A Historyby Stanley Meisler
With four new chapters, this updated edition of United Nations: A History completes the story of the UN’s last sixty-five years, its successes and turbulent past.
United Nations: A History begins with the creation of the organization in 1945. Although its aim was to prevent war, many conflicts have arisen, ranging from the Korean War to the Six-Day War, to genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. Stanley Meisler’s in-depth research examines the crises and many key political leaders. In this second edition, Meisler brings his popular history up to date with accounts of the power struggles of the last fifteen years, specifically spotlighting the terms of secretaries-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan, and Ban Ki-moon. This is an important, riveting, and impartial guide through the past and recent events of the sixty-five-year history of the United Nations.
“Balanced and insightful, this book is a must for anyone who wants to understand where the UN has been and, more importantly, how we might best use its potential for the future.” —Thomas R. Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and to the UN
“Stanley Meisler tells the story of the United Nations, its promise and its problems, with clarity and authority. This is a definitive account of the United Nations for a general audience, told by a master.” —Jim Hoagland, The Washington Post
1 — The Beginnings: From Dumbarton Oaks to San Francisco
At 7:09 p.m., the twelfth of April, 1945, two and a half hours after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman held a Gideons’ Bible in his left hand and took the oath of office as thirty-third president of the United States. About two dozen onlookers—cabinet members, congressional leaders, Roosevelt aides, Bess Truman, their daughter, Margaret—had assembled in the cabinet room of the White House for the swift ceremony. Chief Justice Harlan Stone administered the oath to Truman while both stood near a marble mantelpiece beneath a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, a symbolic witness. Wilson had galvanized the allies to victory in World War I but had fumbled the peace, failing to win Senate approval for even a toothless League of Nations. As World War II rushed through its final months, Roosevelt—and now Truman—knew that a wartime president had to avoid the pitfalls of Wilson in peacetime yet build on what he had attempted.
After the ceremony, Truman asked the members of Roosevelt’s cabinet to remain behind so that he could formally request them to stay on the job as he coped with the awesome mantle dropped on him so suddenly. Before he could address them, Steve Early, Roosevelt’s press secretary, interrupted and whispered that the White House newspapermen wanted to know if the San Francisco conference on the United Nations was going to take place as scheduled in less than two weeks. “I said it most certainly was,” Truman recalled later. “I said it was what Roosevelt had wanted, and it had to take place if we were going to keep the peace. And that’s the first decision I made as President of the United States.”
It was a fitting first move. In the short years between the climactic months of World War II and the onset of the Cold War, Americans had high hopes for a future United Nations. Although there were some suspicions, Americans brimmed with admiration for the bitter and furious defenders of Moscow and Leningrad and Stalingrad and for the relentless Soviet counteroffensives that followed. Americans could envision the Soviet Union joining the United States in policing the peace in the brighter new world that would arise from the carnage. There were dissenters. Some were isolationists who still abhorred entangling alliances. But pragmatic intellectuals like Walter Lippmann also joined the naysayers. “We cannot repeat the error of counting upon a world organization to establish peace,” he warned. “The responsibility for order rests upon the victorious governments. They cannot delegate this responsibility to a world society which does not yet exist or has just barely been organized.” But, for most Americans, hopes drove out doubts.
* * *
The United Nations was forged in a pair of extraordinary conferences—at Dumbarton Oaks from late August to early October 1944 and at San Francisco from late April to late June 1945. The Dumbarton Oaks conference was limited in numbers but not power. Only Britain, Russia, the United States, and China took part. At San Francisco, however, fifty governments, almost all anti-Axis belligerents, met to ratify a U.N. charter, accepting somewhat grudgingly what the Big Four had imposed. The noisiest disagreements—pitting the Soviet Union against its English-speaking partners—had to be settled through compromise outside the conferences, requiring a good deal of cajoling by Roosevelt in person at Yalta and by Truman through emissaries in Moscow.
The United Nations was mainly an American idea, and its structure today closely follows the plans prepared by American diplomats during World War II. Even before the United States entered the war, President Roosevelt had asked Secretary of State Cordell Hull to set up a State Department team of planners for peace. Roosevelt himself talked often of the need for “Four Policemen”—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and China—to order the postwar world. The policemen would operate out of a station house run by an international organization, but it would be the strength and unity of the policemen that gave that organization its vitality. He did not mind fitting his scheme into the framework of some kind of League of Nations, but he envisioned a league of awesome power. When the Dumbarton Oaks conference was announced, Roosevelt, meeting reporters in his shirtsleeves on a warm day, explained what he had in mind: If some aggressor “started to run amok and seeks to grab territory or invade its neighbors,” the new organization would “stop them before they got started.”
Winston Churchill, fearful of the postwar machinations of Joseph Stalin, was more concerned with molding a West European-American alliance to balance the power of the Soviet Union. He derided the Americans for setting off on the wrong track. He also suspected the American visionaries of plotting the dismemberment of the British Empire. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, after all, had told a Memorial Day audience in 1942, “The age of imperialism is ended.” Churchill did not see the point of the early American planning. He had his hands full with a war. In 1942, he told Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that postwar studies should be assigned “mainly to those on whose hands time hangs heavy” and that all the planners should “not overlook Mrs. Glass’s Cookery Book recipe for jugged hare—first catch your hare.” But Churchill did not intend to antagonize Roosevelt. While Churchill looked on the early American planning as na’ve and premature, he and his diplomats went along, humoring the Americans they needed so desperately as allies.
Stalin’s postwar vision was closer to that of Churchill than Roosevelt. He intended to conquer an Eastern European buffer belt that would protect the Soviet Union from any future German or other European aggression. Since Roosevelt’s vision of Four Policemen leading a universal peacekeeping organization did not seem to clash with his postwar plans, Stalin accepted it. “I think Stalin, with all his nastiness, scheming and beastliness with regard to his own people,” says Russian historian Henry A. Trofimenko, “was serious about that. . . . He was quite prepared to police the world together with the United States, conveniently picking up in the process some neglected chunks of land.” Stalin just wanted to make sure this new organization did not isolate him.
Throughout the war there were hints of what was to come. As early as August 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and Churchill included a call for the postwar “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security” in the Atlantic Charter that they signed aboard the British battleship Prince of Wales off Newfoundland. The hint might have been stronger. Churchill was ready to slip a reference to an “effective international organization” into this declaration of principles by the leaders of the two most powerful English-speaking democracies. But isolationist sentiment still ran strong in prewar America, and the president did not want to provoke the American public and Senate with reminders of the scorned League of Nations. He rejected any wording that promised anything so specific as an international organization.
Roosevelt’s objection would soon have a familiar ring to the British and, later, the Russians. Throughout the arguments at Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco, Yalta, and Moscow, American diplomats liked to justify their stubbornness by invoking the nightmare of the Senate rejection and humiliation of Woodrow Wilson and his League of Nations after World War I: if they yielded on this or that point, the Americans would argue, the same dismal fate would await the U.N. It was both a haunt and a convenient club for bargaining.
* * *
Washington in August rivals West Africa for muggy heat, and Eden asked the State Department to find a cooler site for the first conference in 1944. But American officials looked on the conference as too vital to allow American delegates too far from headquarters. Alger Hiss, a young State Department officer who would be imprisoned six years later for perjury in a controversial espionage case that skyrocketed the anti-Communist career of young Congressman Richard Nixon, suggested Dumbarton Oaks, a secluded mansion with acres of sculpted garden on high land above Georgetown in northwest Washington. Harvard University, which had received the mansion as a gift from Ambassador Robert Woods Bliss and his wife in 1940, agreed to lend the estate to the U.S. government for the rest of the summer. An enormous horseshoe-shaped table was assembled to replace the pianos and antique furniture of the mansion’s ornate Music Room, and the Dumbarton Oaks conference opened on August 21, 1944.
The Americans, in an ebullient mood, catered to the needs and sensibilities of their guests. Hiss provided a member of the British delegation with the schedule of remaining home games for “the Washington American League club, also known as the Senators.” To avoid offending the Soviet delegation, an accommodating official removed a portrait of the late Polish pianist-statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski from a wall in the Music Room; Paderewski was too closely identified with the government that Stalin and Hitler overthrew in their joint invasion of Poland in 1939.
On the first Friday, Undersecretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, the head of the American delegation, arranged for a U.S. Army plane to fly the delegates to New York for a weekend on the town. They gaped at seminude showgirls in Billie Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe after midnight and hobnobbed backstage with the Rockettes after a movie and stage show at Radio City Music Hall the next day. Andrey Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador to Washington and chief of his delegation, refused to go. Sir Alexander Cadogan, the British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs and chief of his delegation, described Billie Rose’s nightclub as an “astonishing scene” and wrote his wife that Americans were “extraordinary people” who were “in some respects rather like ourselves but (as you can see) so utterly different.” When asked by reporters a few days later if it was true that the delegates had attended a nightclub floor show in New York on the past weekend, Stettinius denied it.
* * *
Three very different men dominated the conference. Stettinius, forty-three, the Lend-Lease administrator and former chairman of U.S. Steel, had only recently replaced Sumner Welles as undersecretary after a well-publicized spat between Welles and his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Stettinius, a man with a toothy grin, bushy black eyebrows, and prematurely white hair, had secured a reputation in Washington as an efficient administrator with a flair for public relations. Cadogan recorded in his diary that Stettinius reminded him of “a dignified and more monumental Charlie Chaplin.” Few contemporary chroniclers were that kind in their descriptions of the amiable lightweight who would replace Hull within a year. Dean Acheson remarked that Stettinius had “gone far with comparatively modest equipment.” Ralph Bunche called him “a complete dud, whatever the press may say about him. He is simply in a job for which he has utterly no qualifications and about which he knows nothing.”
Gromyko, thirty-five, even younger than Stettinius, was not well known even though he had been stationed in Washington for five years. Rarely seen at diplomatic parties and rarely in a joking mood when he did show up, he was once described as “the oldest young man in Washington.” Stalin had promoted him to take the place of Maksim Litvinov as ambassador only a year before the Dumbarton Oaks conference. Litvinov, a former foreign minister fluent in English, had enjoyed spirited popularity in Washington, and there were some rumors that he had been replaced by Stalin to show displeasure with the delay in launching an invasion of western Europe. In Moscow, a story, probably apocryphal, spread that some Americans, jealous of Litvinov’s access to Roosevelt, had lobbied against him, prompting an angry Stalin to scold them, “Well, you seem not to like a smart and brainy guy from Moscow—so I’ll treat you with Gromyko.” Cadogan described Gromyko as “a very nice and sensible fellow,” although, by the end of the conference, he began to regard the Russian delegates on the whole as “slow and sticky and rather stupid.” Gladwyn Jebb, Cadogan’s deputy, found Gromyko “imperturbable, sardonic, scrupulous, humorless and formidably exact.”
Cadogan, a far more experienced diplomat than the other two, headed the League of Nations section of the foreign office before World War II and, as permanent undersecretary, now held the highest bureaucratic rank in his ministry. Stettinius admired him as “calm, intelligent . . . very quick on the trigger.” The conference wore down the nerves of the sharp-witted Cadogan. After a month, he attended an embassy cocktail party and looked on it as “a foretaste of hell.” “A million people in a small, hot room,” he wrote, “and a noise in which one couldn’t hear oneself scream.”
The makeup of the conference raised eyebrows. Roosevelt insisted that China be included as the Fourth Policeman because he wanted it to replace Japan someday as the power of Asia in the postwar world. The idea of China developing into a world power struck Churchill as ludicrous. He would have preferred France at Dumbarton Oaks, for he looked on a rejuvenated France as the vital balance in Western Europe against any westward moves by the Soviet Union. But Roosevelt, though he finally accepted the principle of France as Fifth Policeman, disliked General Charles de Gaulle enough to veto his movement’s participation at Dumbarton Oaks, hoping that someone else could rise up and supplant him as the knight of a free France. Churchill called China a “faggot vote”—casting its ballot slavishly with the United States—and referred to Chinese diplomats as “pigtails.” Despite this grumbling, he did not oppose Roosevelt’s decision to make China one of the Big Four.
But the Soviet Union, since it had not yet declared war on Japan, refused to share the table with China during the conference, forcing the delegations to meet in cumbersome phases. The Big Three first ironed out the main features of a future United Nations. Then the British and American delegations presented the agreements to the Chinese in the second phase. There was little that delegation chief V. K. Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador to London, could do but acquiesce.
* * *
Stettinius and the other delegation chiefs decided to keep all proceedings of the conference secret, doling out worthless press releases that set down the schedule of sessions but little more. But they were undercut by James Reston, on his first major assignment for the Washington bureau of the New York Times. Reston had run into young Chen Yi, a member of the Chinese delegation who had once worked as an apprentice at the Times. While talking over those days, Reston discovered that Chen had copies of all the position papers tabled by the four delegations. Reston persuaded Chen that “it would be a pity not to share these wonderful proposals and suggestions with the peoples who had suffered so much.” Chen opened up his bulging briefcase and handed Reston all the papers. “I ran, literally ran, all the way to the office and turned them over to Arthur Krock,” Reston recalled in his memoirs. Krock, the bureau chief, “looked like a guy who had just won the Kentucky Derby.” The main competition for the Times in those days was the New York Herald-Tribune, and Krock decided to give “them the Chinese torture treatment by publishing the U.S. text one day, the Soviet the next, and so on.”
The publication of the papers infuriated the delegation chiefs. Gromyko called on Krock and accused the Times of taking part in a conspiracy to divide the wartime allies. Stettinius called on British Ambassador Lord Halifax and wrongly accused the British delegation of “this outrageous breach of security.” Stettinius then rushed to New York and warned publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger that the conference might collapse if the Times continued to publish the papers. Reston wrote a letter to Stettinius assuring him that the British were not his source. Lord Halifax told Reston that, while he accepted this assurance as true, he would never again have anything to do “with a man implicated in this affair.” The Times continued to publish the papers.
The other correspondents, suspecting that the State Department was feeding Reston while shunning them, angrily confronted Stettinius and demanded more news. Stettinius, Gromyko, and Cadogan agreed to meet the press a little more than a week after the conference opened. Two hundred correspondents assembled for a news conference in the Music Room. But the three negotiators, as Cadogan put it, intended only to “tell them that we weren’t going to tell them anything.” The Detroit Free Press said that Stettinius’s replies to questions “could have been written on a postal card a year ago.” Stettinius tried to hold a news conference of his own in September, but, despite his cheery attempt to call reporters by their first names, proved as ill at ease and uninformative as before. The Dumbarton Oaks conference shattered Stettinius’s reputation as a master of public relations and enabled Reston to win the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
* * *
Although Russian intransigence is often blamed for almost scuttling the United Nations at birth, Gromyko, in fact, accommodated the Americans on almost all issues at Dumbarton Oaks. The Americans proposed that five permanent members with a veto and a few other rotating delegates make up a security council with the authority to maintain international peace and security. Unlike the League of Nations, which had the power only to impose sanctions by unanimous vote, this Security Council could use “any means necessary,” including military force, to thwart aggression. This key proposal aroused no objection from Gromyko. The Soviet ambassador, in fact, was even stronger than the others in pleading for a security council with teeth.
At the request of Roosevelt, who was hoping to fashion a new Latin American champion just like China in Asia, Stettinius suggested that Brazil join the Security Council as the Sixth Policeman. But Cadogan and Gromyko objected, and the matter was dropped. Roosevelt, however, told Stettinius that Brazil was still a card up his sleeve. But few cards were necessary at Dumbarton Oaks. The remarkable unanimity continued as Stettinius, Cadogan, and Gromyko agreed on establishment of a general assembly comprising all members that would debate issues and approve budgets but have no enforcement power, a secretariat of international civil servants and an international court of justice.
There was some disagreement over a name. Roosevelt wanted to carry the name of the United Nations wartime alliance into the postwar crusade for permanent peace. Gromyko objected that it was not wise to adopt a bellicose name for peacetime and proposed International Security Organization or World Union instead. Cadogan surprised Stettinius by announcing that his government did not like the name United Nations either. When Stettinius refused to give in, Gromyko did not press the matter. Nor did Cadogan. The British said they were “reluctant to take the initiative in producing another wrangle in the conference.”
The conference came close to foundering on two issues that seem trivial today but filled the British and American delegates with gloom then. The issues were exacerbated at Dumbarton Oaks and later at San Francisco by a growing Anglo-American suspicion of Russian intentions as the war wound down and by a growing Soviet fear that the Americans and British could use the United Nations against them in the uncertain postwar world. Gromyko proposed that all sixteen republics of the Soviet Union have a seat in the General Assembly. Stethnius called the proposal “the bombshell.” Roosevelt ordered Stettinius to inform Gromyko “privately and personally and immediately” that the proposal was totally unacceptable; it “might ruin the chance of getting an international organization accepted in this country.” If the Soviet Union had sixteen votes, the United States ought to have forty-eight, Roosevelt said.
Stettinius delivered the message from Roosevelt while walking with Gromyko in the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. Secretary of State Hull also warned Gromyko that the proposal might “blow off the roof” of the U.N. But Gromyko was adamant, for the Soviet Union feared that it would be hopelessly outvoted in a general assembly dominated by both the bloc of Britain and its dominions and the bloc of the United States and its Latin American allies. The negotiators decided to let the disagreement rest for future solution. But Stettinius feared that news of the Soviet attempt to vote sixteen times on every General Assembly issue would infuriate the American public and turn it against the U.N. He clamped such secrecy over the proposal that most members of the American delegation did not find out about it until the conference ended. Stettinius referred to the unresolved issue in his working papers only as the “X-matter.”
The second contentious issue—which would persist until it almost broke up the San Francisco conference—centered on the veto in the Security Council. The Americans, the British, and the Soviets all agreed that a veto was essential. There could be no peace in the postwar world if the United States and the Soviet Union did not agree. But the delegates differed on just how extensive that veto would be.
Gromyko believed that the Americans supported the Soviet view that the veto would be absolute—that it could be invoked by any of the Big Five on any issue, no matter how trivial. Most important, the veto, in the Soviet view, could be used to prevent the Security Council from even discussing a dispute. This seemed to be Secretary Hull’s position as well, for he feared that Americans would not support the U.N. if they believed that the United States could be outvoted there. The British dissented at first. But, as the Dumbarton Oaks conference progressed, the Americans, who seemed rather confused and divided, turned away from the Soviet position while the British turned toward it.
Secretary Hull changed his mind and told the American delegates in August that he now supported the British view that a member of the Big Five should not be able to veto a resolution if it was a party to the dispute. When this was relayed to the conference, Cadogan said, the new American position “was in the nature of a shock to the Soviet delegation.” Gromyko took up the matter with Stettinius privately in the gardens. The Soviet ambassador said he was very discouraged by the change in the American position and was sure this would cause serious difficulties in Moscow; he implored Stettinius to reconsider. But the undersecretary of state said that President Roosevelt had told him only the night before that the American people would never accept the right of veto by a government involved in a dispute. Yet Roosevelt did not devote much time to this problem, and Stettinius found, in later discussions with him, that the president “seemed confused on the issue.”
He was not the only one confused. “From some of the things he said,” Cadogan wrote in his diary, “it became clear that he [Gromyko] didn’t understand the point himself, so can’t have put the arguments properly to Moscow.” Stettinius hoped that his “biggest and last remaining gun” might be able to drive the American position home to Gromyko. On September 7, at 9:30 a.m., Stettinius escorted Gromyko into the bedroom of President Roosevelt in the White House. Trying to charm the Soviet ambassador, the president, in a cheerful mood, conjured up a homey but rather irrelevant image. He said that spatting husbands and wives in America traditionally leave it to outsiders to arbitrate their troubles. They didn’t vote on their own cases, and it ought to be the same within the family of nations. He also said that the notion of fair play stemmed from the days of the Founding Fathers and that any break with fair play would surely endanger a U.N. treaty in the Senate. This story touched the emotions of Stettinius, but it did not seem to affect Gromyko.
Roosevelt decided to put the same argument in a message sent out that day to Stalin. The metaphor about disputing husbands and wives, however, disappeared in the drafting. The cable didn’t seem to make much of an impact on Stalin. A week later, Gromyko informed the steering committee of the conference that he had received his instructions from Moscow: The Soviet position on the veto was “final and unalterable”; the veto would have to be absolute. Stettinius called this a “great blow” and said it might make it impossible to call a conference of nations to establish the United Nations. “We cannot tell whether we will be able to work it out to a successful conclusion,” Stettinius wrote in his diary, “or whether the conference will blow up.” The undersecretary of state also warned delegates that there must be “no whisper” of this impasse. The world must not yet learn that the United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on the vital issue of the veto.
There were various attempts at compromise formulas. Some American delegates urged Stettinius to accept the Soviet position, which, after all, was the original American position. But neither Stettinius nor Gromyko would budge. As the conference neared its close, Churchill began to take more interest in what was going on and to waver about the veto. He forwarded a telegram that he had received from South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts, who tried to explain Soviet stubbornness over the veto. Smuts said that the Kremlin fretted over the Soviet Union’s “honor and standing . . . amongst her allies’ and wondered whether ‘she is trusted and treated as an equal or is still an outlaw and pariah.” Churchill said he had changed his mind and now agreed with Smuts that no action should be taken in the Security Council without the unanimity of the great powers. Churchill told Roosevelt that he regretfully had “come to this conclusion contrary to my first thought.”
But this came too late to alter the course of the Dumbarton Oaks conference. The seven-week conference ended on October 7 with the vital issue of the veto left open. The final draft of the Dumbarton Oaks proposals for the United Nations, released two days later, stated that “the question of voting procedure in the Security Council is still under consideration.” Stettinius professed not to be discouraged by the failure to win a 100 percent victory at Dumbarton Oaks; he wrote in his diary that 75 percent was good enough. But most delegates knew that, unless their governments solved the problem of the veto, they would not have three-quarters of a United Nations organization but none at all.
* * *
Two days after his inauguration for a fourth term as president in January 1945, Roosevelt embarked on a long journey by sea and air to Yalta in the Soviet Crimea, joining Churchill and Stalin in hopes of smoothing the last few squabbles during the closing months of war. More than 8o percent of Americans supported the Dumbarton Oaks blueprint for the United Nations. But Roosevelt knew that the blueprint was worthless without an agreement on the veto. Both Roosevelt and his closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, were seriously ill. Hopkins remained in bed except for official sessions. Roosevelt did not always follow the discussions. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote, “To a doctor’s eye, the President appears a very sick man. . . . I give him only a few months to live.” Yet the Americans appeared to win the veto issue at Yalta.
Stettinius, now secretary of state, presented the new American proposal with British support. The Big Five would have the right of veto on all but procedural issues before the Security Council. In the case of a peaceful dispute, however, a member of the council would abstain from voting if it was a party to that dispute. This formula, as the Americans understood it, meant that none of the Big Five could prevent an issue from coming before the council, though they could veto any decision to take action on this issue. The single exception to the rule—peaceful disputes involving the Big Five—did not seem significant, since the Security Council’s crucial assignment was the halting and punishment of aggression, not the arbitration of peaceful arguments.
Without much debate, Soviet Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov accepted the formula. On the second unresolved issue of Dumbarton Oaks, he said that the Soviet Union no longer demanded a vote for all sixteen of its republics in the General Assembly but would be satisfied with four. To the dismay of his delegation, Roosevelt reluctantly offered three—votes for the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, and White Russia—and also requested that the United States have three votes as well. The compromise was accepted—though the quest for three American votes at the U.N. seemed so ludicrous back in Washington that the United States soon abandoned the idea and contented itself with one vote. Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill also agreed that a conference of nations would be convened in San Francisco in a few months to adopt the charter of the United Nations.
Since Roosevelt and Churchill failed to budge Stalin on allowing a democratic government in Poland, which was the main issue of Yalta, Charles Bohlen, the American adviser, interpreter, and note taker at the conference, called the settlement of the veto “the one solid and lasting decision of the Yalta Conference.” Without it, he said, “there would hardly have been a United Nations.”
* * *
Internationalists looked on the San Francisco conference, which opened on April 25, 1945, as a grand and gala beginning—the launching by fifty countries of a brave, new organization that would keep the peace after the horrors of World War II. The crucial decisions had been made at Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta, but the conference had the vital—though far less controversial—task of writing the charter that would put the grand ideas into soaring yet practical rhetoric. The conference, however, faltered often over snares and traps, and it came close to failing.
The Soviet Union shocked Washington weeks before the conference by announcing that Foreign Minister Molotov would not head the Soviet delegation because of the press of business in wartime Moscow. This struck Washington as a deliberate downgrading of the conference. Churchill called it “a grimace” that “leaves a bad impression on me.”
Shortly after the death of Roosevelt on April 12, Stalin called U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman to the Kremlin. He wondered what he ought to do—as a gesture to the memory of Roosevelt—to assure the American people of his desire for continued cooperation with the United States. Harriman replied that “the thing the American people would appreciate most would be to send Molotov to the San Francisco Conference.” Molotov, who was present, repeated his reluctance. But Stalin announced to both Harriman and Molotov that Molotov would lead the Soviet delegation in San Francisco. And he, of course, did.
Roosevelt appointed a bipartisan delegation: Secretary Stettinius, two members of the House of Representatives, the dean of Barnard College, Chairman Tom Connally (a Texas Democrat) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Arthur Vandenberg (a Michigan Republican), and former Republican Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, now on duty in the navy. The delegation included Cordell Hull, the retired secretary of state, as well, but he was too ill to attend. The key member of the delegation was probably Senator Vandenberg, for he was only a recent convert from isolationism. He had been so vehemently against foreign entanglements that he had even voted against the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 that supplied war matériel to Britain, confessing, in his diary, “I had the feeling that I was witnessing the suicide of the Republic.” The delegation had numerous advisers, like Ambassador Harriman and Republican international lawyer John Foster Dulles. Upon his return from Yalta, Roosevelt informed the delegates of his acceptance of three Soviet votes. They were stunned. “This will raise hell,” Vandenberg wrote in his diary. “. . . It looks like a bad business to me.”
When Connally and Vandenberg took leave of the Senate to head to San Francisco, there was, as Vandenberg noted, “a sudden stirring of emotions such as the staid old chamber had seldom witnessed.” Democrats and Republicans rose, clapped their hands lustily, rushed toward Connally and Vandenberg, shook hands, hugged them, and wished them well. “America was going to San Francisco—the second great international effort to establish lasting peace in the world—in a manner far removed from the lonely pilgrimage of Woodrow Wilson to Paris hardly a generation before,” Vandenberg wrote.
San Francisco, one of the most cosmopolitan of American cities, had to deal with an enormous influx of peoples from fifty countries: 1,726 delegates and their assistants, a secretariat of 1,058 international civil servants, 2,636 newspaper and radio reporters, and a support staff of almost 4,500, including telephone and telegraph operators and volunteers from the Boy Scouts and Red Cross.
The conference opened in unpleasant controversy. Other countries grumbled about the two extra Soviet seats. The Latin American delegates would not vote for the Ukraine and White Russia unless the United States supported a seat for Argentina. This was a sore point. The fascistlike Argentine régime had traded with Nazi Germany throughout the war and did not declare war on the Axis until two months before the San Francisco conference. The Soviets rightly regarded American support of Argentina’s participation in the conference as reneging on a promise. But the Americans felt that the Soviet Union should understand that there was no other way to get wide support for the seating of the two extra Soviet republics. Molotov stormed that it was incomprehensible for the conference to seat Argentina while refusing to support the Communist-dominated Lublin government of Poland. Moscow had recognized the Lublin government despite the Yalta agreement on free elections for Poland. But the conference, while voting to seat the Ukraine, White Russia, and Argentina, put off a decision on Poland.
Walter Lippmann, the influential columnist, believed that the United States was deliberately and dangerously humiliating the Soviet Union. The American delegates, Lippmann believed, had fallen under the sway of the hard-line anti-Soviet views of Ambassador Harriman. When Harriman told a news conference in San Francisco that “our objectives and the Kremlin’s objectives are irreconcilable,” Lippmann walked out. He was disturbed by the way the United States had marshaled the votes of nineteen Latin American delegations, almost half the countries at the conference, to win a seat for Argentina. “If we were going to use that kind of majority to dominate things,” Lippmann said, “we were going to run into iron resistance to anything else from the Russians.” He was afraid that some American officials looked on the future U.N. as a means of policing the Soviet Union. “We cannot police the Soviet Union,” he wrote, “and we must not flirt with the idea of attempting it.”
But the real issue of the San Francisco conference was the same that plagued Dumbarton Oaks—the veto of the Big Five. Although the Soviet Union had agreed to the American formula at Yalta, Molotov now insisted that the formula meant that any of the Big Five could veto even the discussion of a dispute: a public debate over a dispute was too significant to be regarded as a procedural matter not subject to veto. When the Soviets resisted all efforts to change this view, Senator Vandenberg wrote in his diary, “We all knew that we had reached the ‘zero hour’ of this great adventure. With what seemed to be finality, the Soviet said they could not accept our proposal for ‘free discussion.’ We all knew that none of the rest of us can accept the Soviet view. Did it mean the immediate breakup of the conference? Did it mean going on to a charter without Russia?”
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In mid-May, the conference seemed doomed. Molotov and Eden returned home. Harriman and Bohlen flew to Washington, according to playwright and Hopkins biographer Robert E. Sherwood, “with a sense of despair in their hearts.” Bohlen suggested that Truman might ask Harry Hopkins to undertake a new mission to Moscow to negotiate with Stalin. Although this would, in a sense, usurp Harriman’s role as ambassador to Moscow, Harriman embraced the suggestion and took it to Hopkins.
Hopkins had served Roosevelt as secretary of commerce, head of the Works Progress Administration (the New Deal jobs program during the 1930s Depression), administrator of Lend-Lease, and confidential adviser. He was so close to Roosevelt that he lived in the White House. It was often easier for critics to attack Hopkins as an ‘minence grise than to take on the extraordinarily popular Roosevelt, and Hopkins often felt unfairly vilified during his years of faithful service. His fading health forced him to retire from the government soon after Roosevelt died. But, when Harriman and Bohlen made their proposal, according to Sherwood, “the mere intimation of a flight to Moscow converted him into the traditional old fire horse at the sound of the alarm.” Truman approved the plan and instructed Hopkins to “make it clear to Uncle Joe Stalin that I knew what I wanted—and that I intend to get—peace for the world for at least 90 years.” Hopkins set off to Moscow as the president’s personal envoy, accompanied by Harriman and Bohlen.
When Hopkins met Molotov in the Kremlin during the evening of May 25, he asked if the Soviet foreign minister “had recovered from the battle of San Francisco.” Molotov replied that he did not “recall any battles but merely arguments at San Francisco.” Several evenings were devoted to discussions of Poland, the Argentine vote, and Soviet-American relations in general. The veto was not discussed until the sixth and final meeting on June 6. Hopkins and Molotov debated their two positions before Stalin. Stalin then discussed the issue with Molotov in Russian. It became clear to the Americans that Stalin was seeking clarification of a problem that he had not understood before. Stalin remarked to Molotov that it struck him as “an insignificant matter.” He said that they should accept the American position allowing discussion of any conflict but providing the Big Five with a veto over any decision.
While informing Hopkins that he accepted the American position, Stalin warned the United States to beware of little nations that like to exploit the differences among big powers. “It was a mistake to believe that just because a nation was small it was necessarily innocent,” Stalin said. That was something he not only would say in secret but was “quite prepared to tell the little nations . . . to their faces.” After all, he went on, “two world wars had begun over small nations.” Hopkins cabled Truman immediately with the news that the San Francisco conference had been saved.
At San Francisco, the smaller nations began to chafe under the prospect of a U.N. dominated by five nations with a veto. Australia led a drive to add more limits to the use of the veto. Senator Connally, an old-fashioned, flamboyant speaker, told the other delegates, “You may go home from San Francisco, if you wish, and report that you have defeated the veto. . . . But you can also say, ‘We tore up the charter.’” Whereupon the senator picked up his copy of a draft of the charter, tore it into shreds, and flung the scraps upon the negotiating table. The histrionic threat that the choice lay between a strong veto and no U.N. at all carried the day. By a vote of twenty to ten (with fifteen abstaining and five absent), the conference decided to keep the Yalta veto formula.
On June 25, exactly two months after the opening ceremony, the San Francisco conference unanimously approved the new U.N. Charter. “At this point,” recounted the official minutes, “the delegates and the entire audience rose and cheered.” A slow signing process ensued; each delegation signed five copies. The American delegates signed just before the closing ceremonial session at the San Francisco Opera House the next day. President Truman witnessed the signing and addressed the delegates. It was the president’s first public appearance since assuming office. Chopping the air with his hands to emphasize his words, Truman said that the new U.N. must keep the world “free from the fear of war.” Less than a week later, he personally delivered the charter to the Senate. “The choice before the Senate . . . is not between this Charter and something else,” he said. “It is between this Charter and no charter at all.”
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There was little serious objection to the charter at Senate hearings. Socialist leader Norman Thomas supported it. John Foster Dulles told the senators that it was approved by Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the defeated Republican candidate for president. A variety of fringe groups insisted that the charter had gone too far or not far enough. One witness condemned the charter as the handiwork of a British-Israel world federation intent on creating a world state with the duke of Windsor as king. On July 28, the Senate ratified the charter by a vote of eighty-nine to two. Senator Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi Democrat, better known as a hard-core segregationist than an advocate of internationalism, hailed the charter as “a great document which we believe will usher in the millennial dawn.” Five senators were absent. The only senators voting against ratification were Republican Senators William Langer of North Dakota and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, who denounced the U.N. as an unlawful superstate. Langer was the best known of the two holdouts, a windy speaker who liked to pound his fist so hard to make a point that he once split a desk on the Senate floor. Their lack of support would hardly undermine the U.N.
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The United States served as the repository for the formal instruments of ratification. The first country to officially deposit the formal documents with the United States was the United States itself on August 8. The charter would “come into force,” according to Article 110, when all of the Big Five and a majority of the rest deposited their ratifications. That happened on October 24, 1945, when the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, White Russia, and Poland (finally admitted to the U.N.) handed their ratifications to the United States at the same time. James F. Byrnes, the new secretary of state, certified that all the requirements of Article 110 had been satisfied. “The United Nations Charter is now a part of the law of nations,” he said. October 24 would be celebrated each year as the U.N.’s birthday.
The postwar world that took shape after 1945 fit more closely the visions of Churchill and Stalin than of Roosevelt. A balance of power—between the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact—would order the world. Roosevelt’s Five Policemen could not police the world because a bitter enmity had sundered the friendship of the two strongest policemen, and it had done so while both possessed the most terrifying weapons of mass destruction ever known. The United Nations would thus play a secondary—though still significant—role during its first four decades. In the fifth decade, it would start to realize its potential, though still falling short of those wondrous dreams in the closing months of World War II.