The Golden Judge

by Nathaniel Gordon

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: A suggestion and a highly intriguing one--on how to settle the problems that involve face-saving among nations!

UNITED NATIONS, N.Y., June 16, 1981--(AP)--In one of the most impressive ceremonies ever held in the United Nations building, the world celebrated today the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the “Golden Judge.”

General Terence P. O’Reilly, USA (Retired), the man responsible for the discovery, was the principal guest of honor. Obviously moved by the acclaim from virtually every member nation, Gen. O’Reilly made a brief speech recapturing for a moment the accidental circumstances of 25 years ago that so drastically reduced world tensions...


It was stifling hot in Jerusalem in the afternoon of June 16, 1956, and Major General Terence Patrick O’Reilly, United States Army, was rather more bored than usual. His Army career had gone well--two stars already at forty-five--until the mysterious workings of the Pentagon had given him perhaps the most frustrating posting a soldier could have.

He was chairman of the mixed United Nations armistice commission trying to keep the uneasy peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. For months he had presided over unending investigations of border incidents, some petty, some not so petty. He had signed reports reprimanding and recommending and approving, but nothing ever came of them, and he no longer expected anything ever would.

Today’s hearing was different, and not strictly in his field. But because he was an engineer, and because both Arabs and Israelis trusted him, he had agreed to listen to their opposing arguments on using the waters of the River Jordan.

Too many years ago, the United States had offered to provide most of the funds for a “little TVA” on the river, benefitting both Israel and Jordan alike. At first, both had refused outright to have anything to do with the other. But over the years, skillful negotiating by Eric Johnston, the American President’s personal envoy, had brought Israel and Jordan closer and closer together--until now they agreed on the disposal of ninety per cent of the water.

But farther than this they would not go. For months, years, they balked on the remaining ten per cent, and the dams remained only blueprints.

Terence O’Reilly was sick unto death of the arguments, and thought everyone else was, too. He had heard them over and over; he knew them by heart. He knew they were evenly balanced, with justice on both sides. He knew both nations longed for a settlement, but he knew neither would back down, for reasons of “face.” Worst of all, he knew that any decision of his was meaningless. It was purely advisory, and he knew all too well what “advisory” opinions counted for out here.

Yet he tried to look interested as the delegate from Jordan wearily produced an argument that every man in the conference room could recite word for word.

In a brief lull, General O’Reilly groaned: “Why don’t they toss a coin for it?”

It was not as sotto voce as he meant.

The Arab delegate stared at him. “I beg your pardon!”

Flushing, General O’Reilly apologized, but the Arab was already talking excitedly to his fellow delegates. Puzzled, O’Reilly heard a confused babble of Arabic, then sudden silence.

The Arab delegate had a glint in his eye as he asked for the floor.

“In the name of my country,” he said proudly, “we agree!”

The word “agree” had not been heard in this chamber for many months, and General O’Reilly wondered if he had heard aright. “Agree?” he stared. “Agree to what?”

“To toss a coin for it, as the chairman has proposed,” the Arab said. “That is, it the Israeli delegation has the courage, the sportsmanship to agree.” He looked tauntingly to his rivals across the room.

The Israeli leader sprang to his feet, indignant. “I protest, Mr. Chairman, to this frivolous treatment of a serious matter, which will affect the future of--”

He felt silent, aware of the contemptuous smiles on the faces of the Arabs.

General O’Reilly kept his countenance. He said mildly: “Of course, if you are not willing to risk the luck of--”

“We are afraid of nothing, sir!” the Israeli snapped. “We are as sporting as anyone else, but--” One of his fellow delegates whispered something to him. Then the whole Israeli delegation talked in low voices. Finally the leader rose again. “Will you permit me to telephone my minister?”

Gravely the general recessed the meeting for thirty minutes. In his own room, he stared at himself in the mirror, still dazed.

“My God!” he breathed. “They can’t be taking it seriously!”

But why not? If the arguments were so evenly balanced that not even Solomon could have chosen, if they really wanted a settlement, if they could never give in without losing “face”--why, what better method than to trust it to the fall of a coin? Still--things just didn’t happen that way.

When the thirty minute recess ended, the Israeli delegate arose. He glared across the room and announced defiantly: “My government also agrees! Let the coin decide!”

The conference broke into clamor, but General O’Reilly had long since learned the value of prudence in Jerusalem. “The chairman agrees,” he said judicially, “that in the circumstances, this is perhaps an excellent solution, perhaps the only solution. But this has been, to say the least, somewhat impulsive. Let me suggest both sides return to their governments and consider this well. Then, if you are both still willing, let us meet here one week from today, in this room--and the coin will decide!”


He had expected second thoughts, and he was not disappointed. Extremists on both sides of the Jordan screamed with indignation. Yet, oddly, most people seemed strangely excited, even pleased by the sporting proposition. They began to lay bets on the outcome.

And both governments held firm. Probably, the general speculated, because they both wanted a solution--and there was no other solution in sight. Also, each hated to be the first to back down from a fair bet. It became a matter of honor.

On the week end, General O’Reilly flew to Cairo to meet some friends passing through on a world tour. Like all tourists, they went to the Mouski, Cairo’s great bazaar, and it was there, in the Street of the Goldsmiths, that the general got his idea.

It cost him a chunk of money, out of his own pocket, but like most Irishmen, he was a sporting man himself. After all, he grinned to himself, I started the whole business, and I might as well do it up in style.

He had decided that no ordinary coin would do for such an historic occasion. So he had a goldsmith make him a heavy solid-gold medallion almost twice as big as a twenty-dollar gold piece. He was not very much pleased with the design he sketched out hastily, but on the spur of the moment, he could think of nothing better.

The “Heads” side of the great coin bore a front view of the blind goddess of justice, with her scales. The “Tails” side had a rear view of the same lady.

It was rather crudely done, but time was short. “It’ll have to do,” the general chuckled, as the plane bore him back to Jerusalem.


When the appointed day came, the United Nations conference room in Jerusalem was jammed with Israeli and Arab officials, and with a pack of correspondents who had magically appeared.

General O’Reilly had decided against asking each side to put its agreement into writing. A true gentleman’s agreement shouldn’t be written, he concluded. He merely asked the leaders for each side if they agreed to abide by the fall of the coin. Solemnly, both assented.

Courteously, the Israelis had allowed the Arabs to call while the coin was still in the air. There was silence as General O’Reilly flipped it high up towards the ceiling.

“Tails!” cried the Arab leader.

The spinning coin glittered, falling onto the green baize table. The general looked at it. The goddess had her back turned.

“It is tails,” he announced, and the Arab delegation broke into happy shouts.

And, astonishingly, that was that. The leading Tel-Aviv newspaper summed up Israeli feeling when it wrote in an editorial: “Certainly there were many heavy hearts in our country when the coin fell against us. But let us show the world that we are true sportsmen. We risked, and we lost. Let this be the end of it.”

Work began on the dams at last, without interference or protest. Not a word was ever written on paper, but it was the only agreement between the two countries that was scrupulously kept by both sides.

It was, of course, a wonderful story. The name of Terence O’Reilly swam suddenly into the headlines, and his wife began keeping a scrapbook of all the clippings. One among them was destined to be more potent in world affairs than all the rest. It was a “profile” of General O’Reilly published in a great American magazine, and it was notable for two things.

To begin with, it was the author of this profile who first gave the coin the name by which it soon became so famous--the “Golden Judge.”

But it also contained a casual, seemingly insignificant remark by General O’Reilly. When the interviewer had asked how he happened to think of the coin-tossing idea, the general had grinned. “Why not?” he said. “Aren’t the Irish the gamblingest people on earth?”

And it was this innocent sentence, hardly noticed at the time, that started the “Golden Judge” on its fantastic career, and kept it from being a mere nine-day wonder.

For a Chinese Communist diplomat in Berne, Switzerland, happened to see it and, one night at a dinner party, he said mockingly: “This stupid American general in Jerusalem is obviously ignorant of the world. Otherwise, he would realize that no nation on earth loves gambling so much as the Chinese. Anyone who knows the Orient will tell you this.”

This made good cocktail party talk, a thing desperately needed in Berne, and eventually reached the ears of an Associated Press correspondent. He filed a paragraph on it for a box story and, in the inevitable way of the press, a reporter in Jerusalem asked General O’Reilly for his comment.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve heard the Chinese are great gamblers indeed, although whether more so than the Irish I beg leave to doubt.”

Then his eyes twinkled. “Why don’t they prove it? Why don’t they toss a coin, say, for Quemoy and Matsu? The danged little places aren’t worth a nickel to either side, and well they both know it. But they’ll neither of them back down a hair, for losing face. I say, if they think they’re the greatest gamblers on earth, let ‘em prove it!”

This sped into print, caused a world-wide stir, and brought General O’Reilly a sizzling reprimand from the Department of the Army. He was not REPEAT NOT to express opinions about the value of allied territory.

He read the reprimand ruefully, reminded himself that another great Irish failing was too much talk--and said good-by to any hopes for a third star.


But this was before the black headlines from Formosa. With popping eyes, General O’Reilly read that the Chinese Nationalist Foreign Minister had taken up the challenge. He offered to toss a coin with the Chinese Communists for Quemoy and Matsu!

“I’ll be jiggered!” the general breathed. “They’ll fight about everything else, but be damned if they’ll admit the Irish are bigger gamblers than the Chinese! Now let’s see what the Commies say.”

Peking was silent for two weeks. Then, in a broadcast from Radio Peking, Chou En-Lai made his reply.

He agreed--but with conditions. He insisted on a neutral commission to supervise the toss, half Communist members, half non-Communist. World observers, weary of neutral commissions that never achieved anything, interpreted this as a delaying tactic and agreed the whole thing would fall through.

“This is further proof,” the Nationalist Foreign Minister commented with icy scorn, “that the Communists are no longer real Chinese. For any Chinese worthy of the name would not be afraid to risk the fall of the coin.”

But Marx had not quite liquidated the gambling fever that runs strong in the blood of any Chinese, be he ever so Communist.

Stung, Chou En-Lai retorted: “We agree! Let the coin decide!”

It was agreed that Prime Minister Nehru of India, as a neutral, should supervise the matter, and that New Delhi would be the scene of the actual tossing. And Nehru thought it fitting to invite General O’Reilly, as the father of the whole thing, to bring the same “Golden Judge” to India, to be used again.

The general came gladly, but declined to make the toss himself. “My country is too closely involved in this matter,” he explained, “and there might be talk if an American made the toss.”

He suggested Nehru himself do it, and the Prime Minister agreed.

The actual tossing was done in the great governmental palace, and Communist China won. Chiang Kai Shek’s delegate bowed impassively and said coolly that his government yielded without question to the goddess of chance.

That night the Indian Prime Minister was host to a glittering official banquet to celebrate the ending of the “offshore island” crisis.

“And we must lift our glasses,” he said eloquently after dinner, “to the man who discovered this eminently sane method of settling quarrels--a method so sensible, so fair that it is difficult to believe that in all the world’s long search for peace, it has not been discovered before. I give you General O’Reilly!”

The general rose to loud applause. He expressed his thanks modestly, and disclaimed any merit except that of pure luck. Then he held up the “Golden Judge” itself, with a gleam in his eye.

“I hope,” he said, “that this coin will have still more work to do. Surely there are still disputed places in the world, where justice lies on both sides, where only ‘face-saving’ prevents a settlement. And surely it is better to resort to this coin than to force and war and bitter arguments that drag on year after year.”

“Hear! Hear!” Nehru cried, leading the applause. General O’Reilly stood smiling until it died away.

“Places like Kashmir,” he said clearly.

There was a gasp of laughter, quickly hushed. Nehru’s face was pale with anger; he was famous for his temper. And everyone knew how India and Pakistan had quarreled for years over Kashmir, and that all the efforts of the United Nations had come to nothing so far.

“I was delighted to hear Prime Minister Nehru say,” General O’Reilly went on calmly, “how much he approved this method of settling old disputes. And I should be very glad to help--with this.” Smiling, he tossed the Golden Judge in the air and caught it again.

Nehru could keep silent no longer. Like a skilled Oriental debater, he struck back indirectly. “We thank General O’Reilly,” he said acidly, “for his kind offer, but perhaps it should be first used by his own people, the Irish, of whose gambling prowess he is so proud. Surely no bitterness has lasted longer than that between the Republic of Ireland and the ‘Six Lost Counties’ of Northern Ireland. Let the Irish use the Golden Judge themselves before they counsel it for others!”

But General O’Reilly was unruffled. “I’m an American, myself,” he said, smiling, “although proud indeed of my Irish blood. And the Irish Irish will have to speak for themselves, although I venture to say you’ll find them a sporting people indeed. But that’s not quite the point, is it? ‘Twas you yourself, sir, who praised the Golden Judge so highly. And you’ve seen today what fine sportsmen the Chinese are. The point is, are the Indians a sporting people?”

“Of course we’re a sporting people!” Nehru glared.

“Then I take it you’d be willing, assuming Pakistan agrees, of course, but I’m told they’re a very sporting people, to--” The general tossed the coin again, absent-mindedly.

“All right!” Nehru grated. “If they agree, so do we!”


It took a month before Pakistan could agree, and all the arrangements be made for the Toss on Kashmir. But in that month, the world had other things to think about. Chiang Kai Shek accepted his gambling loss without a murmur and removed his troops from Quemoy and Matsu, the American Seventh Fleet helping, the Communists not interfering. All civilians on the islands who wished to go to Formosa were taken there.

Washington said little officially, but in the corridors of the Pentagon, Congress and the White House, the sighs of relief reached gale force. General O’Reilly received a confidential and personal message from the Army Chief of Staff that made him pink with pleasure.

“May get that third star after all,” he told his wife that night. “And not too long to wait, maybe.”

But, above all, the month was filled with clamor from Ireland. Her Majesty’s Government in Whitehall had immediately issued a communiqué which took a glacial view of the “puerile” proposal to toss for Northern Ireland. It was the timing of this communiqué, rather than its contents, that proved a tactical error. It had come too quickly, and Irishmen, both north and south, resented it.

As a Belfast newspaper wrote tartly: “Irishmen on both sides of the line are quite able to decide such matters for themselves, without the motherly interference of London.”

Dublin agreed in principle to toss, but the wrangling over conditions and exceptions boiled up into the greatest inter-Irish quarreling of twenty years. It was still raging when General O’Reilly flew into the Vale of Kashmir with a broad smile and the Golden Judge.

Again the great coin glittered high in the air while none other than Nehru himself called out, tensely: “Heads!”

It fell “Tails.”

“So be it!” Nehru said calmly, shaking hands with the Governor-General of Pakistan.

“Well, general,” Nehru said, turning to O’Reilly with a smile, “are you satisfied now? I think we’ve proved we’re a sporting people. So have the Chinese, and the Jews and the Arabs. But what about your own folk, the Irish? From what I read, their sporting qualities seem to be highly overrated. I’d say they’d never gamble but on a sure thing.”

The general’s face went red at the insult, and so, a day later, did the collective face of all Irishmen, North and South. For a while there was aghast silence from the Emerald Isle, a silence sullen and embarrassed. And then a great rumbling roar of indignation.

“Mr. Speaker!” cried a member of the Dail in Dublin. “Are the Irish people, who honor great gamblers only a little less than great poets, to be outdone by dark-skinned heathen? Mr. Speaker, I say no!”

The following morning, the government of Eire formally offered to toss for the Six Lost Counties and, if the coin fell contrary, to say no more about them forever. Belfast agreed that same afternoon, and the whole island went wild with excitement. Hardly any Irishman failed to place some kind of side bet on the outcome, and stakes were laid that day that would be spoken of with prideful awe for generations to come.

The remark of a Limerick drayman was widely quoted. “There’s not a man of us here,” he commented in the course of a game of darts at the Sword and Shamrock, “but would toss a coin for his grandmother’s head, and well ye know it. So after all the blatherin’ and yowrin’, why not have a go for the Six Counties, and let the coin decide it now and foriver, once and for all, win or lose?”

The British Government surrendered with grace, and offered to play host to the toss in London, as a neutral place. They soon learned, with burning ears, that the last place on earth any Irishman considered neutral was London.

As a matter of course, General O’Reilly was invited to preside, using the Golden Judge. Like most Irishmen in America, he had long sung of and sighed for the Auld Sod, while carefully avoiding going there, even for a visit.

He now realized his error. He was received as one of Ireland’s most glorious sons. He was set upon by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of proud O’Reillys--there were O’Reillys from the bogs and O’Reillys from the great houses, O’Reillys in tophats and O’Reillys in tam o’ shanter. He was assured, and came near believing it, that in both looks and wisdom, he was the spitting image of the Great O’Reilly, one of the many last rightful Kings of Ireland. A minstrel composed a lay about him, “The Golden Judge of Ireland”; he was smothered in shamrock, and could have swum in the gifts of potheen. Secretly he much preferred Scotch whisky to Irish, but the swarming O’Reillys made the disposal of the potheen no very great problem.


The actual toss took place in a small railroad station, hastily cleaned up, on the railway line between Dublin and Belfast. Impartial surveyors had certified it as being exactly astraddle the frontier.

Amid a deathlike hush, with a high sense of history in his heart, General O’Reilly flipped the Golden Judge high in the air.

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