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The United Nations

On June 12, 1941, Britain and its Commonwealth wartime allies signed a declaration claiming:

...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.

This was followed on January 1, 1942, by a what would be called the Declaration by the United Nations, nations twenty-six in number, including the United States, the Soviet Union, the United States, Chiang Kai-shek's China, eight Allied governments-in-exile, and nations in Central America and the Caribbean. The Declaration pledged support for which the Allies claimed they were fighting:

to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands.

By November 1944, Ethiopia, Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil Colombia, Iran, Iraq, and Liberia had joined the United Nations. Expecting to join the Allies, so too had the Philippines and de Gaulle's France.

On 21 October 1944 (while campaigning for re-election) President Roosevelt argued that after the war the United Nations should be able to "to keep the peace by force if necessary." He spoke of being opposed to waiting for consultations, discussions and debates, which he compared to a local police force calling a town meeting before stopping a burglary.

At the Yalta conference in February 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill agreed to Stalin's request that Ukraine and Byelorussia (republics within the Soviet Union) would be separate member states in the UN with their own vote. And they agreed that the UN would be led by the five major allied powers as permanent members of a Security Council: the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain (United Kingdom), China, and France.

At Yalta the question arose of a conference to discuss "territorial trusteeship and dependent areas" – in other words, colonialism. Churchill became enraged, stating that as long as he was Prime Minister he would "not yield one scrap" of Britain's heritage. He was placated when the US Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, showed him a report stating that the United States opposed putting any colony into an arrangement without the consent of the colonial power involved.

The UN Charter

The conference for establishing the United Nations as a physical entity began in April 1945 in San Francisco. President Roosevelt died that month, and in May tensions arose between the Soviet Union and Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman. Truman had lived through some failed idealisms and had his doubts about the United Nations, but he wanted to adhere to Roosevelt's legacy, and he wanted to avoid the isolationism that had followed World War One. He was having differences with the Soviet Union, especially regarding Poland, but he claimed that he wanted to work with them in the United Nations for the sake of peace and order.

At the conference, delegates from fifty nations hammered out an agreement creating the UN Charter. Ceremonies for the signing of the charter took place on June 26. President Truman flew to San Francisco and spoke to the gathering, saying that he would use the United Nations as a central instrument in foreign policy. He said that "powerful military nations ... have no right to dominate the world," and should lead the way to international justice "by their own example." He concluded: "Let us not fail to grasp this supreme chance to establish a world-wide rule of reason – to create an enduring peace under the guidance of God."

The Charter declared against wars of aggression and against wars that violated international agreements. It declared against war crimes and crimes against humanity: genocide, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts. Articles 42 and 43 authorized the use of armed force to maintain international peace and security. Article 51 acknowledged the right of members to join together for self-defense (an issue in support of regionalism that had been advocated by Latin American countries that feared the spread of communism. Articles 55 and 56 required that "all members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action" to promote "universal respect for, and observance and protection of, all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all".

The Charter declared that members of the United Nations were required to pay dues, and it was agreed that the Charter could be amended by a two-thirds majority vote in the UN's General Assembly. The General Assembly was to be a place for discussion and the making of "recommendations," and responsibility for implementing policy was to be with the Security Council.

The UN was to be administered by a Secretary-General, appointed by the General Assembly on recommendation of the Security Council, for a term of five years. He was to sit in on sessions of the General Assembly and to be able to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion threatened international peace and security.

The Veto

At Yalta, the Big Three had agreed that Security Council decisions would require unanimity. Any one member of Security Council was to be able to veto a decision made by other members of the council. The Soviet Union wanted protection from the capitalist powers ganging up against it. And the US favored it. Truman was to write in his memoirs (1945 Year of Decisions): "All our experts, civil and military, favored it, and without such a veto no arrangement would have passed the Senate." Britain went along with it (and would use it during the Suez crisis in 1956).

Critics of the veto, from membership countries not on the Security Council, viewed the veto as undemocratic. Francis O. Wilcox, an adviser to US delegation at the 1945 Charter conference, was to write:

At San Francisco, the issue was made crystal clear by the leaders of the Big Five: it was either the Charter with the veto or no Charter at all.

A member of the US delegation to the conference, Senator Tom Connally of Texas, dramatically tore up a copy of the Charter during one of his speeches and reminded representatives that they would be doing the same "if they opposed the unanimity principle."

Some saw unanimity as a utopian dream, and those who favored the veto would eventually find the veto as a limit on UN's effectiveness as an international force. But world opinion about the effectiveness of the UN was already to some degree negative. A poll in May 1945, during the Charter conference, indicated that 40 percent of the American people doubted the UN would succeed, although 85 percent favored joining the UN, giving it a try.

Ratification, UNESCO and World Opinion

Ratification of the Charter by member nations was completed on October 24, 1945, and in November a UN General Conference created the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It described World War II as having been "made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of dignity, equality and mutual response of men," and UNESCO's stated purpose included support for the "rule of law, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion."

School systems in Europe were undergoing "denazification" and there were those who looked forward to UNESCO influencing curricula that taught recent history with what they considered accuracy. And there would be those in the US who imagined UNESCO as an advocate for free speech in an era of communist propaganda.

Meanwhile, a June 1946 poll in Belgium asked whether they had confidence in the work of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. Thirty-six percent did and thirty-six percent did not (and apparently 38 percent had no opinion). A similar split in opinion occurred in Canada and Australia.

In the US in 1946, one year after Japan surrendered, a Gallup Poll indicated that 2 out of 3 people in the US thought there would be in a major war within 25 years – a view of the Soviet Union as the enemy of peace.

UNESCO was on its way to being disliked by some in the United States in the belief that the US was paying more than its share of its funding. And world government was in conflict with the idea that the best government was local government. Conservatives were suspicious of government as far away as Washington DC and more so of any world government. They were opposed to the US giving up any of its sovereignty for the sake of international integration. They tended to favor nationalism over internationalism and to question giving up any sovereignty on the grounds of its constitutionality.

Rather than the peace on earth that the victors in World War II were looking forward to, civil wars would be common, which would create for the UN Security Council a vote on which side was right and supporting that side — not always done with the unanimity required.

The UN that Franklin Roosevelt wanted was not to be. The Charter had envisaged a regular military force available to the Security Council and it had directed the creation of the Military Staff Committee to make appropriate plans, but the Security Council had been unable to reach an agreement on the matter. What would come instead as instruments of security and protection would be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization of American States, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the Warsaw Treaty Organization (dominated by the Soviet Union). There would be those fearing Communists taking power undemocratically and there would be dictators making war against Communists and others trying to defend themselves.

CONTINUE READING: The Cold War: 1945 to 1949

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