The United Nations after 40 Years

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The United Nations After 40 Years

Forty years after the founding of the United Nations, we tend to forget that it has never enjoyed smooth sailing. The Soviet Union was wary from the outset, fearing it would find itself in the minority on controversial issues and refusing, in any event, to acknowledge any authority higher than party and state. Europe was weakened by the devastation of World War II, but its main leaders, Winston Churchill and Gen. Charles de Gaulle, were traditionalists in international relations, deeply suspicious of idealistic schemes not rooted in the materialistic calculations of power politics.

There was also considerable skepticism and concern in U.S. leadership circles at the time, especially behind the scenes. The establishment of the United Nations and its location in New York City were enthusiastically praised. The central undertaking of the U.N. Charter--"to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war'--was ardently endorsed on official occasions.

Yet to a large degree this was window dressing, part of a public posture struck to reassure war-weary Americans that diplomacy would now be devoted to keeping the peace. The main architects of American participation in the postwar world were at least as suspicious, or "realistic,' about the United Nations as were their European counterparts. In his memoirs, Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson, who was Assistant Secretary of State in 1945, wrote that the greatest postwar diplomatic challenge at the end of World War II was to persuade the American people and their elected leaders to turn from "two contrary and equally unrealistic ideas . . . isolationism [and] the dream of universal law and internationally enforced peace, embodied and embalmed in the League of Nations and resurrected in the United Nations.'

Also influential behind the scenes was George Kennan, an expert on the Russians who was then in the Foreign Service. Kennan was preoccupied at the end of the war with the need to dispel the illusion that victory over fascism would lead to peace and harmony in international relations. Convinced that American public opinion must be prepared for the coming struggle with the Soviet Union for primacy in the postwar world, he believed that investing too much hope in the United Nations would divert attention from the overriding need to meet the Soviet challenge. Kennan summarized his outlook toward the United Nations at the time:

I was not, in 1944, strongly averse to the establishment of a new world organization, per se. It was not greatly needed, I thought, but if pursued realistically, with a clear recognition of its obvious limitations, it would do no harm.

Even Franklin Roosevelt did not believe that the world organization could bring peace, security and justice to all states. Rather, he hoped it would sustain wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union in the postwar world through entrusting the "four horsemen' (the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France) with a global supervisory role. That "realism' included an acceptance of great-power spheres of influence and the indefinite subordination of dominated and dependent peoples. At best, the United Nations could provide a framework for great-power cooperation which was flawed because it overrode the sovereign rights of the small and weak countries. This image of a postwar world order based on the cooperation of the powers died with F.D.R. His successor, Harry Truman, moved quickly to adopt a cold war frame of reference, encouraged every step of the way by such principal advisers as Acheson, Kennan and Secretary of State James Byrnes.

The United Nations, then, was created in an atmosphere of ambivalence. The powerful states looked elsewhere for the preservation of their vital interests. The West, in particular, was preoccupied with girding itself for the anticipated rivalry with the Soviet Union over Europe, while the East was indifferent to the new organization. …