In a pedestrianized area in the midst of San Francisco, a United Nations flag flutters alongside an American one. Granite columns flank the plaza bearing the names of United Nations Member States and the year in which they joined the Organization. There is a sunken fountain designed by Lawrence Halprin to symbolize the seven continents of the world tied together by oceans. Designed in the mid-1970s to commemorate 30 years since the creation of the United Nations, the plaza raised controversy among architects and San Francisco residents, including for the plaza’s addition into the non-profit group Project for Public Spaces’ Hall of Shame. Though the group criticized the placement of the fountain it simultaneously praised the plaza’s potential to foster thriving and dynamic community interaction on market days and to provide an entrance to the Civic Center. The Project for Public Spaces called for the United Nations Plaza to “stay true to its name and do all it can to showcase the assets of the multiple cultures that are part of the market.”1
What does it mean to stay true to the name of the United Nations? The term, United Nations, first emerged from a declaration signed in January 1942 by 26 allies fighting against Germany and Japan. The signatory Governments pledged not to sign separate peace agreements and to commit themselves to a maximum war effort. Twenty-one more countries would sign the declaration by the end of the war. Only States that had signed the United Nations Declaration received an invitation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization in the San Francisco Civic Center that began on 25 April 1945.
Although the war was not yet won, delegates from the Allied nations gathered in San Francisco to create the Charter of the United Nations. The United States covered the expenses of the San Francisco Conference in 1945 and was one of four sponsoring Governments. (The others were the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China). The Conference closed on 26 June 1945 when the Charter was opened for signature. The Conference built on previous meetings between the four sponsoring Governments held at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 and in Moscow and Tehran in 1943.
However, the San Francisco Conference would be different from those previous meetings, for it soon highlighted many of the hallmarks of the new United Nations Organization, including its flexibility and inclusivity. At the first steering committee meeting, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Anthony Eden disagreed about how the committee’s chairmanship might rotate between the four sponsoring Governments. It seemed that the sponsors might dominate the conference from the start. Yet the next day, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King seized back the initiative. King declared that this conference was different. “Power, however, is not exclusively concentrated in the hands of [...] four or five states,” declared King, and “the Conference should not act on the assumption that it is.” 2 King and other delegates were determined that San Francisco would not become another Versailles.
At key moments, mid-size nations like Canada played a vital role in shaping the workings of the United Nations. The Organization depended upon more than just the power of the permanent members of the Security Council. Mid-size nations often steered the United Nations behind the scenes, reconfigured the dynamics of decision-making, and acted as crucial intermediaries to unite nations.
Mid-size nations even proved vital in sowing the seeds for United Nations specialized agencies at the San Francisco Conference. Only three medical doctors attended the conference as delegates: Karl Evang from Norway, Geraldo de Paula Souza from Brazil and Szeming Sze from China. The three physicians struck up a friendship over the course of the Conference and agreed, often over lunches, that the United Nations should also incorporate an agency to coordinate disease prevention and health work across borders and continents. Such an organization was not on the American or British agendas, however, and the three doctors did not manage to push through a resolution calling for one. Yet they persisted and changed their political tactics. Rather than a resolution, the three physicians managed to pass a declaration calling for the establishment of an international conference on health. Over the next few years, that conference developed into the World Health Organization (WHO), officially founded in 1948 and headquartered in Geneva.
By the time that the United Nations Plaza in San Francisco was designed in 1975, the Organization had expanded from 51 original Member States in 1945 to 144. Decolonization and the admission of countries defeated in the Second World War tripled the number of nations united, vastly increasing the number of mid-size States. For the first time, a new United Nations agency would even be headquartered outside of Europe and the United States, when the United Nations Environment Programme, founded in 1972, was principally located in Nairobi, Kenya. Mid-size nations have supplied all the Secretaries-General. These countries have often played a central role in peacekeeping and they helped to initiate vital reforms in the peacekeeping process in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The inclusion of mid-size nations into the United Nations has contributed to the surprising adaptability of the Organization. Its other distinctive feature has been the ability to incorporate new agencies, goals and ideals. The proliferation of United Nations agencies dealing with the world’s problems might seem like breeding a bureaucratic behemoth, yet these new agencies and initiatives often found inventive ways to address critical issues.
One ubiquitous example is United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites. In 1959, the Governments of Egypt and Sudan turned to UNESCO for help in preserving monuments and sites endangered by construction of the new Egyptian Aswan Dam. It particularly threatened the monuments of Nubia and the Director- General of UNESCO launched an international campaign in 1960 to save the sites. The campaign ended successfully in 1980. By then, UNESCO engagement with international heritage sites had expanded beyond a single campaign. The United States proposed the World Heritage Convention to UNESCO in 1972 and became the first State to ratify it. Mesa Verde and Yellowstone National Parks in the United States were the first sites included in the World Heritage List in 1978. The World Heritage Convention spread the concept of national parks around the globe from Simien National Park in Ethiopia to Sangay National Park in Ecuador. Today, there are over 1,000 World Heritage Sites in 161 nations and 191 States have ratified the Convention. It stands out as one of the most observed international agreements. The Convention developed out of a solution to a local problem, which UNESCO turned into a global opportunity for conservation.
The first three years of the existence of the United Nations stand out as a time of great flexibility. To commemorate this, starting in April 2015, the United Nations History Project has launched an initiative on Twitter to live tweet the founding of the United Nations—70 years later. The Twitter handle is @UN_History. During these early years, the United Nations did not just establish a General Assembly and agencies of its own. It also incorporated the experience of other international organizations that in some cases had emerged as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. The live tweeting project began with the opening of the San Francisco Conference on 25 April 2015. It will continue until 2018 to chronicle the establishment of other United Nations agencies, such as WHO in 1948, and the inclusion of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as a United Nations specialized agency in 1947. ITU was established in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union. As one of the first international organizations, it coordinated telegraphy across borders. In 1932, when it incorporated radio into its remit, it became the International Telecommunication Union. Only after the Second World War did the agency come under the umbrella of a larger international organization. The United Nations adapted the pre-existing landscape of international organizations to include these bodies under a broader initiative of uniting all international agencies.
The Twitter account can give followers a sense of the drama behind the birth of the United Nations. The project provides a short, snappy and vivid narrative of the events as they unfolded in real time. It brings the United Nations into homes and offices of people around the world for a few minutes every day, just like in newsreels and radio programmes 70 years ago. Finally, the project vividly depicts the creation of the United Nations as a lived experience shaped by every delegation, not just by the Members of the Security Council.
The history of the United Nations tells us more than just how the Organization emerged. It shows the dynamics of the Organization and its ability to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. It is a story of cooperation across traditional enmities, which often played out behind the scenes and through little-known individuals. Over the past 70 years, the United Nations has stood out for its surprising flexibility and adaptability. May those qualities continue to strengthen the Organization in the future.
2 Documents of the United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco, 1945, vol.1, General (London, New York, United Nations, Information Organizations, 1945), p. 194.