An Overlooked Anniversary: The Birth of the United Nations

President Truman and Secretary of State Byrnes
Secretary of State James Byrnes watches President Truman sign the United Nations Charter.

Today, we share the latest dispatch from Senior Historian Chris Anderson’s blog, History Hikes,  on the birth of the United Nations. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked, “With all the defects, with all the failures that we can check up against it, the U.N. still represents man’s best-organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.” And it is for that reason, if no other, that 75-years on we should remember the birth of the United Nations as one of the most important anniversaries to commemorate.

An Overlooked Anniversary: The Birth of the United Nations

By Chris Anderson

It was an inauspicious time to have a peace conference. While things looked better for the Allies than they had at any time since the start of the war, in August 1944 fighting still raged across battlefields around the world. Nevertheless, in the midst of this conflagration, delegates from China, U.S.S.R., U.S.A. and the U.K. met at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. for the inspirationally named, “Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization.” The delegates had received their mandate as a result of the Moscow Declaration ten months earlier which, among other things, had called for the “creation at the earliest possible date of a general international organization.” The odds against success, were long.

“Four times in the modern age,” historian John Keegan wrote, “men have sat down to reorder the world—at the Peace of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars, in Paris in 1919 after World War I, and in San Francisco in 1945 after World War II. Such is the march of human history that all these events—except for the most recent one—collapsed in disagreements that eventually led to renewed wars.”

Seventy-five years later, the October 24, 1945, birth of the United Nations went almost unrecognized in a world consumed by COVID. Given that one could argue that the founding of the United Nations is one of the United States’ greatest wartime accomplishments and that it is the birth of the UN that truly marks the end of World War II, it is an unfortunate oversight of such an important event.

The League of Nations

While there was a long history of politicians, thinkers and theorists advocating for some sort of international body to prevent the “scourge of war,” the first modern attempt had been the Woodrow Wilson inspired League of Nations, which had been created in 1920 in the wake of the carnage of the Great War. Begun with the best of intentions, the League had quickly degenerated into farce. It had done seemingly little to prevent the spread of totalitarian regimes or the outbreak of World War II. Diplomatic historian Samuel Flagg Bemis wrote, “The League of Nations has been a disappointing failure…It has been a failure not because the U.S. did not join it, but because the great powers have been unwilling to apply sanctions except where it suited their individual national interests to do so, and because democracy, on which the original concept of the League rested for support, has collapsed over half the world.”

While Bemis made a fair point about democracy, most also believed that the United States’ refusal to join the league had doomed it to failure. Wilson’s first words after learning that Senate Republicans had defeated legislation allowing the US to join the League were prophetically, “I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Atlantic Charter

One of those who had been a strong supporter of Wilson’s drive to create the League of Nations had been, then, Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Echoes of Wilson’s 14 Points, from which the League of Nations was born, could be heard in January 1941 when then President Roosevelt told a cheering Congress during the State of the Union address that there were four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. “We should not hope for these freedoms in an ill-defined future,” Roosevelt asserted, but as a “definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Eight months later, Roosevelt was meeting for the first time with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The two men had travelled to this remote spot to discuss cooperation between Britain and the United States and the two powers’ aims in the event of war. Amongst the conclusions of what would come to be known as the Atlantic Charter, were Roosevelt’s earlier assertion that victorious powers would secure freedom from want and freedom from fear.

United Nations Fight for Freedom poster
United Nations Fight for Freedom poster

The first use of the term United Nations in a specific sense came on January 1, 1942, when 26 nations declared their support for the charter agreed to by Churchill and Roosevelt in Placentia Bay. By 1945 an additional 21 countries had signed on to charter. It was as the “United Nations” that the Allies often referred to themselves for the remainder of the war. Although there was no direct connection between the wartime united nations and what would eventually become the United Nations organization, the charter was significant because it saw the creation of a coalition of diverse countries who acquiesced to an agreed upon set of immediate and long-term objectives and made the idea of some sort of international body an accepted one.

Plans for any such organization, however, were merely nice ideas prior to the Moscow Conference in October of 1943, when Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented a State Department prepared document calling, “at the earliest possible date,” for the creation of an “general international organization.” More concerned with defeating the Nazis, Stalin, was sceptical but agreed to the idea of such an organization in a very general sense.

Meeting to Discuss Creating a “General International Organization”

When Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met at Tehran a month later, the creation of such an organization came up again. Perhaps best remembered for the commitment to a second front in Europe by May of 1944, the first face-to-face meeting of the “Big Three” also saw agreements on the future partition of Germany and eventual participation by the Soviets in the war against Japan. High on Roosevelt’s agenda was to press for the creation of an international body that would seek to prevent the cycle of cataclysmic wars. According to historian Townsend Hoopes, “For FDR, establishing the UN organization was the overarching strategic goal, the absolute first priority.”

Returning from the conference, Roosevelt continued to advocate for an international organization of the type discussed at Tehran. So important was it to the president, in fact, that he made it a central platform of his bid for re-election in 1944. He campaigned vigorously for the creation of such a body with the public and isolationist members of Congress. He also ensured that there were serious and substantive discussions with his often-sceptical allies about moving forward with his plans. Roosevelt’s advocacy led, later that summer, to the critical conference in Washington, D.C.

Cartoon about United Nations
Cartoon about the meeting at Dumbarton Oaks that paved the way for the United Nations

Delegates from the U.S., U.K., U.S.S.R. and China met at Dumbarton Oaks in August 1944 to put some structure to the ideas that had been discussed at Tehran. An indication of the importance the Roosevelt administration placed on the conference can be gleaned from the fact that Secretary of State Cordell Hull opened the meeting. Throughout the negotiations, the United States delegation, which was led by Assistant Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Jr., was the driving force behind the discussions and the push to reach an agreement. In the eyes of Roosevelt and the State Department, the new organization would have four basic purposes: First, and most important, to maintain peace and security. In addition, the new organization would work to improve friendly relations and discourse between nations and to achieve cooperation on solutions to international economic, social and humanitarian problems and, finally, to have a central, permanent organization to see that these purposes were achieved.

By the end of the conference, delegates had agreed on the “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization.” Critically, these proposals decided uponqualifications for membership, the formation of a “security council,” which would consist of the four major powers at the conference and that would have some means of enforcing rules and ensuring that the organizations purposes were fulfilled. British efforts to include France in the security council were at first rebuffed, with Stalin only changing his mind at the later Potsdam Conference.

The Birth of the United Nations

The proposals agreed upon at Dumbarton Oaks would have been so much paper, however, without the approval of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Since the war discussions about the success or failure of the February 1945 Yalta Conference often revolve around the question of whether or not the Western Allies “gave” Eastern Europe to Stalin. What is often overlooked, is that at least in the case of the Americans, the fate of Poland was never a priority. Of far greater importance to Roosevelt was first, to get a commitment of Soviet participation in the war against Japan and second, to ensure Soviet participation in the United Nations organization. And he succeeded in both cases. Once Roosevelt assured Stalin that permanent members of the security council would have veto power over resolutions from the larger body, the Stalin agreed to Soviet participation. The Big Three also agreed that membership in the new organization would be open to any nation that joined the Allied coalition by March 1945. These nations would meet in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, to agree upon a charter.

Before he could see the organization that he had done so much to create born, Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia, on April 12. In the face of such a loss, some urged President Harry S. Truman to postpone the meeting in San Francisco. As historian Stephen Schlesinger points out, the newly sworn in president, “did not know all the nuances and tricky interpretative problems associated with the U.N. Charter. He hadn’t even travelled to Europe since his service in World War I. There were only 10 days to go before the San Francisco meeting, and he was trying to settle the wars on the continent and in the Pacific, reach out to the Allies, master pressing domestic legislation, meet with congressional leaders, and address the American people.” Undaunted, within the first hour of his taking office, the president ordered that the San Francisco meeting proceed.

On April 25, 1945, representatives from 50 countries gathered in San Francisco at the cities’ Memorial and Performing Arts Center. For the next two months the delegates debated and then, on June 26, 1945, released their draft of a charter for the new organization. Taking directly from the U.S. Constitution, New York Congressmen Sol Bloom wrote the preamble:

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to regain faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

AND FOR THESE ENDS

  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

President Harry Truman
President Harry S. Truman in front of the United Nations Charteer

As it had done from the beginning, the US took a leading role in the conference and President Truman closed the meeting by observing that the charter was, “a solid structure upon which we can build a better world.”

The United Nations would not become a reality, however, without the charter’s ratification. Aware of isolationist sentiment at home and wanting to avoid a repeat of what had happened to the League of Nations, the Truman administration lobbied hard for quick ratification within Congress and also launched a loud public relations effort with the war-weary American public.

With the war in the Pacific still raging, Truman pointed out that, “The only rational alternative to existing international anarchy lies in some reasonable form of international organization among so-called sovereign states. This is merely an extension of local and national practices to an international plane.” And the next day, in a more direct way, he said in a radio address, “America can no longer sit smugly behind a mental Maginot Line.”

Truman’s efforts were effective. On July 28, 1945, the Senate voted 89 to 2 (with 5 abstentions) to ratify the UN charter. Finally, on October 24, certificates of ratification from the U.S.S.R. were delivered to the State Department. The United Nations was born.

The United Nations 75 Years Later

In the 75 years since its inception, the United Nations has worked continuously to live up to its original charter. According to the United Nations, which now consists of 193 nations, since its inception, the UN has:

  • Provided food to 90 million people in over 75 countries
  • Assisted more than 34 million refugees
  • Authorized 71 international peacekeeping missions
  • Worked with 140 nations to minimize climate change
  • Assisted about 50 countries per year with their elections
  • Provided vaccinations for 58 percent of children in the world
  • Helped about 30 million women a year with maternal health efforts
  • Protected human rights with 80 treaties and declarations
United Nations Stamp We the People
United Nations We the People stamp

The United Nations is not a perfect organization. There have been failures and frustrations aplenty and there are always ways that the structure can be improved. But critics of the organization that the United States took a leading role in creating should also look to the UN’s many successes and remember why men like Roosevelt and Truman thought such an organization was so important. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower later remarked, “With all the defects, with all the failures that we can check up against it, the U.N. still represents man’s best-organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.” And it is for that reason, if no other, that 75-years on we should remember the birth of the United Nations as one of the most important anniversaries to commemorate.

To find out more about the United Nations and the United States’ role in its birth, I strongly recommend Stephen C. Schlesinger’s, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.

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