Today is United Nations Day. It celebrates the signing of the official charter on October 24, 1945.
For decades, Westport has honored UN Day by flying flags of the member nations on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge downtown.
That’s fitting: A longtime resident (and Juilliard-trained pianist), she was a staunch advocate for the United Nations and the national and state levels. Locally she helped originate jUNe Day, which for over 50 years has brought UN officials and their families to Westport, for a summer day of hospitality and fun.
Flags of dozens of nations were placed on the bridge this weekend, for today’s UN Day. (Not all are flown — there is not enough room for all 193 member countries.) Passersby often try to identify as many as they can.
But this year’s display drew the ire of one Westporter. David Halpert writes:
“On Saturday, I was appalled to find the Russian Federation flag flying on our bridge.
“Would we fly a flag of Nazi Germany in Westport? A flag of a nation that is killing thousands of innocent people in Ukraine has no place in Westport.
“My first reaction was to burn it down. My wife stopped me. We live in a civilized country, and should behave as civilized people.
“So I looked up the organizers of the event [Westport’s International Hospitality Committee], and made a phone call. It was surprising to me the ignorance of the organizers who hang a random selection of flags just to fill the spots.
“I expressed my disgust of hanging a Russian Federation flag in the middle of Westport while the country it represents is blackmailing all freedom-loving nations in the UN with their nuclear bombs, and continue the murder of innocent children in Ukraine.
“Perhaps sitting in our warm multi-million dollar homes we forget that people of Ukraine are being left without electricity and heat for the winter.
“I was promised that the mistake would be corrected in the morning, and was glad to see that the Russian flag is now gone.
“Let us never forget what the word ‘freedom’ means, and that we may never be free as long as countries like that exist.”
I contacted Westport International Hospitality Committee chair Bill Haas. He confirmed the story, and provided important background information.
The flag display is a joint effort of his group and the UN Association of Southwestern Connecticut, with which he is also associated. The UNASC, for example, pays for new or replacement flags.
Haas had concerns from the start about displaying the Russian flag. “This war is reprehensible,” he says. “But they’re a member of the UN. We need to maintain dialogue and communication with them. That’s why the US has diplomatic relations with them too.”
There are not enough stanchions on the bridge for all 193 UN flags, Haas says. So the Hospitality Committee — which places the flags each year, with help from town workers — has discretion as to which ones are flown. (They try to make sure all jUNe Day visitors see their own flags each year.)
“There are a lot of bad actors in the UN,” Haas — a former staffer there — notes. “We work with them behind the scenes, to address things like human rights issues, with no publicity.”
Yet when Halpert made his complaint on Saturday, Haas realized it had validity. A few years ago, someone thought the North Korea flag should be removed. It was.
This time, Haas says, “I thought about it, and recognized my mistake. I was very sympathetic. I realized it had to come down.”
Yesterday at 8 a.m., he removed it.
“I want to maintain positive relations with the town and residents,” he says. “And as an American citizen, I was very sympathetic to the complaint.”
However, he took issue with one part of Halpert’s email.
The United Nations did not exist in the 1930s and early ’40s, so Nazi Germany could not have been part of it. Nor was it part of the League of Nations.
“The UN is important, but it’s not perfect,” Haas says. “It’s a work in progress.”
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