A review of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, by Stephen Schlesinger

By the end of 2002, the question was inescapable: How had the United States ever gotten itself into a situation at the United Nations in which France could claim veto rights over American foreign policy? It is only fair to acknowledge, right at the outset, that Act of Creation does not provide much of an answer.

But then, this study is hardly the definitive account of the U.N.'s founding. For the most part, it relies on previously published histories, memoirs, and monographs—all in English and almost all by Americans. Nor does Schlesinger provide much analytical leverage on this material. The jacket copy describes him as "Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City." It also reports that he worked at the U.N. and served, for a time, as "foreign policy advisor to New York's Governor Cuomo." Schlesinger takes for granted that the founding of the U.N. was a great contribution to human well-being. Even Governor Cuomo, agonizing over New York State's foreign policy, must have asked some harder questions than Schlesinger puts to himself in this book.

Almost all of the author's attention is focused on the San Francisco conference that drafted the U.N. Charter in spring 1945. In effect, he set out to write the counterpart of books describing the day-to-day drama of the Philadelphia convention of 1787—a comparison that was much on the minds of participants and observers at San Francisco. But Miracle at San Francisco is not an obviously good idea for a book: we do not need to invoke the "miraculous" in explaining poor results, especially when poor results were to be expected.

The somewhat journalistic quality of this book has its redeeming side, however. The organizers of the San Francisco conference were, it turns out, quite eager to appeal to readers of glossy magazines. The decor of the main conference hall, Schlesinger reports, was arranged for the occasion by experienced set designers on loan from the entertainment industry. Where the wartime summits had been conducted in secret, the San Francisco conference hosted more observers than participants. Among the "correspondents" duly issued press passes were Hollywood starlets Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, director Orson Welles, and the glamorous young war hero, John F. Kennedy. 

The official American delegation included experienced diplomats and members of Congress but also a selection of "citizens" representing major constituencies—as determined by the State Department committee that chose them. Representatives of "world government" organizations were excluded, Schlesinger reports, along with the Daughters of the American Revolution (for being too hostile to world government). One member of the U.S. delegation, Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College for Women, spent much of the conference, according to Schlesinger, arranging social get-togethers to ensure that delegates of small countries did not feel neglected. 

It is satisfying, after so many anecdotes of this sort, to read Schlesinger's account of what happened at the end, when the Secretary General of the conference, a young diplomat named Alger Hiss, arrived in Washington to make official delivery of the Charter to the President of the United States. Hiss seems to have expected a formal ceremony, if not choreographed by Hollywood set designers then at least punctiliously planned by protocol officers from the State Department. Instead, Hiss found Truman in shirtsleeves, drinking bourbon with an aide. Schlesinger does not report Truman's exact words on this occasion, but perhaps they were not printable.

Act of Creation offers more than mere atmospherics, however. Although Schlesinger does not provide adequate thematic discussion of the largest issues, his almost day-by-day account of the negotiations offers a guide to what most troubled the delegates. The central issue, which seems to have hung over the conference from beginning to end, was the status of the great powers in the new organization. The basic plan had been thrashed out in advance of the San Francisco conference, in secret negotiations between the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China, largely at a conference in Washington (at the Dumbarton Oaks mansion) in the late summer of 1944. Even China was not a full participant in these talks, since the USSR was not then at war with Japan and therefore insisted that it could not negotiate directly with China, which was only at war with Japan. In practice, agreements among the Big Three powers of the European war were separately presented to Chinese diplomats by the U.S. and Britain, without giving the Chinese much chance to object. The Dumbarton Oaks plan envisioned a Security Council, authorized to mobilize military force against aggression, but subject to veto by any one of these four powers.

Having agreed among themselves, these four states offered their plan to the approval of others. The original four powers not only issued the invitations to San Francisco but organized the conference so as to ensure their control of the agenda there. The conference rules stipulated that no amendment to the Four Power proposals could be adopted without their consent. The great power veto did not emerge by oversight or by compromise at the U.N.'s founding; it was intrinsic to the scheme from the outset.

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As envisioned by its sponsors, the United Nations was to be a much more powerful organization than its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations. Whereas the Covenant of the League made no provision for direct military action (by the League itself), the U.N. Charter envisioned a military staff committee to organize military enforcement of Security Council resolutions. Whereas the Covenant of the League contemplated decision by unanimity, the Charter envisioned a majority capable of binding all U.N. members to its determinations (and on some issues, binding even non-members). The Covenant of the League had been drafted at a peace conference after victory in a "war to end all wars." Perhaps the framers of the U.N. Charter took the challenge of peace more seriously, because plans for the Charter were matured while the war was underway—as it still was even in Europe, when the San Francisco conference convened (with war in the Pacific expected to continue long after the impending surrender of Germany). At San Francisco, joining the war—on the right side—was the basic price of admission to the conference. Argentina was invited, at the last minute, only after bowing to an ultimatum in the spring of 1945, demanding that it declare war against Germany or face exclusion from the conference.

Much of the drama turned on how or whether the conference would endorse the fundamental hierarchy of states implicit in the plan that emerged from Dumbarton Oaks. Many smaller states urged restrictions or qualifications on the veto reserved to the great powers. The most forthright response, as Schlesinger tells it, was offered by Senator Tom Connally of Texas. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Connally was effectively the counterpart to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the earlier Foreign Relations chairman whose reservations had defeated the League of Nations in 1919 when the Senate blocked its ratification. Connally had been recruited to the U.S. delegation to ensure that the Senate's concerns would be incorporated into the text before it ever got to Capitol Hill.

Connally, focusing on power realities, was not very patient with the small countries: "These little countries are going to bellyache…no matter what you do about it. We're doing all this for them. We could make an alliance with Great Britain and Russia and be done with it." Absent the veto, he argued, the smaller states could decide to commit the U.N. to military action—and leave it to outvoted larger states to provide the actual fighting power for such action. It was not lost on Connally that among the most persistent critics of the veto were states that had contributed almost no military resources to the war against the Axis powers. He minced no words with them: "You may go home from San Francisco—if you wish—and report that you have defeated the veto…. But you can also say, 'We tore up the Charter.'" Without the veto, there would be no American participation and without American participation, not much of an organization.

But the same reasoning could cut the other way. Without Soviet participation, the U.N. would not have much to offer as a guarantor of peace. So the American and British delegations were keen to satisfy Soviet concerns. To secure Soviet acquiescence, Roosevelt and Churchill had previously agreed that the Soviet Union could have three seats in the General Assembly, so that delegations from Ukraine and Byelorussia could cast separate votes, along with the U.S.S.R. delegation (which completely controlled the former two). The U.S. and Britain were prepared to make more consequential concessions. At one point, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, in the course of one of the great power meetings (which went on in private throughout the conference), asked whether the U.N. would be able to condemn Soviet military action as the League in 1939 had condemned the USSR's unprovoked attack on Finland. British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden assured Molotov that the veto would protect the Soviet Union from such international meddling in future Soviet peace programs. Meanwhile, President Truman, already worried about the Soviets' betrayal of their promises to sponsor free elections in Eastern Europe, sent a negotiating team to Moscow in late May 1945, with secret instructions not to make too much of a fuss over Soviet actions in Poland and Romania, lest our support for freedom in these countries derail the San Francisco conference.

The inescapable reality was that a serious peacekeeping organization depended on prior agreement among the powers capable of enforcing such a peace. The U.N. Charter did not create this reality. It merely acknowledged it. An organization without troops of its own could not act against the great powers—or any one of them, unless the others were prepared to meet the challenge in war. But in that case, the U.N. would not be a peacekeeping organization, after all, but a forum for negotiating coalitions in the next war.

All hopes for the effective functioning of the United Nations accordingly depended on continuing cooperation between the Soviet Union and its wartime partners. When the prospects for such cooperation dwindled, all serious prospects for an effective U.N. also dwindled. Serious diplomats at San Francisco understood this fact, which is why subsequent U.S. disengagement from reliance on the U.N. was endorsed (and indeed executed) by some of the same officials who took part in its founding conference. The price of accommodating Soviet ambitions simply proved too high. 

Compared to this central challenge, every other issue at San Francisco was secondary. The efforts to finesse the challenge left enduring legacies. Act of Creation provides useful perspective on several other of these compromises, including the expansion of the Big Four to the Big Five.

France had not been invited to participate in the Dumbarton Oaks negotiations because it was, at the time, still a Nazi satellite rather than an actual participant in the Allied war effort. By the fall of 1944, the progress of Anglo-American arms had allowed Charles de Gaulle to install himself in Paris as the president of a new French republic. It is worth recalling (though Schlesinger does not) that de Gaulle's first diplomatic initiative was to seek a formal alliance with the Soviet Union, before bothering to negotiate any formal agreement with Britain or the United States. Recognizing how little de Gaulle had to offer, Stalin spurned de Gaulle's initiative and the French were excluded from the Yalta summit in February 1945. 

So the French delegation showed up at San Francisco full of complaints about proposals which France had had little hand in shaping. As Schlesinger does recount, French efforts to mobilize opposition among other small states at San Francisco presented a serious headache for the American delegation. France protested the injustice of great power hegemony over small states and simultaneously insisted that it could not tolerate U.N. interference with its colonial possessions (which de Gaulle sought to expand by sending French troops to Lebanon and Syria, in the midst of the conference, even though these territories were supposed to be League of Nations mandates). The ensuing challenge was put to rest by a simple expedient: once France was assured that it could hold a permanent seat on the Security Council (and exercise its own veto), it changed its tune and voted with the great powers to preserve the rest of the Dumbarton Oaks plan.

It is very clear in retrospect, however, and should have been clear at the time, that French attachment to the U.N. system was purchased at a high price. France had—and still has—very little military capacity to contribute to international peacekeeping. To gratify French vanity, the voting scheme on the Security Council treats France as more important than richer countries like Germany or Japan, more important than militarily more significant countries like India or Turkey (or even, where African affairs are concerned, Nigeria). The configuration of the postwar world, decades later, might not have been foreseeable even in 1945. But American negotiators seem to have assumed that France would, at least in general terms, share the same outlook on world affairs as the English-speaking democracies. There was little to justify this optimistic assessment in 1945. We now know that the contrary is more often the case—that France has an incentive to sow discord among other powers in order to promote its own importance as an independent actor, even if it has little strength to back up its ambitions. But this pattern is now so evident that some people may think it rude to give it public notice.

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Schlesinger rightly gives much attention to a different problem which loomed large at San Francisco. Latin American nations worried over the veto, not out of national vanity but because they feared dangerous constraints on American power in the western hemisphere. To put the point succinctly, Latin American nations feared that the U.N. Charter would abrogate the Monroe Doctrine. What if the Soviet Union encouraged Communist parties in Latin America to intrigue against existing governments, as Germany had encouraged pro-fascist constituencies? Would the U.S. be prevented from helping governments against such threats, as it had helped against fascist threats in the 1930s and early 1940s? Would American assistance be subject to Soviet veto on the Security Council? 

To allay these concerns, the United States negotiated mutual defense agreements with Latin American nations even before the conference began. At San Francisco, the U.S. sought to accommodate Latin concerns by supporting language in the Charter recognizing the role of "regional arrangements for peace and security." At the time, the U.S. delegation had in mind what would become the Organization of American States. Later on, the same provision became the legal justification for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

Since the end of the Cold War, however, NATO looks more and more like a pointless relic of a bygone era. Schlesinger's account of the debates in 1945 might remind us that the historic priority of American foreign policy was not Europe but our own hemisphere. And we may well find in coming decades that our oldest friends remain our truest friends—and have new cause to wonder, as the American negotiators did in 1945, whether it really makes sense to give any say to European (or Asian) powers in inter-American affairs.

If the United Nations had really been a guarantor of world peace, it would make sense to think of the San Francisco conference as the successor to the Philadelphia convention. Advocates for the U.S. Constitution had urged that it would preserve peace among the states and help secure all Americans from foreign aggression. If the U.N. could do this, we would not need to rely on our own government—and might not need to worry that the U.N. has a very different system of accountability and internal checks than our own Constitution. But is there really so much consensus on fundamental questions that we would trust a world body to decide what is necessary for the United States? Are we confident enough of this prospect to imagine that our founders were wrong to think the American people needed their own government, under their own constitution, sustaining and regulating their own armed forces? What is it, exactly, that we have learned which they did not know? 

Stephen Schlesinger has not thought this through very well. His book can remind us, however, that the U.N.'s founders were at least alert to many of the obvious challenges. After forging a coalition for victory in the worst war of modern history, they had earned the right to be hopeful of a better future. After fifty years of demoralizing experience with the U.N., however, we have no excuse for thinking the U.N. can offer much help in securing that better future.