidden behind the peace offensive and the propaganda machine, behind all the talk of brotherhood and human solidarity and international coexistence. It is the face of a ruthless totalitarian state. . . ."

Four days later, the lies were dramatically exposed when Ambassador Kirkpatrick played before the Security Council tapes, made by Japanese intelligence, of the Soviet interceptor pilots' cockpit communications. The tapes flatly contradicted statements reiterated even that morning by the Soviet ambassador. Kirkpatrick called the U.S.S.R. a state "dedicated to the rule of force."

It was only natural that Chuck--Ambassador Kirkpatrick's friend and handpicked deputy--should speak her (and Ronald Reagan's) unvarnished language. Together, they roiled the career diplomats at the State Department and the sempiternal peace camp. But they won that particular U.N. showdown. Amazing though it may seem now, a mild resolution stating that the Security Council was "gravely disturbed" by the KAL 007 incident, with its loss of civilian life, barely squeaked by the Security Council after a week of behind-the-scenes maneuvering--such was then the power of the Soviet bloc and its "non-aligned" supporters at the United Nations.

Before his move to New York, Chuck had been a writer and editor for prominent Republicans (Goldwater, Nixon) and conservative causes and senior vice president of the Public Broadcasting Service. In recent times, he worked at the Heritage Foundation. There, as throughout his life, he exercised his verbal gifts in conversation. He was an animated, learned, and tireless talker, about history, literature, music, and wine, as well as politics and world affairs. Always, though, he looked back with relish on his U.N. years--historic years when the Cold War was being won partly by the clarity and tenacity of people like him. His admirers are proud to remember those days, as we wave him off into the sunset.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.