The First Fifty Years
By Stanley Meisler
Atlantic Monthly Press
386 pp., $24
Visions: Fifty Years of the United Nations
Edited by Jan Ralph
Smallwood and Stuart, Inc. 256 pp., $50
A Global Affair:
An Inside Look at the United Nations
Edited by Amy Janello and Brennon Jones
Jones & Janello
304 pp., $35
If cliches are truth made banal by repetition, Adlai Stevenson
created the classic cliche/truth about the United Nations: If the
UN didn't exist, we'd have to create it.
In fact, for many centuries pre-UN, leaders had tried to create
a headquarters to referee and regulate mankind's activities beyond
the village, kingdom, and empire.
First Charlemagne, then the Holy Roman Empire plotted to
assemble Europe's principalities.
When Napoleon was defeated for seeking to accomplish an even
larger version by conquest and alliance, his triumphant opponents
sought to create their own all-European equilibrium at the Congress
And so on to the stillborn League of Nations, fashioned by the
powers that defeated Germany's kaiser in World War I, and the
still-thriving if uneasy UN, designed by the powers that defeated
Hitler and his Axis allies in the rematch, World War II.
History and biography, well written, are still more fascinating
than historical fiction and docudrama. They are because truth is,
well, more real and sometimes stranger than fiction.
But to come alive and be something of a page turner, history
usually needs colorful leaders (both heroes and villains) and, if
not a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands, at least a colorful
nationality or two with real earthling daily lives and tensions.
All of which explains why popularly compelling histories of the
UN (or its predecessors) have been virtually nonexistent. No
caesars, Richard IIIs, or Lincolns bestride international
organizations - yet. And the UN culture is not immersed in the
daily lives of any one nationality, but represents instead
attenuated threads of scores of ethnic histories.
Hidden heroes come alive
Amazingly, longtime foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler has
overcome this double handicap to write a strikingly readable,
accurate history of the UN's first half century. He's made the
organization's relatively un-lionized heroes - such as Ralph
Bunche, Dag Hammarskjold, and Brian Urquhart, inventors of global
peacekeeping - come alive.
Bunche, for example, is introduced epigrammatically as a leader
who "never rose to the higher ranks of American officialdom because
he was black, and never rose to the highest position in the United
Nations because he was American. …