Postwar Reorganization: The Creation of the U.N.
Written by Stephen C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation emphasizes the historical role the United States played in the creation of the United Nations and provides a deeper comprehension of the foundation of the United Nations. During the period Schlesinger started writing this book, many people were not aware of the functions and the origins of the United Nations. Having experienced the terror and devastation the wars brought to their countries, world leaders thought it was time for a global organization that would be responsible for the preservation of peace. Two of our presidents in the 1940s, Roosevelt and Truman were strong supporters of the League of Nations and the ideals behind it. As WWII came to an end, Roosevelt eagerly stressed the need to create a global organization that could maintain order and peace in the future, but he died in 1945 leaving his work incomplete. Following Roosevelt’s death, Truman, the vice-president at that moment, took charge of the presidency and the responsibility of continuing and honoring Roosevelt’s legacy. One of the many problems Truman face was the “historic resistance…to joining any world-wide organization.”1 Though hard to break away from the beliefs of the founding fathers and convince the public that they needed a global organization to maintain peace, Truman and his cabinet were able to accomplish the laborious task.
Schlesinger obtained most of the information about the U.N. from the documents, Alperovitz, a historian seeking information about America’s decision to drop the atomic bomb, released to the public. By describing the events that followed Roosevelt’s death, Schlesinger depicts Truman’s journey to the white house. During the twelve weeks that Truman served as vice-president, Roosevelt had not kept him informed and Truman was unaware of the existence of an atomic bomb or the Map Room, where Roosevelt directed the war effort. Although he did not know much about the issues the U.S. was affronting at that moment, Truman, a self-educated man who did not attend college, persevered in his role. Truman’s leadership abilities were excellent; during WWI he had risen to the position of captain. Contrary to what most people thought, Truman decided not to cancel the San Francisco conference and told his press secretary to notify the media that the conference was not going to be rescheduled. A strong supporter of the League of Nations, Truman said “It was important for us to make a start, no matter how imperfect.”2 He found the creation of international machinery for the intervention of war and conservation of peace essential for the future. Most of the problems encountered during the creation of the U.N. were associated with the former USSR. The problems involved issues such as the Soviet communist regime established in Poland or Russian desire to be the head of the conference. Under President Wilson, the U.S. had abandoned the doctrine of noninterference with Europe, with Wilson pointing out the importance of a global organization such as the League of Nations. Roosevelt, who shared the same idea of collective security, appointed Leo Pasvoslky as the person responsible for preparing an international charter. Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State under the Roosevelt mandate, again chose Pasvolsky as the chief of a division working for a future world order. During the Dumbarton Oaks conference, international leaders discussed and negotiated the charter of the United Nations. The conference was held from August 21, 1944 through October 7, 1944. And although it was evident that much had been accomplished, the attendants left the conference with some unanswered problems that needed to be discussed later.
Through chapter 4, Schlesinger narrates the last acts Roosevelt enacted as president, when he grew more and more preoccupied because he wanted to create the United Nations before WWII ended. With the approval of the white house, the State Department began a public relations campaign across the nation in order to shape public opinion. The State Department contributed considerably by printing thousands of copies of the Dumbarton Oaks Proposal, a question-and-answer sheet on the draft of the United Nations charter and broadcasting lectures on the United Nations. Pasvolsky and Stettinius, the new Secretary of State, reasoned that the five permanent members of the union should have the power to veto political decisions and determine U.N. interventions. In order to guarantee Stalin’s participation in the U.N., Roosevelt agreed to allow the membership of two soviet states to be decided by majority vote at the next U.N. conference. While giving his report on Yalta to congress, Roosevelt, with the intention of establishing the U.N right away, said “This time we shall not make the mistake of waiting until the end of the war to set up a machinery of peace.”3 Roosevelt’s report on Yalta was more of a plea. The controversy of whether the USSR deserved two extra votes ended when the U.S. accepted their request. However, there was always a continuous quarrel between the U.S. and the USSR. Not showing any sign of fear, Truman reassured several times that the Soviets needed the U.S. more than the U.S. needed the Soviets. While delivering an opening speech to the San Francisco conference, Truman emphasized the need of machinery capable of settling disputes among nations. The U.S. and the other Big Four were charged with keeping everyone and everything on course during the San Francisco Conference. Throughout the conference the U.S. persistently insisted on communicating that it was not trying to dominate the conference, but rather was just another country attending the conference.
Many problems arouse in the midst of the San Francisco conference, one of which concerned Argentina. Argentina had wanted to sign the U.N. declaration and gain membership yet several delegates opposed this idea. Undaunted, Nelson Rockefeller, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, reminded the international community that they needed nineteen Latin votes. Meanwhile, the forty-nine nations that attended the conference were collecting and proposing changes from different national delegations. After the German surrender, Stettinius stated that his main objective was to bring the conference to an end before the war ended. New provisions were made to the charter by Pasvolsky and his team, which offered the Latin American nations the right to act if the Security Council failed to address its own responsibilities. The Big Three agreed in “…that the Great Power veto had to be preserved at all costs.”4 and maintained that their power to veto was necessary for the survival of the United Nations, as they felt they had the responsibility to prevent the wartime alliance from collapsing. Frustrated, smaller countries expressed dissatisfaction on the power of veto only the Big Five possessed.
Truman worried about Soviet-American relations, which were not the best at that time as the conflict over Poland stretched more the distance between these two countries. Harry Lloyd Hopkins, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt closest advisors, traveled to USSR to reach a possible agreement with Stalin over the Polish discussion. Hopkins proceeded to explain to Stalin that the U.S. wanted Poland to have its own government, not necessarily a democratic one. After having reached an agreement with the soviets, the U.S. and the Big Four were able to retain the veto power, which was still intact and applicable to several kinds of agreements. The polish government held its first elections on January 19, 1947. Under the command of Stettinius and Truman, many delegates worked extra hours to add the finishing touches to their work, the U.N. charter. Leo Pasvolsky and a team of legal specialists, translators, and wordsmiths, congregated to work on the final draft. The British brought two Russian translators to examine the text the Soviets had written line by line, looking for any extra phrase or word that could change the meaning of the charter and “Out of a tortuous two-month deliberation, the United Nations charter had magically emerged.”5 The charter was a result of the basic framework of Dumbarton Oaks and it eliminated most of the League of Nations’ imperfections. Several political figures conveyed the public a sense of urgency that the charter needed to be ratified to secure the U.S. membership. Some groups opposed the ratification of the charter because they thought it created a superstate while others disliked the idea of a world federation. At the end, the Senate unanimously supported the treaty and the U.S. finally joined the United Nations with the passage of the United Nations Participations Act.
Stephen Schlesinger wrote Act of Creation in 2003 to relate the events that led to the creation of the United Nations during the 1940s. The origin of Schlesinger’s interest in the U.N. is introduced to the reader at the preface of the novel. Intrigued by a New York Times article which redacted the espionage the U.S. had undertaken at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, Schlesinger anxiously looked for more information on the topic. At the beginning of the book, as an introduction, Schlesinger tells the readers that he hopes his book is able to relate in detail the origins of the U.N. and explain the importance of the preservation of this organization, a machine capable of maintaining a stable world order. Throughout the book Schlesinger stresses the important role the United States played in the creation of the charter and the idea of an organization in which nations around the world cooperate to preserve peace. According to the author, most people think that the U.N. has been operating for a long time, but that is not true. Having been created less than 70 years ago, the United Nations’ origins are still unknown by most. Its creation was a tedious process, in which many brilliant minds participated to solve the problems that aroused as the charter was being drafted. Aware that not many books had the U.N. as their topic, Schlesinger decided to write and investigate the origins of the United Nations. Although there was a book that offered a long chapter about the U.N., he wanted to write a book that was specifically about this uncommon topic. Schlesinger wants the public to recognize the work and effort several people put into the writing of the U.N. charter, especially Edward Stettinius and Leo Posvolsky, who played key roles and proved to be the right persons for their job. Their generation experienced two world wars and knew the devastating results a future war could cause. Understanding of the need of a global organization which could oversee and guide other nations toward a peaceful future, they were willing to cooperate in order to reach an agreement. Constantly the U.S. faced many difficulties and obstacles, most of them involved the Russians. Although the United Nations has its undeniable flaws, its positive aspects have a greater impact. According to the author, the U.N. “might eventually turn out to be the most resplendent gift the United States had given to the world.”6 Through this book, Schlesinger hoped to provide a better understanding of the essential role of the United States in the founding of this global organization.
Schlesinger has written three other books, two of whom can be categorized as political science books. As the son of a historian and the brother of a journalist, it was not surprising that Schlesinger had inclination for a writing career centered in foreign policies. A Harvard Law School graduate, Schlesinger has written for several magazines and newspapers such as the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times. Author of other two books, The New Reformers, Bitter Fruit, and co-author of one, Journals 1952-2000 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Schlesinger shows a great interest in governmental affairs. A specialist on foreign policy and an emphatic political commentator, Schlesinger shows great admiration for the U.N. through his writing. The origin of the information Schlesinger used to write this book affected his point of view and his comments. Most of it came from American sources, “Alperovitz documents” and information the National Security Agency sent him in 1993.7 The fact that he worked for the United Nation Human Settlements Programme in 1994 serves as example of his strong admiration for this organization. Having been born and raised in the United States gave Schlesinger a deep appreciation for the work and contribution of the U.S. to the U.N. charter, which he believes “[embodies] its country’s ideals.”8
Schlesinger started writing this book in 1993 after reading an article in the New York Times about the San Francisco conference. The Gulf War had just ended two years before he read the article, a war in which the United Nations authorized a coalition force formed by 34 countries against Iraq. Due to its somewhat controversial actions and decisions, the U.N. was the center of attention during that period of time. He published this book in 2003, during a period in which threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts were common. The situation in the Middle East and the problems the U.S. was facing at that moment shaped his decision to write a book that could “contribute…to a more profound sympathy for the United Nations.”9
Foreign Affairs describes Schlesinger’s Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations as a fascinating narration of the “diplomatic dramas and political intrigues” present during the foundation of the United Nations but criticizes its lack of information on current U.N. affairs.10 Author of an online review, John Jefferson, points out how well organized the book is, how “Schlesinger’s work is thought-provoking enough to generate new discussion about the United Nations”, and the description of events most people did not know. 11 Both reviews mention the fact that Schlesinger connects Wilson’s League of Nations and its legacy with the determination of Truman, who struggled with idealist ambitions and the realities of power politics.
Although many people at the time opposed the creation of the United Nations, even in the United States, the U.N. has been responsible for the “remarkable change in the nature of the state structure.”12 No one can give all the credit to the U.N., but since its establishment colonies over the world have disappeared, there has been a big expansion of democracy and an uncommon spread of mixed economies. The problems Truman and its cabinet affronted while working on solving the confrontations that mostly involved the Russians are now part of the past. Schlesinger has written a book which tells the story of the origins of the U.N., starting with Wilson and his League of Nations and ending with an epilogue that relates the positive effect the U.N. has had on the world.
Schlesinger is an experienced author who believes the creation of the United Nations should be categorized as among the most important accomplishments. The 1940s saw the foundation of a global organization whose main objective was to prevent wars and maintain peace. Due to the sense of failure the League of Nations had instilled in everyone, many thought the U.N. would not last long. However, the 1940s was indeed a watershed in American history; the U.S. put its isolationistic mentality aside and focused on creating “a new global architecture of some sort.”13 An organization which at first only prevented war and maintained peace, but eventually reinforced its responsibilities by taking advantage of the vaguely, defined charter.
Often described as an organization only responsible for maintaining peace, the U.N. is involved in all aspect of international relations and affairs. Although it has its flaws, “the U.N still represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.”14
1: Schlesinger, Stephen C. Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. United States of America: Westview Press, 2003. 16.
2: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 8.
3: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 64.
4: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 193.
5: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 243.
6: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 279.
7: Schlesinger, Stephen C. IX.
8: Schlesinger, Stephen C. XVIII
9: Schlesinger, Stephen C.
10: Ikenberry, John G. Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, 2003. 170.
11: Jefferson, John. Review of Schlesinger, Stephen, Act of Creation: The Untold Story of the Founding of the United Nations. H-Dipolo: H-Net Reviews. August, 2005.
12: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 286.
13: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 31.
14: Schlesinger, Stephen C. 287.