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Hugh Keenleyside in the Soviet Union, 1954


Hugh Keenleyside didn’t like Moscow. Shop prices, he wrote as he visited the Soviet capital in 1954, were outrageous, and there wasn’t much on the shelves in any case. He found Moscow’s residents were an unattractive lot. True, they were bundled up for a Russian winter.

“But making all allowances, they really did seem to show humanity at its unlovely worst.”

At meals, his hosts plied him with unwelcome liquor; in meetings they harangued him about the faults of his employer, the United Nations. Even so, Keenleyside’s mission to Moscow, undertaken in his capacity as the first Director-General of the UN Technical Assistance Administration (TAA), was a peacemaking success story.

Keenleyside worked to remove overseas development assistance - foreign aid, in simplified terms - from the realm of superpower confrontation, at a time of escalating Cold War confrontation between rival camps led by the United States and the Soviet Union. Aid, at the time, came mostly in the form of “technical assistance.”

The UN and some national governments sent experts, who it called technical assistance advisors, to less developed countries to share their knowledge and skills, while also handing out fellowships to citizens of those poorer counties in the global South to study in the industrialized North. Technical Assistance was colonial, but also promised international cooperation to raise global living standards. The UN established its TAA in 1949 to carry out this work and picked Keenleyside, a top Canadian civil servant and diplomat, to lead it.

But Washington and Moscow were at each other’s throats in the decade that followed. The Cold War seemed to engulf everything in global affairs. Aid and the UN were no exceptions. The Soviet Union had originally denounced UN technical assistance as a tool of US imperialism. But in 1953, it offered 4-million roubles, the equivalent of a million American dollars, on certain conditions. Most notably, the currency was to be entirely unconvertible - meaning roubles could not be changed into dollars or any other currency.

For Western powers, the danger was that the Soviets would use Soviet funds to pay Soviet experts and provide Soviet equipment, and thereby create Soviet economic bridgeheads using UN channels. From a Cold Warrior’s perspective, this had to be resisted. So the US-dominated UN General Assembly rejected Moscow’s money. But Secretary-General Trygve Lie argued that US-Soviet conflict might be lessened if both superpowers channeled their aid through the UN rather than making aid into yet another area for Cold War clashes. He sent Keenleyside to Moscow to work out a deal to let Soviet technical assistance flow through UN channels.

A series of “lurid” Soviet attacks on the UN’s technical assistance actually contained some good points, Keenleyside admitted. But he told his hosts that unless they removed their conditions, the UN could not accept their money. In the end, Keenleyside got his way by making concessions in other areas. Compromise did the trick. Keenleyside found ways to work with the “brilliant” Amazasp Arutuinan, who had denounced him repeatedly in UN forums, and got on even better with vice-minister of foreign affairs, Vasili Kuznetsov, whose English bore the marks of his past as a Ford Motors worker in Detroit.

The deal mattered not only for development aid, but also for superpower relations. Canadian Lester Pearson became the first NATO foreign minister to visit Moscow the following year. Gradually, the Cold War confrontation thawed. Keenleyside didn’t thaw it alone, of course, but he succeeded against US government wishes in integrating Soviet aid into the UN system, thus removing technical assistance from the arena of superpower competition. From such small steps was rapprochement across Cold War lines made.


By: David Webster, Associate Professor, Department of History, Bishop's University, Sherbrooke, Quebec.

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