Global perspective Human stories

Character Sketches: Andrei Gromyko by Brian Urquhart

Andrei Gromyko of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at a press conference at UN Headquarters. (29 May 1960)
UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata
Andrei Gromyko of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at a press conference at UN Headquarters. (29 May 1960)

I first met Andrei Gromyko in London in 1945, where he was representing the Soviet Union on the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations. Gromyko had been a very young wartime Soviet ambassador in Washington and was generally regarded as something of a whiz kid. Most of Gromyko’s colleagues on the Preparatory Commission had worked with him on the drafting of the United Nations Charter. The international climate was now rapidly changing, the smiles and bonhomie of San Francisco giving way to the grim realities that were soon to become the Cold War.

15 May 1947 – Starting with his involvement in the creation of the United Nations, and with his subsequent appointment as the USSR’s Permanent Representative to the UN and then as the USSR’s Foreign Minister, Ambassador Gromyko became a regular fixture at the world body. Shown here, in May 1947, ahead of a General Assembly meeting, he meets with Secretary-General Trygve Lie (left) and Alfred Fiderkiewicz of Poland, the Assembly’s alternate Vice-President. UN Photo/MB

Although some of the spirit of wartime cooperation remained, mutual suspicion and hostility between Stalin’s Soviet Union and the west were growing fast. Gromyko handled his difficult assignment with great skill. The Soviet line had become increasingly unwelcome to the other delegates, though Gromyko himself was still liked and respected. The United States was at that time not only the richest country in the world, but also the only nuclear power. The Soviet Union had been devastated by the war, and while a permanent member of the new UN Security Council, it was physically weak and in a minority. It was Gromyko’s task to reduce the appearance of this inequality as much as possible.

Despite the first ominous symptoms of the Cold War, the proceedings of the UN Preparatory Commission were relatively harmonious and achieved a great deal of organizational work in an extraordinarily short time. Some of the credit for this was certainly due to Gromyko. Dour and gruff in demeanor, his wry humor defused many difficult debates. He liked rather formulaic jokes like saying, after a long debate on a resolution, “I have just one small amendment. It is to add the word ‘not’ in the operative paragraph.” These sallies amused and relieved Gromyko’s colleagues.

One of Gromyko’s most important interventions concerned the permanent location of the headquarters of the future UN. The Europeans and the United States favoured Geneva, from which the Soviet Union had been expelled in 1939 for invading Finland. Gromyko argued that the United States was the best place for the UN’s headquarters. “The United States is located conveniently between Asia and Europe” he said. “The old world had it once and it is time for the new world to have it.” The Soviet Union, remembering that in 1919 the United States had invented the League of Nations and then refused to join it, wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the US to withdraw from the new world organization. Gromyko’s pointof view prevailed, and New York became the UN’s hometown.

United Nations
Character Sketches: Andrei Gromyko

Some highlights from the career of Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet Union's top diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the United Nations before becoming Foreign Minister, a post in which he served from 1957 to 1985 and which had him return to UN Headquarters many times over the decades.


By the time the UN moved to New York City in 1952, the political atmosphere was already much bleaker, and there was notably less diplomatic banter in the daily business at the UN. The debates in the Security Council, which initially met in the converted gymnasium of Hunter College (now Lehman College) in the Bronx, were grim affairs, often involving prolonged verbal battles between East and West. Gromyko, being in a voting minority in the Council, often had to resort to the veto, which led to much outrage in the American press. Lady Theodosia Cadogan, the imperious wife of the British ambassador, was heard, at a public dinner, to ask in high Edwardian tones, “Mr. Gromyko, why don’t you stop that stupid veto?”!!

25 September 1961 – President John F. Kennedy of the United States addressed the 16th session of the UN General Assembly. Here, at a reception given by the US Mission to the UN for heads of delegations, President Kennedy greetings Foreign Minister Gromyko of the USSR. UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Gromyko created a sensation by walking out of the Security Council in protest at the debate on the presence of Soviet groups in Iran in 1946. His absence set a precedent which had unintended and far-reaching consequences. At the start of the Korean crisis in 1950, the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council in protest against Taiwan’s representing China in the UN and was therefore unable to veto the decision to launch a UN force to counter the North Korean invasion of South Korea. After that mistake no Soviet ambassador was allowed to leave his seat at the table while the Security Council was in session, even to go to the bathroom.

Gromyko remained the dominant spokesman for Soviet foreign policy until shortly before his death. This must have required enormous discipline and self-restraint. Unlike other Soviet cold warriors – Yakov Malik, Andrei Vishinsky, Valerian Zorin – Gromyko, however adversarial, was always dignified and never descended to the gutter level of abuse and name-calling often reached by the others. Soviet leaders, taking Gromyko for granted, delighted in attempting to humiliate him. The buffoon Khrushchev told a visiting foreign dignitary, “That is Gromyko, my foreign minister. If I tell him to pull down his pants and sit on a block of ice, he will do it.”

I had my last direct contact with Gromyko in 1973. We were in Geneva for the Middle East Peace Conference after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had been charged with organizing this highly publicized meeting and, as so often in such affairs, the seating arrangements presented major symbolic difficulties. We had finally come up with a plan in which the Unites States and the USSR, as the co-chairmen of the conference, would be seated as buffers between the most mutually hostile members. This meant, among other things, that the USSR would be seated next to Israel. Henry Kissinger agreed to persuade Israel to accept this arrangement if Waldheim could get Gromyko to accept it. I was dispatched on this errand and found Gromyko in his fun-loving mood. This, he said, was a challenge he had been awaiting for twenty years. When I said that time was very short and urged him to accept, he replied, “On one condition. Henry Kissinger must ask me on his knees.” I brought Kissinger over, and after much badinage Gromyko finally accepted graciously. The conference opened only forty minutes late.

In meeting with style and dignity the formidable challenge of representing the Soviet Union to a largely hostile world, Gromyko became an international institution. Despite the bitter political climate, those who dealt with him from the other side of the East-West divide never lost their respect, even affection for him.

‹ Back to Character Sketches