As Europe moved to WW2 in the 1930s, the League was unable to respond effectively. Despite failure, the Allies proposed establishing a new international body to maintain peace post-war, as early as 1941! The concept was first articulated in Aug 1941, when Pres. Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, creating international cooperation. Yet the U.S remained neutral in WW2 until Jan 1942 post-Pearl Harbour.
In WW2, Roosevelt initially imagined a postwar order based around four powers with regional authority i.e U.S, Britain, Soviet Union and China. The Allies, who were fighting the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy & Japan), gradually moved toward a more inclusive cooperative body that mounted a long series of international summits.
Yalta Conference in Feb 1945
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin
The first summit was in Jan 1942, when 26 Allied nations met in Washington DC, wrote a declaration endorsing the Atlantic Charter and presenting the Allies’ shared war aims. Pres Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, Russian Maxim Litvinov and Chinese TV Soong signed the paper first, then the 22 other nations added their signatures.
These Allied powers met in Moscow in Oct 1943 and issued the Moscow Declaration, which wanted an international organisation to replace the League of Nations. That goal was reaffirmed at the next conference when the Allied leaders met in Nov 1943 in Tehran. Tehran coordinated the war response to the Axis Powers, in Europe and the Pacific.
In Aug 1944, the 4 Allies met at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington DC, to finalise the U.N documents. A broad organisation would be open to all countries and would concern security, economic and social issues. Whether the Big Four would wield absolute vetoes as permanent members of the body’s security council remained unresolved.
The U.N became an important forum for preserving peace, as well as debating and advancing cultural and political initiatives, especially human rights. U.S participation was vital to this project; the United Nations needed to be truly global, and the U.S was now taking a more active role in world affairs.
Over several months in late 1944-early 1945, the delegates described the world body concept but often disagreed over membership and voting. Compromise was reached by Russia, U.S and Britain, at the Yalta Conference on the Crimean Peninsular in Feb 1945, and all countries that had adhered to the 1942 conference were invited to the United Nations founding conference. France had not invited to Yalta, but Stalin agreed to include France in the post-war governing of Germany, if France’s zone of occupation was taken from the US and British zones.
In Ap 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organisation convened in San Francisco with 50 nations represented. Pres Roosevelt planned to be there, but he died just before it began. Dr H Evatt, Australian Minister for External Affairs, spoke to the Great Powers on behalf of the other nations, commanding universal respect. As a result, the Charter become more humane and larger in scope, gaining provisions for the poor and the oppressed, provisions never envisaged by the Great Powers.
3 months later, during which time Germany surrendered, the final Charter of the United Nations was adopted by all delegates, and signed. The Charter consisted of a preamble and 19 chapters divided into 111 articles; it called for the U.N. to maintain international peace and security, promote social progress and better standards of life, strengthen international law, and promote the expansion of human rights. The principal organs of the U.N, as specified in the Charter, were the Secretariat, General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council, International Court of Justice and the Trusteeship Council.
In Oct 1945, the U.N. Charter came into force on its ratification by the 5 permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of other signatories. The first U.N General Assembly, with 51 nations represented, opened in Central Hall London on Jan 1946. In Oct 1949, four years after the United Nations Charter went into effect, the cornerstone was laid for today’s New York United Nations buildings.
Each representative came out to sign on behalf of his country.
There were 3,500 delegates, advisors, employees and secretariat staff at San Francisco's conference. The attendees stood to honour the Charter
Dr Evatt (left) Australian Foreign Minister and Anthony Eden UK Foreign Secretary,
examining documents in San Francisco, 1945.
All photo credits: United Nations photograph.
Disagreements between the major powers continued, and small states sought equal status in the General Assembly AND the Security Council. But the USSR believed an effective veto in the security council was necessary because Russia had lost far more citizens in WW2 than the other nations, and was more desperate for peace. The debate nearly scuttled the conference, but they eventually united behind an agreement that demanded superpower unanimity on all security votes. The compromise was that noone could block discussions of topics within the security council.
They grandfathered existing statements of hemispheric interest eg the Monroe Doctrine, and allowed for regional self-defence pacts that operated before the UN intervened. This latter compromise legalised organisations like the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
The UN pursued human rights; its many institutions were vital in promoting social and economic development. Yet the San Francisco compromises undermined its primary goal of ensuring peace. The permanent member veto constrained the security council as the Cold War started. Nonetheless, the passage of the charter represented a new and promising era of world affairs.
The Charter had 50 original signatories. Italy joined the U.N General Assembly in Dec 1955, Japan in Dec 1956, and both Germanys were admitted in Sept 1973 – very late for a global organisation seeking global peace. Today the UN has grown to include 193 Member States, each having one seat in the General Assembly.