History of the United Nations

The United Nations Charter is the treaty that established the United Nations, it was ratified on 24 October 1945. The following series of events led to the writing of the Charter, and the UN's founding:

Declaration of St. James Palace

After World War II there was a strong feeling that a way had to be found to keep peace among nations. The idea for creating an international organization dedicated to maintaining peace took hold during the war. However, it took many years of planning before the United Nations actually came into existence. Here is a summary of the main events that led up to creation of the UN Charter.

Declaration of St. James Palace (June 1941)

In June 1941, London was the home of nine exiled governments. The British capital had survived twenty-two months of war and in the bomb-marked city, air-raid sirens wailed frequently. Practically all of Europe had fallen to the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and ships on the Atlantic, carrying vital supplies, sank with regularity.

On 12 June 1941, the representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa as well as representatives of the exiled governments from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and the Free French, met in London to sign the Declaration of St. James Palace to pledge their solidarity in fighting aggression until victory against the Axis powers was won.

The Declaration proclaimed that “the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security."

Atlantic Charter (August 1941) 
In August 1941, the Axis powers seemed to have the upper hand. Germany had commenced its attack on the USSR and carefully stage-managed meetings between Hitler and Mussolini, which ended in “perfect accord,” sounded grimly foreboding. Although the United States was giving moral and material support to the Allies, it had not yet entered the war. One afternoon, two months after the Declaration of St. James Palace, came the news that President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were in conference “somewhere at sea”—the same seas on which the desperate Battle of the Atlantic was being fought— and on August 14 the two leaders issued a joint declaration destined to be known in history as the Atlantic Charter.

British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, during the Atlantic Charter meeting

British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, during the Atlantic Charter meeting

This document was not a treaty between the two powers. Nor was it a final and formal expression of peace aims. It was only an affirmation, as the document declared, “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 sixth clause of the Atlantic Charter declared that “after the final destruction of 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 the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” The seventh clause stated that such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas without hindrance, and the eighth clause concluded by emphasizing the need for nations to abandon the use of force: “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 measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.”

Other points of the Atlantic Charter also affirmed the basic principles of universal human rights: no territorial changes without the freely-expressed wishes of the peoples concerned; the right of every people to choose their own form of government; and equal access to raw materials for all nations.

Coming from the two great democratic leaders of the day and implying the full moral support of the United States, the Atlantic Charter created a profound impression on the embattled Allies. It came as a message of hope to the occupied countries, and it held out the promise of a world organization based on universal moral principles. That it had little legal validity did not detract from its value. Support for the principles of the Atlantic Charter and a pledge of cooperation came from a meeting of ten governments in London shortly after Mr. Churchill returned from his ocean rendezvous. This declaration was signed on September 24 by the USSR and the nine exiled governments of occupied Europe: Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and by the representatives of General de Gaulle of France.

Declaration by United Nations (1 January 1942) 

On New Year’s Day 1942, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, Maxim Litvinov, of the USSR, and T. V. Soong, of China, signed a short document which later came to be known as the United Nations Declaration.  The next day, the representatives of twenty-two other nations added their signatures. The governments that signed this declaration pledged to accept the Atlantic Charter and agreed not to negotiate a separate peace with any of the Axis powers.

Declaration by United Nations issued in Washington, DC, on 01 January 1942

Declaration by United Nations issued in Washington, DC, on 01 January 1942

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.

The original twenty-six signatories of the Declaration were:

Australia Greece Nicaragua Belgium
Guatemala Norway Canada Haiti
Panama Costa Rica Honduras Poland
Cuba India Union of South Africa Czechoslovakia
Luxembourg Yugoslavia Dominican Republic Netherlands
El Salvador New Zealand    

Other countries that signed the Declaration later (in order of signature):

27) Mexico 28) Iran 29) Peru 30) Turkey
31) Philippines 32) Colombia 33) Chile 34) Egypt
35) Ethiopia 36) Liberia 37) Paraguay 38) Saudi Arabia
39) Iraq 40) France 41) Venezuela 42) Brazil
43) Ecuador 44) Uruguay 45) Bolivia  

The Declaration by United Nations marks the first official use of this term. The Allies used it to refer to their alliance.

Moscow Declaration (October 1943) and Tehran Conference (December 1943) 

By 1943 all the principal Allied nations were committed to working together to achieve victory and, thereafter, to create a world in which “men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want.” In October 1943, representatives from Great Britain, the United States, China and the Soviet Union met in Moscow. On October 30 these representatives signed the Moscow Declaration [link to MD; insert photo of signatures]. The Declaration pledged joint action in dealing with the enemies’ surrender and, in clause 4, proclaimed: “That they [the governments of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China] recognize 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.” This clause further develops the idea of an intergovernmental organization that would maintain peace and security in the world that was implicit in the Atlantic Charter.

In December, two months after the Moscow Declaration, Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, met for the first time in Tehran, the capital of Iran, where they worked out the Allies final strategy for winning the war.

At the end of the conference they declared: “We are sure that our concord will win an enduring peace. We recognize fully 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.”

Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta Conference (1944-1945) 

The fundamental principles underlying the establishment of an international organization dedicated to maintaining peace and security were already laid out in the various declarations that were issued from 1941 onward. The next step required defining the structure of this new organization. A blueprint had to be prepared, and it had to be accepted by many nations. For this purpose, representatives of China, Great Britain, the USSR and the United States met at Dumbarton Oaks, a private mansion in Washington, D. C.


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.

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.

The discussions were completed on October 7, 1944, and a proposal for the structure of the new intergovernmental organization was submitted by the four powers to all the United Nations governments for their study and discussion.

According to the Dumbarton Oaks proposals, the organization, to be known as the United Nations, would consist of four principal bodies: 1) a General Assembly composed of all the members, 2) a Security Council of eleven members, of which five would be permanent and the other six would be chosen by the General Assembly for two year terms, 3) an International Court of Justice, and 4) a Secretariat. An Economic and Social Council, working under the authority of the General Assembly, was also provided for. The essence of the plan was that responsibility for preventing future war should be conferred upon the Security Council. The actual method of voting in the Security Council -- an all-important question -- was left open at Dumbarton Oaks for future discussion.

Another important feature of the Dumbarton Oaks plan was that member states were to place armed forces at the disposal of the Security Council, if needed, to prevent war or suppress acts of aggression. The absence of such force, it was generally agreed, had been a fatal weakness in the older League of Nations. The Dumbarton Oaks proposals were fully discussed throughout the Allied countries. The British Government issued a detailed commentary, and in the United States, the Department of State distributed 1,900,000 copies of the text and arranged for speakers, radio programs and motion picture films to explain the proposals. Comments and constructive criticisms came from several governments, e.g., Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the Union of South Africa, the USSR, the United Kingdom and the United States. Extensive press and radio discussion enabled people in Allied countries to judge the merits of the new plan for peace. Much attention was given to the differences between this new plan and the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The important issue regarding the voting procedure in the Security Council that had been left open at Dumbarton Oaks was addressed at Yalta in the Crimea where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, together with their foreign ministers and chiefs of staff, met in early 1945. 

Leaders of the major allied powers of World War II meeting at Yalta in the Russian Crimea on 12 February 1945, to decide on military plans for the final defeat of Germany.

Leaders of the major allied powers of World War II meeting at Yalta in the Russian Crimea on 12 February 1945, to decide on military plans for the final defeat of Germany.

On February 11, 1945, the conference announced that this question had been resolved and called for a Conference of United Nations to be held in San Francisco on 25 April 1945 "to prepare the charter of such an organization, along the lines proposed in the formal conversations of Dumbarton Oaks.” 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. Soon after, in early April, President Roosevelt suddenly died. President Truman decided not to postpone the arrangements that had already been made for this important event which took place on the appointed date.

San Francisco Conference (1945) 

Forty-five nations, including the four sponsors, were originally invited to the San Francisco Conference: nations that had declared war on Germany and Japan and had signed the Declaration by United Nations.

Six additional countries were invited: Syria and Lebanon (at the request of France), Argentina, newly-liberated Denmark, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Thus, delegates from 50 nations gathered in San Francisco. 

United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco, California, USA, 26 June 1945.

United Nations Charter Conference in San Francisco, California, USA, 26 June 1945

They represented over eighty per cent of the world's population and were determined to set up an organization that would preserve peace and help build a better world. The main objective of the San Francisco conference, officially known as the "United Nations Conference on International Organization" (UNCIO), was to produce a Charter for this new organization that would be acceptable to all the countries.

There were 850 delegates. Along with their advisers and staff together with the conference secretariat, the total number of people attending the conference was 3,500. In addition, there were more than 2,500 media representatives and observers from many organizations. In all, the San Francisco Conference was not only one of the most important in history but, perhaps, the largest international gathering ever to take place.

The conference took place from April 25 to June 26, 1945. The process of writing a Charter for the United Nations took two months. Every part of it had to be voted on and accepted by a two-thirds majority. Here is how the San Francisco Conference accomplished its monumental work: using the Dumbarton Oaks proposals and the Yalta agreement as a starting point, the proposed Charter was divided into four sections. The delegates working on each section formed a "Commission." Commission I dealt with the general purposes and principles of the organization, issues relating to membership, the Secretariat and the subject of amendments to the Charter. Commission II considered the powers and responsibilities of the General Assembly, while Commission III took up the Security Council. Finally, Commission IV worked on a draft for the Statute of the International Court of Justice establishing the judicial organ of the United Nations. This draft had been prepared by a 44-nation Committee of Jurists, which had met in Washington in April 1945.

Given the wide scope of issues each Commission had to work on they were further subdivided into twelve technical committees. Over the course of two months, there were approximately 400 meetings of the different committees at which every line and comma was hammered out. 

Photographic reproduction of the original manuscript of the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, prepared for printing.

Photographic reproduction of the original manuscript of the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, prepared for printing

It was more than words and phrases, of course that had to be decided upon. There were many serious clashes of opinion, divergences of outlook and even a crisis or two, during which some observers feared that the conference might adjourn without an agreement.

There was the question, for example, of the status of "regional organizations”. Many countries had their own arrangements for regional defense and mutual assistance such as the Inter-American System, for example, and the Arab League. How were such arrangements to be related to the new intergovernmental organization? The conference decided to give them a role in bringing about a peaceful settlement provided that the aims and actions of these groups accorded with the aims and purposes of the United Nations.

One issue that provoked long and heated debate was the right of each permanent member of the Security Council (China, the Soviet Union, United States, United Kingdom, and France) to veto any resolution passed by the Security Council. At one point, the conflict of opinion on this question threatened to break up the conference. The smaller powers feared that when one of the "Big Five" menaced the peace, the Security Council would be powerless to act, while in the event of a clash between two powers not permanent members of the Security Council, the "Big Five" could act arbitrarily. They strove therefore to have the power of the "veto" reduced. But the great powers unanimously insisted on this provision and emphasized that the main responsibility for maintaining world peace would fall most heavily on them. Eventually the smaller powers conceded the point in the interest of setting up the world organization.

This and other controversial issues were resolved only because every nation was determined to set up, if not the perfect international organization, at least the best that could possibly be made.

In the final stages, ten plenary meetings were held so that the full gathering of delegates had an opportunity to discuss and vote on the work drafted by the various committees. On June 25, 1945, the delegates met in the San Francisco Opera House for the last full session of the conference. Lord Halifax presided and put the final draft of the Charter to the meeting. "This issue upon which we are about to vote," he said, "is as important as any we shall ever vote in our lifetime." In view

Delegate from China signing the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, CA

Delegate from China signing the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, CA

of the world importance of the occasion, he suggested that it would be appropriate to depart from the customary method of voting by a show of hands. Then, as the issue was put, every delegate rose and remained standing. So did everyone present, the staffs, the press and some 3000 visitors, and the hall resounded to a mighty ovation as the Chairman announced that the Charter had been passed unanimously. The next day, in the auditorium of the Veterans' Memorial Hall, the delegates filed up one by one to a huge round table on which lay the two historic volumes, the Charter and the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Behind each delegate stood the other members of the delegation against a colorful semi-circle of the flags of fifty nations. In the dazzling brilliance of powerful spotlights, each delegate affixed his signature. China, the first victim of aggression by an Axis power, was given the honor of signing first.

"The Charter of the United Nations which you have just signed," said President Truman in addressing the final session "is a solid structure upon which we can build a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe and the final victory, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself. . . . With this Charter the world can begin to look forward to the time when all worthy human beings may be permitted to live decently as free people."

Title page of the United Nations Charter in English

Title page of the United Nations Charter in English

Then the President pointed out that the Charter would work only if the peoples of the world were determined to make it work. "If we fail to use it," he concluded, "we shall betray all those who have died so that we might meet here in freedom and safety to create it. If we seek to use it selfishly — for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations — we shall be equally guilty of that betrayal."

The United Nations did not come into existence at the signing of the Charter. In many countries the Charter had to be approved by their congresses or parliaments. It had therefore been provided that the Charter would come into force when the Governments of China, France,Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States and a majority of the other signatory states had ratified it and deposited notification to this effect with the State Department of the United States.

On October 24, 1945, this condition was fulfilled and the United Nations came into existence. Four years of planning and the hope of many years had materialized in an international organization designed to end war and promote peace, justice and better living for all mankind.

Children of UN Secretariat members study the UN Charter in the Delegates' Lounge

Children of UN Secretariat members study the UN Charter in the Delegates' Lounge

At the time of the San Francisco conference, Poland, one of the original signatories of the Declaration, did not have its new government in place and therefore could not attend. On June 28, the new Polish government was announced. By October 15, 1945 Poland had signed the Charter that was written in San Francisco and is therefore considered one of the original Members of the new United Nations.]]>