The Formation of the United Nations

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Podcast Transcript

In the midst of the second world war, the allied powers began planning ahead for what the post-war world was going to look like. 

The Legion of Nations had failed to prevent World War II. If they were to prevent another major war from breaking out in the 20th century, they needed something else. 

Learning from the lessons of the past, they created a new organization that would ultimately be run by the war’s winners. 

Learn more about how and why the United Nations was formed on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The idea of an international organization, any international organization, is a rather new concept. 

There weren’t really any international organizations before the 19th century.

The first international intergovernmental organization was the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine, founded in 1815. This was on the heels of the Congress of Vienna, one of the first international conferences designed to establish order in Europe after Napoleon.

The International Telecommunication Union was founded in 1865, and the Universal Postal Union was created in 1874. Even the International Red Cross, which isn’t an intergovernmental organization, was founded in 1863.

This period also saw the rise of world fairs and the creation of international bodies to standardize weights and measures. 

All of these organizations were rather ad hoc. They were formed to deal with individual issues.

After the horrors of the First World War, the victors felt the need for an overarching permanent international body where countries debate and resolve issues to hopefully prevent such a war from ever happening again. 

The Paris Peace Conference, which ended the war, created the League of Nations. Founded in 1920, the League had high hopes, but as I covered in a previous episode, it ultimately failed. 

The League of Nations ended, for all practical purposes, in 1939 with the outbreak of war. The League expelled the Soviet Union after its invasion of Poland, and Germany had already quit. The remaining countries were mostly the allies in the war.

The League of Nations was mothballed but legally kept alive for the duration of the war. 

This was the low point of international cooperation. 

The creation of the United Nations began during the Second World War as a result of Allied war planning.

The first step in the organization of the Allies was the Declaration of St James’s Palace. On June 12, 1941, representatives from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia, and France, all signed a document of principles regarding the war.

In addition to a statement of principles regarding the conduct of the war, they also outlined a vision of a future post-war order made of “willing cooperation of free peoples.”

In August, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held a secret meeting outlining post-war peace and security principles in a document known as the Atlantic Charter.

It emphasized the importance of no territorial aggrandizement, the right of all people to self-determination, and the restoration of self-government to those deprived of it. It also called for equal access to trade and raw materials, economic cooperation, improved labor standards, and social security.

The US wasn’t in the war at this point.

With the US entry into the war in December 1941, a conference was held in Washington, D.C., in late December and early January. All the major Allies, including the Big Four, were in attendance: the US, UK, USSR, and China. 

The inclusion of China as one of the Big Four was contentious. Roosevelt wanted China because he felt they would side with the United States against the Soviets. This was before the Chinese Civil War, and China was the Republic of China, which later fled to Taiwan, not the People’s Republic of China.

The British didn’t want China included because they felt they would support the break up of the British empire in Asia. 

On January 1, 1942, the Big Four signed a document called the Declaration by United Nations. The next day, 22 other nations signed the document. 

This was not the founding of “the” United Nations; rather, they used the phrase “united nations” at Winston Churchill’s suggestion, who got it from a poem by Lord Byron. The poem was Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which was a reference to the Battle of Waterloo. 

The relevant passage from the poem that coined the phrase “united nations” is as follows:

Millions of tongues record thee, and anew 

Their children’s lips shall echo them, and say, 

‘Here, where the sword united nations drew, 

Our countrymen were warring on that day!’ 

And this is much, and all which will not pass away.

The term United Nations was used throughout the war to reference the Allies to distinguish themselves from the Axis. Even though the term was used at the time and can be seen on many propaganda posters from the era, we seldom refer to the allies as the United Nations anymore because of confusion with the subsequent organization of the same name. 

During the course of the war, as the allied powers were conducting their war planning and when the leaders met, the subject of what to do after the war was also present. 

Starting in 1944, when the end of the war was in sight, discussions about what would happen after the war started to pick up.

As with the Allies after the end of the First World War, there was a desire to avoid a repeat war. This time, however, they had the experience and lessons of the League of Nations.

In 1943, the idea of a post-war international organization was floated. At the Moscow Conference of November 1943, the Big Four powers agreed to create “at the earliest possible date of a general international organization…

Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill also discussed this in person at the Tehran Conference. 

In September and October 1944, the Big Four powers met at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., to start actualizing what was set out in the Moscow Declaration the year before. 

During the conference, the delegates agreed on the framework for an international organization dedicated to maintaining peace and security. Key components discussed included establishing a Security Council with permanent and non-permanent members, a General Assembly for all member states, an International Court of Justice, and an Economic and Social Council.

Roosevelt conceived the idea of a security council, believing that the Big Four, what he called the Four Policemen, would be the best force to enforce peace. Each of the Four Policemen would be responsible for keeping the peace in their respective spheres of influence. 

The United States would get the Western Hemisphere, the UK would get its empire and Western Europe, the Soviets would get Eastern Europe and much of Central Asia, and China would get East and Southeast Asia. 

According to Roosevelt’s original plan, every country other than the Big Four would be disarmed and banned from having any weapon larger than a rifle. 

That didn’t happen, but it was the origin of what would become the UN Security Council. 

At Dumbarton Oaks, the British pushed for and got the inclusion of France as a permanent member of the security council. 

At the Yalta Conference in January 1945, Stalin pushed for the Security Council’s permanent members to get a veto, which Roosevelt agreed to. The veto ensured that the permanent members of the Security Council would never have to accept anything that was against their national interests.

That was one of the big flaws and the main reason why the United States never joined the League of Nations. 

At Yalta, they also agreed that the new organization would be open to any country that declared war on Germany and Japan by March 1, 1945. 

There were a whole bunch of countries that joined the allies on paper during this period, including most South American countries, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. 

By this time, the rough organization of the United Nations had already been determined. 

Fifty allied nations, the United Nations of the war, arrived in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, about two weeks before Germany surrendered. The conference was the United Nations Conference on International Organization. 

The conference was sponsored by the Big Four powers. 

It should be noted here that the United Nations was never intended to be an organization of equals. From its very inception, it was intended to be run by and given special privileges to the major Allied powers of WWII. 

The fifty national representatives worked for two months to create the United Nations Charter. One of the important changes was the formal addition of France as a permanent Security Council member at the insistence of Britain. 

The United Nations Charter was completed and signed by the attending representatives on June 26. However, the charter was not officially ratified until it was approved by the governments of the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of the other members. 

The final ratification and the birth of the United Nations took place on October 24, 1945. 

The last meeting of the League of Nations was held on April 18, 1946, to formally dissolve the organization and transfer all assets to the United Nations. 

Once the UN was formed, there was the issue of where the General Assembly and Security Council would meet. The first meeting of each body took place in 1946 in London. 

The original goal of the United Nations was to have a city for its headquarters that was independent of any country. That proved impossible, so they accepted a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for 18 acres or 7.3 hectares of land in New York City on the island of Manhattan along the East River. 

In 1947, they received submissions for the design of the UN Headquarters and selected a proposal from Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

The building was completed in 1952. 

One question that many people have about the UN Headquarters is whether it is a part of the United States.

The answer is yes, but the entire UN headquarters property has extraterritorial status.  I’ve previously done an entire episode on the concept of extraterritorial status, but suffice it to say it has the same legal standing as an embassy. 

In the case of the UN, the ambassador would be the UN Secretary-General. 

Security on the property is handled by UN security, and New York City Police cannot enter the grounds unless invited by the Secretary-General. A few people who work at the UN do have diplomatic immunity, but the vast majority do not. 

There is one final thing regarding the UN that I should address. As I mentioned, the five permanent members of the Security Council have a lot of power.

However, just as the UN was being formed, something happened in one of the member states. China had been fighting a long civil war, and the Communists eventually won in 1949 and pushed the nationalist forces to Taiwan. 

The seat on the Security Council was held by the Republic of China, which was now a small island with a few million people, whereas the People’s Republic of China had power on the mainland over hundreds of millions of people.

While having a communist country completely defeated Roosevelt’s purpose for having China sit on the security council, to begin with, it became obvious to everyone that having Taiwan represent China in the UN made no sense, given the size of mainland China. 

In 1971, a resolution submitted by Albania passed with a two-thirds vote in the general assembly to have the PRC fill China’s seat. Of interest, most countries were in favor of a two-state solution, where both Chinas would be represented in the UN, but both Chinas were against it because both of them claimed to be the only real China. 

A similar, but not quite the same, problem came up in late 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Unlike the China problem, Russia became the successor state to the Soviet Union, even though every other former Soviet Republic had to be approved to join the UN, and there is technically no provision for Russia to have a permanent seat on the Security Council, only the Soviet Union. 

There is a lot more to say about the United Nations. In its almost 80 years of existence, it has had its share of accomplishments and scandals. Nonetheless, unlike the League of Nations, it managed to survive, and it might have played a part in ensuring the Cold War never turned into a hot war. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

I have an error that I need to correct that many, many of you, had pointed out.

In my episode on the US occupation of the Philippines, I said that the Philippines was the 4th largest country in the world.

What I meant to say was that the it was the 14th largest country in the world. That is literally what I written down on the script and somehow I totally read it wrong when I was recording.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

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