BARELY THREE WEEKS after the attack on Pearl Harbor, twenty-six countries, calling themselves the "United Nations," pledged to act in concert "against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world." As the alliance gathered its armies together, the technical planning for a postwar international organization had already quietly begun.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was deeply committed to the idea from the start. He believed the economic depression and world war that dominated his presidency were yoked phenomena: With illiberal economic policies and unilateral disarmament, the isolationist democracies of the West had invited both poverty and war. He became dedicated to the idea of a permanent military alliance, one that would keep the peace in a world of liberalized international commerce. It was a "practical necessity," he decided, to recast the League of Nations on this much more ambitious scale--and to make it work.
The strength of the president's conviction drove the project through the whole process of technical study and international negotiations up to the spring of 1945, when the proposals were presented at an international conference of the anti-Axis alliance in San Francisco. But Roosevelt died only a few days before the start of the conference, leaving his brainchild to an uncertain future just before its birth.
It is here that Stephen Schlesinger's "Act of Creation" picks up the tale, guiding readers through the remarkable months-long process of negotiation and ratification necessary for creating the modern United Nations. Providing background through episodic flashbacks on the key American players, Schlesinger weaves together a tale that often reads more like a novel than a work of history. He thus succeeds in humanizing a study that could have easily drowned in technical detail.
One learns, for example, of Soviet foreign minister Molotov's first encounter with President Truman. Indignant over the subjugation of Poland, Truman delivered an angry warning and then summarily dismissed him. "I have never been talked to like that in my life," Molotov said. Truman responded, "Carry out your agreements, and you won't get talked to like that."
What shines through most clearly in "Act of Creation" is "the unusual intellect and honest idealism" of the U.N.'s founders. As one might expect, the Americans did almost all the technical study and drafting "while neither the British, the Russians, nor the Chinese," the other sponsors of the conference, "seemed to take the preparatory work very seriously." Indeed, the Americans seem to have thought of everything, from a small army of free taxis to a library of history and international law for the delegates' use.
In some ways the most significant impact of the conference may have been psychological. The delegates were offered a cross-country trip by rail. One American observer remarked with pride that the delegates "could not miss the contrast with their ravaged countries, as they saw mile after mile of our extraordinarily productive pastures and seemingly endless fields, punctuated by mighty industrial cities and prospering towns." Clearly, the Americans wanted to give the other delegations a vision of what was possible in a realm based on the peaceful rule of law. And the crowning touch was San Francisco itself. A British official remembered: "I had flown straight from blackened-out London into a fantastic world of glitter and light and extravagant parties and food and drink and constantly spiraling talk." "Act of Creation" evokes perhaps better than any other book the energy and idealism with which the delegates undertook their project that hopeful spring.
YET IT WAS THERE in San Francisco that the signs of serious trouble first became apparent. It emerges quite clearly from this account that Stalin entered the conference with the single- minded purpose of "protecting his own security interests." The Soviet delegation threatened time and again to derail the conference over points of contention that were minor, sometimes even incomprehensible--only to give in to the Americans at the last minute. With each artificial "victory" in the conference, the increasingly self-satisfied Americans increasingly forgot about Poland. In the end Russia would leave San Francisco with exactly what she wanted: a veto on the Security Council and half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain.
The Americans faced a terrible dilemma. If they insisted on holding Stalin to his promises on Poland, they risked losing Soviet participation in the United Nations, thereby compromising the universality of the organization--and in any case, they couldn't save Poland.
On the other hand, to permit Stalin to renege on his guarantees of Polish independence and establish a totalitarian police state throughout Eastern Europe was to defeat Roosevelt's central purpose of a worldwide alliance against tyranny and to set the worst possible precedent for the future.
One cannot know what Roosevelt would have done. But Averell Harriman, one of his closest advisers, then ambassador to the Soviet Union and later governor of New York, was not prepared to sell Poland out, and thought the conference could go on well enough without the Soviets.
Truman, however, had different priorities. He was not about to let inevitable Soviet imperialism intrude on his "Parliament of Man." Truman thought himself a realist but was in many ways a supreme idealist: He was devoted to the nascent World Government, and it wouldn't be complete without the Soviets. Thus was born the United Nations.
The enormous attention paid to the crises manufactured by the Soviet delegation was unfortunate for other reasons as well. Some proposals, such as a mechanism for periodic review of the charter in a general conference, were sloppily dismissed without getting anything like the attention they deserved.
Others were adopted far too hastily, such as an Australian amendment that arguably made the Security Council an exclusive rather than supplementary mechanism for the preemptive use of force, a reckless last minute change that is proving fatal to the organization's central purpose, "the prevention and removal of threats to the peace." These hasty decisions were all the more unfortunate as the charter emerged from San Francisco with all the aura of a Magna Carta.
In his September speech to the General Assembly, Kofi Annan evoked "the group of far-sighted leaders" who created the United Nations. Then he delivered to the assembled heads of state and government a remarkable admonition: "Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then, or whether radical changes are needed. And we must not shy away from questions about the adequacy, and effectiveness, of the rules and instruments at our disposal." The most important of those questions should be: How well is this arrangement serving the purposes for which it was devised?
IN REVIVING the heady times of the San Francisco Conference, "Act of Creation" offers a glimpse of what those purposes were. It is a somewhat romanticized account, exalting the idealism of the "far-sighted leaders" who launched the great experiment. But that idealism, in one important sense, is a danger to itself. The charter is not holy writ, and treating it so risks making it irrelevant or worse.
Despite its epic-sounding name, the United Nations is merely a set of "rules and instruments at our disposal" and particularly at the disposal of our diplomats. Addressing the many "questions about its adequacy and effectiveness" with a realistic sense of the organization's purposes and limitations will be vital to an act of creation that, in the most hopeful view, remains unfinished.
Mario Loyola is a writer and attorney in Washington, D.C.