A Savvy Look at How the UN Should Work and Does Work A Vivid History Captures the Human Energies, Nobility, Foibles, and Clashing National Ambitions That Forged 50 Years of UN Endeavors

Article excerpt

United Nations:

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 of Vienna.

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. …


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