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Looking for the Sheriff

Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report

by the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, 257 pp.


In 1942, only a few months after the United States had entered World War II, as Hitler plunged deeper into Russia and Japan was advancing victoriously throughout the Pacific, President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and his deputy, Sumner Welles, along with many politicians, journalists, and academics, were already involved in a debate on postwar arrangements. Many of the proposals were far-reaching, even revolutionary. In no other country did the shock of war create such a response at a time when the Nazis and the Japanese were still clearly winning. Such activities contrast strikingly with the negativism and lack of verve that now, in our peaceful time, characterize the discussion, when there is any, of international organization for the future.

At the end of the war, apart from the usual xenophobes and isolationists, relatively few voices questioned the need for the new international system. On the contrary, there was a tendency to oversell it and to create unrealistic hopes for its effectiveness. Thus when the cold war—along with the usual tendency of sovereign states to quarrel and resort to violence—shattered the dream of a more rational world, public disillusion and hostility to the UN grew all the fiercer. In fact, the UN has never quite recovered from its failure to live up to its advance notices.

Already in 1942 there were warning voices. Professor Nicholas Spykman of Yale wrote that “plans for far-reaching changes in the character of international society are an intellectual by-product of all great wars,” but they have never altered “the fundamental power patterns.” Spykman predicted that the new postwar order would remain “a world of power politics in which the interest of the United States will continue to demand the preservation of a balance of power in Europe and Asia.”1

How right he was. “Fundamental power patterns” and “power politics” have dominated the international scene and, virtually since its inception, have greatly limited the anticipated role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security. The work and the thinking of Franklin Roosevelt and his administration in setting up the UN have therefore attracted relatively little attention. In FDR and the Creation of the UN Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley give a fascinating account of those efforts, one that is of particular interest today when the role of the United States, the “single surviving superpower,” in international affairs and at the UN is a matter of paramount importance.


Since the birth of the League of Nations in 1919, a residual isolationism in the United States has periodically inhibited the struggle to build even a minimally effective world organization. Franklin Roosevelt knew well that he needed political support to confront isolationist opinion. In 1941, for example, with Winston Churchill on the cruiser Augusta in Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, for the signing of the Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt deleted the phrase “effective international organization” from the text in deference to the still dominant isolationist mood in the Congress, even though the substance of the Charter broke with isolationism.

As the war dragged on and the outlook for the allies began to brighten, the nation gradually swung to internationalism. In Washington the powerful senators Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Tom Connally of Texas were converted to the idea that there should be some sort of international organization after the war. From what amounted to a running debate between Roosevelt and Churchill, the shape of the future international configuration of power began to emerge, and soon enough discussions began with the Soviet Union, China, and other countries. Roosevelt’s concept of a world organization was not idealistic. It was a pragmatic system based on the primacy of the strong—a “trusteeship of the powerful,” as he then called it, or, as he put it later, “the Four Policemen.” The concept was, as Vandenberg noted in his diary in April 1944, “anything but a wild-eyed internationalist dream of a world state…. It is based virtually on a four-power alliance.” Eventually this proved to be both the potential strength and the actual weakness of the future UN, an organization theoretically based on a concert of great powers whose own mutual hostility, as it turned out, was itself the greatest potential threat to world peace.

Roosevelt was determined to secure the plans for the future international order before peacetime public opinion in the United States reverted to isolationism, as he was convinced it would. For this reason he insisted that the San Francisco Conference on the United Nations, which he did not live to attend, be held before the end of the war. He also had to resolve the constitutional question of United States commitment which, twenty-five years earlier, had bedeviled Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to take the United States into the League of Nations. Article 10 of the League Covenant imposed on its members the obligation to “preserve against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all members of the league.” But could the president order American troops into action under a collective security agreement without congressional concurrence? This question, combined with dislike of an arrangement which might soon again involve the United States in a war far from home, was the main obstacle on which Wilson’s fight to bring the United States into the League foundered in the Senate.

So, in 1944, the question was: Could the future UN Security Council order American troops into battle in defense of international peace and security? The American veto in the Security Council would ensure that this could not happen if the president objected, but if he agreed to US involvement, would specific congressional authorization—by no means a sure thing—also be required? Or did the UN Charter supersede the US Constitution?

Hoopes and Brinkley describe how the United Nations Participation Act of 1945 got around this problem. The act authorized the United States to commit limited forces through agreements previously approved by Congress, as provided for in Article 43 of the Charter, which states that governments will make forces available to the Security Council under special agreements. If larger forces were required, the president would have to get a further authorization from the Congress. 2

During the 1944 election, before the candidates tacitly agreed to keep the issue of future international organization out of the debate, Roosevelt was attacked for his alleged willingness to surrender US sovereignty to the UN as well as for promoting “Four-Power imperialism,” as Thomas Dewey charged. The New York Times, on the other hand, reluctantly endorsed FDR because of his clear commitment to a strong United Nations. Roosevelt’s victory was, among other things, a mandate for US participation in the new world organization and a rejection of isolationism. In July 1945 the Senate ratified the UN Charter by eighty-nine votes to two, the two Senators in opposition, William Langer of North Dakota and Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota, denouncing the UN as an “unlawful superstate.”


Roosevelt’s postwar planners did not anticipate the forty-year cold war; nor was it reflected in the process which culminated in the signing of the UN Charter by fifty nations in San Francisco in June 1945. It soon became clear, however, that the very basis of the Charter, the wartime alliance (the “Four Policemen”), and the unanimity of the five permanent members of the Security Council was already becoming obsolete. In fact, the first complaint before the Council, in March 1946, concerned the failure of the Soviet Union to evacuate its troops from Iran. It was quickly followed by Soviet counteraccusations against the European colonial powers. All too soon the Council became an East-West battleground.

An Olympian Security Council, carrying on where the victorious wartime alliance left off, quickly proved to be a dream. From the start the United Nations, as Stanley Meisler shows in his recent book, had to operate pragmatically on political assumptions very different from those envisaged by its founders.

The Charter turned out to be a surprisingly practical document. While setting forth principles and aims for international cooperation, it also provided for a number of ways in which the UN could serve in an emergency as a forum of last resort, as a face-saver, and, if necessary, as a scapegoat. Such functions proved to be essential on many occasions during the cold war, whether in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Cuba, Africa, or the subcontinent. The organization’s contribution as a catalyst for major global issues also turned out to be greater than originally expected. Decolonization, human rights, women’s rights, economic development, protection of the environment, and the problem of population—these are only a few of the issues that the UN has brought to international attention. Meisler rightly says, “It could boast a distinguished and action-packed history,” even if it was not what the founders had in mind.

In 1946 the United States was the most powerful country on earth, the sole nuclear power, as well as the instigator and main executor of an enormous effort, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to put the war-shattered world back together. Despite the frustrations of the incipient cold war, the US continued to try to make the world organization work in accordance with the Charter, and it was undoubtedly the one government that was indispensable to making it work at all. The UN also served the United States as a means of sharing responsibility in handling controversial questions such as the future of Palestine, and in giving US foreign policy the stamp of international approval.

When the British dumped the Palestine question on the UN in 1947, the United States was adamant that it should be dealt with through the General Assembly and the Security Council and later on strongly supported the work of the UN mediator in Palestine. The first mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, negotiated the ceasefire in the first Arab-Israeli war, and after he was assassinated by the Stern Gang, his successor, Ralph Bunche, negotiated the armistice agreements between Israel and her Arab neighbors. However, the mediator’s detailed plan for an overall settlement of the Palestine question based on the General Assembly’s 1947 partition resolution never came near to acceptance.

In 1950 President Truman had better luck. He adroitly exploited the Soviets’ absence from the Security Council—in protest against the UN’s exclusion of Communist China—to secure UN authorization for forceful resistance under United States leadership to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. In 1956 President Eisenhower opposed the Anglo-French-Israeli Suez expedition as a violation of the UN Charter and later insisted on the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai as a matter of principle under the Charter. In 1958 Eisenhower used a UN military observer group as the pretext for withdrawing the ill-advised US landing in Lebanon. When, in 1960, the newly independent government of the Congo appealed for US military intervention to expel the Belgian forces that had returned in response to the violence that followed independence, Eisenhower was able to stand aside and refer its leaders to the UN.

  1. 1

    From America’s Strategy in World Politics, quoted in Hoopes and Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the UN, p. 56.

  2. 2

    For a discussion of the constitutional issue, see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Back to the Womb?” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1995, pp. 4-5. Article 43 had been the US and British an-swer to the Soviet proposal of an integrated world police force—a concept that would have given the UN an unacceptable degree of supranational authority. Later on the cold war froze Article 43, which has never been implemented.

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