The Inauspicious Beginnings of the United Nations
The embryonic beginnings of the United Nations were borne out of the desperation, fear, and sense of urgency as well as common purpose, cooperative spirit and optimism of the early stages of the Second World War. After numerous and varied complex military and political efforts, meetings and events—the Declaration of St. James Palace (June 1941), the Atlantic Charter (August 1941), the Declaration of the United Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta (1944-45), 850 delegates met at the San Francisco Conference in June 1945 to create an organization that would facilitate peace and foster hope for a better world. In the final meeting on 25 June at the Opera House in San Francisco, the auditorium rang with unanimous acclaim as the chairman proudly announced the passing of the Charter. On 26 June 1945, 50 countries, totaling 80 per cent of the world’s population, formally signed a document that would forever change the construct of International Relations and create the United Nations we know so well today—the United Nations Charter.
The Charter came into force on 24 October 1945 and, as a result, United Nations Day is celebrated on that day each year. The Statute of the International Court of Justice was and still remains an integral part of the Charter. The actual name “United Nations” was coined by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt in reference to the forerunner of the United Nations, the League of Nations, an organization conceived under similar circumstances during the First World War. Under the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations was supposed to “promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security”.
Ms. Daisy Suckly, the close confidante of Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), noted in her private diary that the first definitive shape of an institutionalized new global order occurred when he went to bed on 28 December 1941:
“FDR got in to his bed, his mind working and working. Suddenly he got it—United Nations! The next morning, the minute he had finished his breakfast, he got onto his chair and was wheeled up the hall to WSC (Winston Churchill’s) room. He knocked on the door, no answer, so he opened the door and went in…he called to WSC and in the door leading to the bathroom appeared WSC, ‘a pink cherub’ (FDR said), drying himself with a towel and without a stitch on! FDR pointed at him and exploded:’ The United Nations’! ‘Good!’ said WSC.”1
A New Spirit of Hope
It is crucial to understanding the United Nations that its creation was not one of liberal utopianism but rather one created out of hard and realistic political necessity. When the war was raging at its height in 1944, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said that the “United Nations is the only hope of the world”. The importance of remembering, reflecting and recognizing this spirit of hope, freedom and global optimism of the time should not be forgotten; today we have lost sight of just how much these feelings and sentiments pervaded and ran as a constant theme through the thoughts, actions and affairs of statesmen, countries and their peoples.
It is significant that Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, remarked in the document that formalized the Nazi defeat in the War with the words: “This act of military surrender is without prejudice to, and will be superseded by, any general instrument of surrender imposed by, or on behalf of, the United Nations."2 Indeed, the historic Truman broadcast on 8 May 1945 opened with “General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations.”3
Such references may seem out of place today but it was commonplace at that time to speak about the United Nations fighting the war. Interestingly, the chaplain to a “band of brothers” in the Eighty-second Airborne Division, Major George Woods gave an address for the burial of the dead at Wobbelin concentration camp where he said emphatically that “these crimes were never clearly brought to light until the armies of the United Nations overran Germany”.4 Even Stalin was enthusiastic, optimistically directing his generals to prepare for a 1942 UN march on Berlin. The term “UN Forces” was even substituted for United States, British or Russian forces.
The Atlantic Charter
A milestone to the creation of the United Nations, the Atlantic Charter (9-13 August 1941) should be seen as the first real step towards a world organization. Dedicated to the betterment and protection of nations and peoples, it paved the way for the United Nations we know today. The Atlantic Charter was not a treaty in the formal sense between the two powers, not even a formal expression of the peace aims for the war. It was a promise, a vision, an affirmation “of certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they based their hopes for a better future for the world”.
The eight points/clauses of the Charter are as below:
First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;
Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;
Fourth, they will endeavour, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;
Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;
Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measure which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments;
The sixth clause would bear directly on the creation of the United Nations. Other clauses would find their reflection in entities within the UN system. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for instance, could be traced back to the seventh clause;
The last goal, calling for “wider and permanent system of general security”, necessary to ensure peace is, adroitly, referred to as the impetus for the establishment of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations.
The importance of this document should not be understated. After all, it came from two great democratic leaders of the day and created a profound belief in the enduring verities of international morality. Even though the Atlantic Charter had little legalistic validity at its inception, its symbolism, affirmation of a common faith between peace-loving nations and the pledge of cooperation signaled a new hope and a newly founded belief in peace.
Today, some pundits, casual voyeurs or critics regard the Atlantic Charter as rhetoric and with war times propaganda attached to the Allied Victory. This is not the case. At that point in history, the UN organization that was created from the Atlantic Charter was regarded as the grand culmination of the peace efforts—the principles of human justice; no aggrandizement; no territorial changes without the freely- expressed wishes of the peoples concerned; the right of every people to choose their own government; and equal access to raw materials for all nations. It provided hope to the occupied countries; its strength lay in its sincerity of spirit and prescription for a better world. Furthermore, the Atlantic Charter in the words of historian Elizabeth Borgwardt “prefigured the rule-of-law orientation of the Nuremberg Charter, the collective security articulated in the United Nations Charter, and even the free-trade ideology of the Bretton Woods charters that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.”5 The Charter can be looked upon as the blueprint for multilateral institutions and the international order in the post-war world which has continued to this very day: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Climate Change framework and even the European Union. In 2012, 72 years after the Atlantic Charter was signed, it is imperative that the UN Charter be commemorated so that the United Nations will affirm and rediscover its role, its greatest strength and one that is its basic foundation and ulterior rationale for the entire world’s inhabitants—moral authority.
1. America, Hitler and the UN: How the Allies Won World War II and Forged Peace (NY: I.B. Tauris, 2011) 32.
2. Dan Plesch, "How the United Nations Beat Hitler and Prepared the Peace", Global Society, Vol. 22, Issue. 1, 2008.
5. Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).