U.N. Created Through FDR’s Determination, Schlesinger Says
Franklin Delano Roosevelt deserves the lion’s share of credit for the existence of the United Nations, according to Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the U.N., who recounted the organization’s beginnings Oct. 7 at the invitation of the J.B. Moore Society and the Center for National Security Law.
Roosevelt learned from the United States' failure to join the League of Nations and was determined to avoid similar mistakes, said Schlesinger, now the director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City. He also worked for the U.N. for two years in the mid-1990s as a special advisor to the Secretary General for Habitat II, a U.N. program on world housing needs.
FDR had been Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and was involved in the formation of the League of Nations after World War I. The Senate’s rejection of U.S. membership in the League “was a bitter experience for FDR and it influenced him very, very deeply,” Schlesinger said. “He intended to handle the creation of the U.N. differently. In 1939 he had the clarity of mind to see that something larger was going to have to come out of the impending war.
“He secretly instructed the State Department to start working on a charter for a new security organization. FDR saw that it had to be practical and grounded in the day-to-day realities of political life.” He kept his intention secret because of isolationist sentiment in the United States at the time, Schlesinger said. “He realized Americans had to be educated about it and brought along.”
Schlesinger’s book tells the story of the nine-week conference in San Francisco in 1945 that lead to the creation of the United Nations.
“The U.N has been the background noise in our lives, but nobody really knows how it was founded,” he said. When he discovered that no books had been written about the San Francisco conference, he began what turned into a nine-year project that examined diaries of participants, particularly those of Michigan Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, who later became the first U.S. representative to the U.N.
He also relied on a 1,600-page book of meeting summaries compiled by the U.S. State Department that gives an hour-by-hour picture of what was happening.
“FDR didn’t have to create the U.N. The U.S. was more powerful in 1945 than it is today. But he was fearful that the U.S. would not get involved in world affairs if it was not embedded in an organization like the U.N.”
Schlesinger said Roosevelt insisted firmly on several conditions. First, he insisted on a bipartisan U.S. delegation to the conference so that both parties would be invested. Second, he insisted that the conference had to happen during wartime in order to have anxiety over security as a motivation for the task. The war did end in Europe before the conference was over and some European delegates did leave, Schlesinger noted.
FDR also insisted that the veto power be restricted to five countries, those he imagined would be the ones to provide the manpower for expeditionary military forces: America, Great Britain, France, Russia and China. “The limit on veto power is still a controversy today,” Schlesinger said. “Some states such as Brazil, India and South Africa can understand it, and small nations disliked the structure from the beginning.”
FDR also insisted that the conference not consider peace and territorial issues raised by the war, matters that he thought had distracted delegates’ attention when the League was being formed. “He also insisted that nations had to abide by the decisions of the Security Council. They either obeyed or they quit the U.N.”
Roosevelt was so committed to the idea of an international collective security organization that “he wanted to quit the presidency and become the U.N.’s first secretary general. This is what he really wanted to be remembered for.”
But FDR died 15 days before the conference opened and stewardship of the project fell to Harry Truman, who had not been kept abreast of the it. “Truman turned out to be one of our great internationalist presidents,” said Schlesinger, noting that for 50 years Truman had carried in his wallet a copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Lockesley Hall,” which contains the lines “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle flags were furl’d/In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the World.”
Truman kept in touch with Stettinius every day. “It was very important to the U.S. to make the U.N. a success.” The Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, was told to design a logo and came up with the circular world map projection surrounded by olive branches. The OSS also picked the sky blue color for the U.N. flag. The United States spied on all the governments coming to the conference and knew their positions in advance. Schlesinger said many delegates could only reach the conference by being flown there on U.S. military transports.
“There were conflicts from the very beginning between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.,” Schlesinger said. “The U.S.S.R. raised a dispute over every issue. You could see the wartime alliance unraveling.” There were fights over the admission of Poland, seen as a crypto-communist state, and Argentina, which was seen as crypto-Nazi, over the powers of the General Assembly (resulting in its actions being non-binding) and over veto authority. “The Soviets wanted authority to block even discussion of an issue,” Schlesinger said. “The conference was full of very serious public disputes that prolonged it from the planned four weeks to nine weeks.”
The charter was eventually adopted—on July 25, 1945—”because of the memory of the two incredible World Wars that had killed 30 million and 70 million people,” he said. “The notion of a third world war was so frightening that delegates insisted that the organization had to come into being.”
Schlesinger said America’s subsequent disenchantment with the U.N. was anticipated by Truman, when he remarked that “We must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please” as the price of having peace. America needs to hold back it unilateralist tendencies, said Schlesinger.
In response to questions Schlesinger said the Food for Peace scandal is a “body blow to the U.N. It allowed legal embezzlement to take place. The only defense I would make about why it was set up that way is because in order to get food to the Iraqi people they had to work through Saddam Hussein.”
He blamed the Cold War for preventing the U.N. from achieving FDR’s primary hope for it. “The U.N. was set up as a security organization. We think of it for its social programs, but if you read its charter it’s all about security. But the Cold War paralyzed the Security Council with the U.S. and the Soviets continually blocking each other. The security side of the U.N. withered. After the Cold War there was collective action to restore Kuwait. That was the first flowering of the U.N. as it was imagined in 1945.”
Schlesinger said the Security Council might expand from 15 to 20 members
with nations such as India, Brazil, Nigeria or South Africa being added. “But
all of these would create regional jealousies. It’s a very messy
issue. A bunch of people think we should leave well enough alone.”