Preparatory Years: UN Charter History

The Chairman of the Honduras delegation, seated in foreground, signing the UN Charter in 1945 with two members of the delegation in the background, watching.

The UN Charter was signed on 26 June 1945 by representatives of the 50 countries attending the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. Poland, which was not represented, signed it later and became one of the UN's original 51 Member States. The concept of international peace and security in the UN Charter began to develop with the ideas expressed in the Atlantic Charter in August 1941. But two months earlier, in London, a Declaration spoke of the need for global cooperation. 

1941: The Declaration of St. James Palace

In June 1941, London was the home of nine exiled governments. The great British capital had already seen 22 months of war and in the bomb-marked city, air-raid sirens wailed all too frequently. Practically all Europe had fallen to the Axis and ships on the Atlantic, carrying vital supplies, sank with grim regularity. But in London itself and among the Allied governments and peoples, faith in ultimate victory remained unshaken. And, even more, people were looking beyond military victory to the postwar future. On 12 June 1941 the representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa and of the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and of General de Gaulle of France, met at the ancient St. James’ Palace and signed a declaration which stated, in part:

Photograph of a watercolor painting of the Saint James Palace in London

A watercolor painting of the Saint James Palace in London by Thomas H. Shepherd.

That the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing co-operation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security; and that it is their intention to work together, and with other free peoples, both in war and peace to this end.

1941: The Atlantic Charter

The origin of the Charter of the United Nations can be traced back to the Atlantic Charter, signed on 14 August 1941, by which Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, and Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, made known “certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world”. 

This document, in its eighth paragraph, incidentally referred to the future “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security”. 

President Roosevelt at left and Prime Minister Churchill at right on deck of ship in Atlantic Ocean in 1941.

President Roosevelt (seated left) and Prime Minister Churchill chat on deck of HMS Prince of Wales following church services during the Atlantic Charter meeting. UN Photo

1942: The Declaration by United Nations

On 1 January 1942, twenty-six States at war with the Axis Powers, including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), subscribed to the common programme of purposes and principles embodied in the Atlantic Charter in a document, which became known as the 'Declaration by United Nations'.

Twenty-one other States adhered to that Declaration at a later date.

The Declaration by United Nations contained the first official use of the term 'United Nations'. The name 'United Nations' was coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt at left and Prime Minister Churchill at right on deck of ship in Atlantic Ocean in 1941.

The Declaration by United Nations issued in Washington, DC, on 01 January 1942. UN Photo/VH

 

Three years later, when preparations were being made for the San Francisco Conference, only those states which had, by March 1945, declared war on Germany and Japan and subscribed to the United Nations Declaration, were invited to take part.

Original Signatories of the Declaration by United Nations

The original twenty-six signatories were:  the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa, Yugoslavia

Subsequent Signatories

Subsequent adherents to the Declaration were (in order of signature): Mexico, Philippines, Ethiopia, Iraq, Brazil, Bolivia, Iran, Colombia, Liberia, France, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon.

1943: Moscow and Teheran Conferences

From 18 October to 1 November 1943, a Conference was held in Moscow, with the participation of the United States, the United Kingdom, the USSR and China. At the conclusion of the Conference, the participating Governments adopted a Joint Four-Nation Declaration in which, inter alia, they “recognize[d] the necessity of establishing at the earliest practicable date a general international organization, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all peace-loving States, and open to membership by all such States, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security”. For the first time, the idea of establishing an international organization to keep the peace after the end of World War II was thus expressly mentioned in an official document. Following this Declaration, the four States concerned appointed national committees of experts that separately worked on the drafting of a charter for the future organization (there were, however, earlier efforts in this direction in the United States, with the work of the Advisory Committee on Problems of Foreign Relations established on 27 December 1939, which was officially pursued by the State Department from 1942 until the Conference of Dumbarton Oaks, in 1944).

Premier Joseph Stalin at left, President Roosevelt at center and Prime Minister Churchill at right meeting in Teheran in 1943.

Premier Joseph Stalin (at left), President Roosevelt (center) and Prime Minister Churchill (at right) meeting at the Soviet embassy in Tehran, Iran to discuss military strategy on 28 November 1943. UN Photo

 

From 28 November to 1 December 1943, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and the Premier of the USSR, Joseph Stalin, met at a conference in Tehran, where they again confirmed their common policy, notably expressing their determination that their nations “shall work together in war and in the peace that will follow”, recognizing “the supreme responsibility resting upon us and all the United Nations to make a peace which will command the goodwill of the overwhelming mass of the peoples of the world and banish the scourge and terror of war for many generations”. They further announced their intention to “seek the cooperation and active participation of all nations, large and small, whose peoples in heart and mind are dedicated, as are our own peoples, to the elimination of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance” within a “world family of Democratic Nations” (Declaration of the Three Powers, Tehran, 1 December 1943).

1945: Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta

From 21 August to 7 October 1944, representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom met separately with representatives of the USSR (21 August-28 September) and of China (29 September-7 October), at Dumbarton Oaks in the context of the “Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization” (or Dumbarton Oaks Conference). The reports prepared at the national level by each Government following the Moscow Conference were exchanged at the Conference.

A steering committee was entrusted with reaching agreement on the main substantive issues and a Joint Formulation Group drafted a text resulting from such negotiations in the form of a treaty. The final document prepared at the Conference, issued on 9 October 1944, became known as the “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organization”, which constituted the initial working document at the San Francisco Conference, in 1945.

>Dozens of Representatives of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States meeting in a large room with two tables across from each other in 1944.

Representatives of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States meeting in the opening session of the Conference on Security Organization for Peace in the Post-War World at the Dumbarton Oaks Estate in Washington, DC, on 21 August 1944. UN Photo

 

Negotiations on the future international organization continued at the Yalta Conference, attended by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Premier Stalin, from 4 to 11 February 1945. The Protocol of Proceedings of this Conference included a section devoted to the “World Organization”, which contained, inter alia, the decision of summoning a “United Nations conference on the proposed world organization” in the United States on 25 April 1945. This document specified the nations to be invited to the conference, as well as the text of the invitation to be issued.

Further support to the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals was expressed at the Conference of the American Republics, held at Mexico City from 2 February to 8 March 1945.

One important gap in the Dumbarton Oaks proposals had yet to be filled: the voting procedure in the Security Council. This was done at Yalta in the Crimea where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, together with their foreign ministers and chiefs of staff, met in conference. On February 11, 1945, the conference summoned the San Francisco Conference.

“We are resolved,” the three leaders declared, “upon the earliest possible establishment with our Allies of a general international organization to maintain peace and security… “We have agreed that a Conference of United Nations should be called to meet at San Francisco in the United States on the 25th April, 1945, to prepare the charter of such an organization, along the lines proposed in the formal conversations of Dumbarton Oaks.”

    Invitations

    The invitations were sent out on March 5, 1945, and those invited were told at the same time about the agreement reached at Yalta on the voting procedure in the Security Council.

    The Death of President Roosevelt

    Soon after, on 12 April 1945, came the sudden death of President Roosevelt, to whose statesmanship the plans for the San Francisco Conference owed so much. There was fear for a time that the conference might have to be postponed, but President Truman decided to carry out all the arrangements already made, and the conference opened on the appointed date.

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    Interview with Joseph Johnson - Chief of the International Affairs Division of the United States State Department in 1943.


    While serving in this position, Mr. Johnson played a role in the creation of the United Nations, attending both the Dumbarton Oaks Conference (1944) and the San Francisco Conference (1945). In this interview Mr. Johnson recalls his experience at the UN. He elaborates on his participation at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, the San Francisco Conference and touches upon his role as a special envoy for the UN Conciliation Commission for Palestine in 1961.