The Filipino Who Ticked Off the Big, Bad Russian Bear

Fall in New York means the performing arts season is under way, with new offerings of the theater, the opera and concerts. It also means that big slab by the East River called the United Nations wakes up with international activity. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the organization that tries its best to keep our planet cohesive and copacetic.
The U.N. headquarters in New York. What world-shaking secrets happened in its hallowed halls?

The U.N. headquarters in New York. What world-shaking secrets happened in its hallowed halls?

A few weeks back, on the U.S. TV quiz show, “Jeopardy!,” a particular clue appeared that piqued my interest. Under the category, “World Leaders,” this clue said (in so many words): "A Filipino delegate to this organization caused a world leader to bang his shoe at the podium." The answer/question (in inverted “Jeopardy!” style: "Who was Nikita Khrushchev?") and the incident referred to was the (in)famous shoe-banging outburst pulled by the then-Soviet chairman some 55 years ago, at the General Assembly session of 1960.

Being a history buff, an avid watcher (and one-time contestant) of “Jeopardy!,” my curiosity antennae perked up. I was aware of the infamous display of boorish behavior pulled by Khrushchev on the world stage, but I had never heard it connected to a Filipino diplomat. Who was that diplomat? How come I never heard of him (or her)?

This “gap” in my historical trivia databank gnawed at me like the proverbial “ear mite” (wherein you can’t get rid of a particular tune in your head until you correctly identify the song). Further, it held extra relevance for me because I had worked at the very same United Nations in New York for one session (in 1983) and I had just come back from visiting the Big Apple after having been away for a decade.

This, of course, set me on an investigative mission. After a few keyboard strokes, the diplomat in question turned out to be none other than Senator Lorenzo Sumulong of Rizal province. This was a Eureka! moment for me because in thinking back 55 years to 1960, it triggered a cascade of other memories and associations.

And here’s the kicker: That year, Sumulong’s son, Victor, and I were classmates at Ateneo High School in Loyola Heights. We were new to the school—he had transferred from La Salle and I from St. John’s Academy in San Juan—but I was blissfully unaware at the time of the worldwide shock wave his father triggered. I don’t think I even knew that he was a sitting senator’s son. I don’t recall a fuss being made by other classmates.

The late Senator Lorenzo Sumulong (1905-1997; as senator, 1949–1972)

The late Senator Lorenzo Sumulong (1905-1997; as senator, 1949–1972)

What really caused Khrushchev to go off? It turns out the Soviet leader was reacting to a speech the head of the Philippine delegation, Sumulong, was giving, in which Sumulong was upbraiding the Soviets for keeping a whole section of the world, the commie bloc of Eastern Europe, under the heel of the Russian bear.

Khrushchev took exception to the speech and didn’t like being lectured on the world stage no less, particularly by a Third World delegate who seemed to be acting as an attack dog of Soviet Russia’s archenemy, the United States. In hindsight, it seemed like a continuation of the infamous “kitchen debate” Khrushchev had with U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon a year before in Moscow, in which the two leaders verbally went at each other, and heatedly so, on the virtues and vices of capitalism vs. communism. Khrushchev didn’t take guff from Nixon then, and he certainly wasn’t going to take it from the Little Brown Brother this time either.

Here is the text of Sumulong’s provocative speech: My delegation, the Philippine delegation, attaches great importance to this item entitled 'Declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples,’ the allocation of which is now under discussion. We have been a colonized country. We have passed through all the trials and tribulations of a colonized people. It took us centuries and centuries to fight, to struggle, and to win our fight for the recognition of our independence, and, therefore, it would only be consistent with our history, our experience and our aspirations as a people that we vote in favor of having this item referred to the highest possible level of the General Assembly. 

While this is not the occasion to discuss the substance of the item, I would like to place on record my delegation's view on the import as well as on the scope, the extent, the meters and bounds of this item. We feel this to be necessary in view of the statements made at the start of our meeting by the Premier of the Soviet Union. It is our view that the declaration proposed by the Soviet Union should cover the inalienable right to independence not only of the peoples and territories which yet remain under the rule of western colonial powers, but also of the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere which have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and which have been swallowed up, so to speak, by the Soviet Union."

This “lecture” naturally caused Nikita Khrushchev, otherwise quietly seated at the U.S.S.R.’s desk, to go “ballistic.” Here is a YouTube clip of Khrushchev reacting to the “slight” heaped upon him by Senator Sumulong.

Indeed, Sumulong spoke like a stooge of the United States. The Soviet leader’s response was not altogether misplaced, although very dramatic and most diva-like. Khrushchev asked to be recognized for a rebuttal. Assembly President Frederick Boland of Ireland recognized him. So Khrushchev walked up to the podium and began an extemporaneous denunciation of Sumulong, branding him (among other things) as "a jerk, a stooge and a lackey" and a "toady of American imperialism.” He then demanded that the Filipino delegate be called to order. Sumulong was cautioned to "avoid wandering into an argument which is certain to provoke further interventions.” Boland then sent Khrushchev back and allowed Sumulong to finish his remarks.

The next day—this was before CNN, the Internet and “live-streaming coverage” (although there might have been live radio coverage then)—pictures of a terribly agitated Khrushchev, brandishing his shoe at the lectern, were splattered all over the world’s papers. Sacre bleu! and Holy Grozny-Babushka!, this was most undiplomatic behavior.

There are many versions as to how the "shoe-banging" actually came about. Years later, Khrushchev’s younger son, Sergei, immigrated to the United States and cleared up the sequence of events that day. Like a mystery reveal, it's rather long-winded and convoluted.  

According to Sergei, his father was wearing new shoes that day, and they were tight. So when the session began, Khrushchev took them off while still seated at the U.S.S.R. delegation’s desk. When our man Sumulong took the podium and launched into his diatribe, the Russian, in response, started pounding the desk with his fist in disapproval (as, for example, they do at the House of Commons in the U.K.). But then his watch fell off. Bending down to pick it up, his cast-off shoe caught Khrushchev’s eye; he picked that up instead and began pounding the desk with it.

When he was recognized by the chair to rebut the pesky Philippine delegate’s remarks, Khrushchev indeed put both his shoes on and the fallen-off watch as well. He then walked up to the podium fully shod. Thus, it was not possible for him to have removed a shoe at the lectern and pounded it.  

Original image of Khrushchev at the lectern--just raising his fist and delivering fiery words.

Original image of Khrushchev at the lectern--just raising his fist and delivering fiery words.

The doctored photo before the age of Photoshop. (Source: New York Post) 

The doctored photo before the age of Photoshop. (Source: New York Post) 

But somehow, the western press, specifically, the New York Post concocted a photo of a terribly agitated Khrushchev hoisting a shoe, like some fishwife; and the wires carried this image. This was before the onset of Photoshop and easy retouching that almost anyone can do today. Probably miffed that it didn’t have a photograph of the seated Russian earlier pounding the desk with his shoe, some news service decided to make up for the lost “opportunity” by transposing the earlier moment from the desk to the lectern. It looked like a scoop, but it never actually happened.

(Sergei Khrushchev, like another Soviet leader’s child, Svetlana Stalin, later on, also became a U.S. citizen and held a professorship at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.)

The “shoe-banging/Sumulong-at-the-U.N.” episode wasn’t the last Philippines-USSR contretemps. Before the two countries finally established relations in 1976, there used to be a “greasy spoon” Filipino restaurant on Second Avenue called Manila Garden, which was a hangout of New York’s ex-pat Pinoy community. However, the restaurant also had a more shadowy side to it. As testimony in a later spy trial revealed, Manila Garden was the “drop” of choice in New York of the Soviet KGB and its agents.

It was where agents met their KGB handlers in order exchange classified information. Apparently FBI and CIA agents did not have Manila Garden on their “Favorites” list, thus allowing the KGB to meet and eat there and perform their clandestine “drops.” Come to think of it, the sinigang (a tart Filipino beef or pork soup/stew with a tamarind flavoring) I once had there didn’t seem too far off from a Russian borscht, especially on a cold New York morning. (Coincidentally, Russia Day and Philippine Independence Day are both celebrated on June 12 today.)

As for the older Sumulong, he returned to head the Philippine delegation to the U.N. three more times (during the first Macapagal administration). In later years, the Sumulong name came back to prominence because widow-turned-President Cory Aquino's mother was Demetria Sumulong, the late senator’s sister.

Similarly, my classmate Victor (Cory’s first cousin), I belatedly found out, went on to get his law degree from U.P., became a congressman for the 2nd district of Antipolo and eventually mayor of same town, before he passed away in 2009—a mere 13 years after his father. But my best memory of Victor is that he portrayed King Claudius in our high-school production of “Hamlet” in the 1960-61 schoolyear. Recently, I viewed the new “Heneral Luna” film, and there was Victor’s “Queen Gertrude” playing Pedro Paterno. Fifty-five years ago, Leo Martinez played Queen Gertrude to Victor’s King Claudius. (I played a court pageboy in the drama.)

This month, Filipino-Russian relations will come to a head when, for the first time in history, a sitting Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, will set foot on Philippine soil for the 2015 APEC Summit in Manila, while White Russian refugees will return to Samar for a sentimental anniversary visit. Furthermore, Putin will be hosted by the Benigno Aquino III, a second cousin of Senator Sumulong the elder, thus bringing events related here, nearly full circle.

On a personal note, it brought me within, perhaps, three degrees of separation from a controversial world leader from the “bad” side of the Cold War and a world-infamous incident provoked by the father of someone who sat just a few desks away from me in more innocent days.  

Myles Garcia is a retired San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. Myles just won a 2015 Plaridel Award (Best Sports Story) for “Before Elorde, Before Pacquiao, There Was Luis Logan,” here on Positively Filipino (November 17, 2014).  He is also a member of the ISOH (International Society of Olympic Historians) and has written for the ISOH Journal.  There are a book on the 30 Years After the Marcos’ Departure and his first play, "Murder a lá Mode," nearing completion.

More articles from Myles A. Garcia