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A Less than Perfect United Nations

The previous pages are about what could have happened with good thinking. With the creation of the United Nations at the close of World War II, we come face to face with what President Roosevelt wanted and what I think might have been better and that ever present reality of limited possibilities.

President Roosevelt was a little off in his attitude toward Stalin, but in my view his support for the United Nations and his desire to move the world toward international cooperation and away from imperialism was right on. At the Teheran conference in late 1943, Roosevelt discussed the possibility of a United Nations trusteeship for France's colony of Indochina (including Vietnam) – a move displeasing to France. Empire and the rule of others against their will was to be a source of conflict after the war as it had been before the war. The United Nations would not have the power to abolish colonialism. Three colonial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands would face colonized people who wanted the freedom that Britain and the United States gave as their reason for fighting the war.

The United Nations that Roosevelt wanted was an enlargement of the wartime allies against the evils that had been perpetrated by Germany and Japan – beginning with military aggression. He wanted "collective security" guaranteeing peace and a unity of purpose that had not existed with the failed League of Nations – the creation of a president he had worked for: Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt died in April 1945 when fifty nations were starting to hammer out the agreement that became the UN Charter. The Charter was ratified by all of the wartime allies and France and by a majority of the member nations, and it went into force in October.

The Charter declared against wars of aggression, against wars that violated international agreements, it declared against war crimes and crimes against humanity: genocide, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts. Articles 55 and 56 of the Charter 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."

But how to enforce the ideals expressed in the Charter? In his campaign for re-election in 1944, Roosevelt had argued that the United Nations had to be able to commit people to military action, "to keep the peace by force, if necessary" rather than wait for consultations, discussions and debates. He likened the latter to a local police force calling a town meeting before stopping a burglary. "It is clear," he said, "that if the world organization is to have any reality at all, our American representative must be endowed in advance by the people themselves, by constitutional means through their representatives in the Congress, with authority to act."

It didn't work out that way. Member nations including the major powers would not agree to commit troops to an international police force. The UN's General Assembly was to be a place for discussion and the making of "recommendations" regarding the maintenance of international peace and security. Responsibility to implementation was to be with the five-member Security Council, and there the Soviet Union had the veto. Any one Security Council member could veto a decision made by other members of council. This was a provision insisted upon by the Soviet Union, which wanted protection from the capitalist powers combining against it. The other Security Council members were concerned about their own sovereignty and accepted it as a worthy idea. That it weakened the United Nations was also accepted. Sovereignty was most important to them.

Roosevelt's international police enforcing all of the good that found its way into the UN Charter was a pipe dream. Would a force be sent into China against abuses by Chiang Kai-shek's military, or against abuses by peasant mobs siding with China's Communist revolution, or against France's aggressions in Vietnam, or Stalin's abuses against minorities and others in the Soviet Union, or the hatred and killings taking place in India?

So what should Roosevelt's successor, President Truman, have done? Truman did not want a return to the isolationism that had followed World War I, and he was committed to maintaining the U.S. as a player in the new internationalism. The absolutistic alternative, the U.S. getting out of the United Nations and the United Nations out of the U.S., was proposed by a small minority of Americans who viewed "world government" as a threat to the freedom of Americans. In the choice between no UN and an imperfect UN as an instrument for international cooperation and well-being, Truman, I believe, played it about as well as could be expected. The imperfect UN would go on to numerous accomplishments, one of which came in 1950 with its coalition against North Korea's aggression against South Korea – possible because the Soviet Union's representative had walked out of the UN rather than exercising his country's veto.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.