That Time an Essay Contest Pissed Off the Soviet Union

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When I hear “essay contest,” I think of those short papers we had to write for D.A.R.E., the anti-drug use program, in fifth grade.

When the Soviet Union heard it, on this day 65 years ago, they thought it was a personal attack.

In 1950, the United Nations commissioned an essay-writing contest to create some interest among young people in the organization’s work. The prompt: Has the veto prevented the United Nations from functioning in the political and security field?

Then and now, any resolution proposed by the U.N. Security Council must be approved by the “Big Five” nations, the winners of World War II who hold the power of veto. In 1950, those were the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and the Republic of China (Taiwan)—not the People’s Republic of China, which was established in 1949 by communist leader Mao Zedong.

Veto power was very important to the Soviets. At the time of the essay contest, the U.N. was just five years old, and the Soviet Union had already cast 38 vetoes. The other four nations had not cast any. So that essay prompt, and the connotation it carried? Not cool, said the Soviet Union:

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.”

The Soviet delegation was already unhappy with its fellow member nations. Earlier that year, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin ordered Malik to stop attending Security Council meetings as part of a Soviet boycott of the United Nation’s exclusion of Mao’s China. As a result, Malik missed the session in June in which the U.S. asked the council to approve the use of U.N. forces against North Korea, which had just invaded South Korea—a resolution that the Soviet Union would have soundly rejected.

Decades later, the contest’s question still stands for some. Recently, France has suggested that its fellow Security Council members refrain from using their veto in situations that involve “a mass atrocity,” like the civil war in Syria. Russia opposes the proposal.