In April 1945, as the Allied forces poured into Germany, Franklin Roosevelt’s dream of an international security organization, conceived in the heat of war, was about to become a reality. The arrangements for the San Francisco Conference were nearly complete, and the poet Archibald MacLeish had started work on the President’s opening speech. On April 12, thirteen days before the conference was to open, Roosevelt died. In the shadow of an immense and universal grief, his conference went ahead as planned. I remember that, to me, serving in Germany, it seemed a magic moment, a revival of hope, common sense, and the possibility of a decent future.
Inexplicably, for nearly sixty years there has been no readable history of this milestone in the search for a better way to run the world. Stephen Schlesinger’s Act of Creation goes a very long way toward providing one. His account of the birth of the United Nations describes in lively detail the personalities and the dramas that attended, and sometimes nearly aborted, the conference which, after nine weeks of unremitting labor, produced the United Nations Charter. His book also shows how uncertain this venture was, even at its creation. For those now earnestly searching for ways to revitalize the world organization, this book will provide some very useful background information.
Schlesinger shows how much the United Nations was the personal creation of Franklin Roosevelt, and how, to the day of his death, he kept the process moving and brought along his far less enthusiastic wartime allies, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Already in 1939 Roosevelt had instructed his then secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to set up a team in the State Department to work on postwar international security. From the start, a Russian-born economist, Leo Pasvolsky, was the mastermind of this work. This now forgotten hero remained the central figure in the development and drafting of the UN Charter until its final approval at San Francisco six years later. Pasvolsky’s determination to build a strong centralized world body rather than a regionalized one was immensely important to the ultimate design of the United Nations.
Roosevelt had attended the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference when the League of Nations was discussed only as one of the myriad problems of the peace settlement. With this depressing experience in mind, he insisted that the United Nations Charter should be the sole subject of a conference that would take place under United States auspices before the fighting stopped. “This time,” he told Congress,
we shall not make the mistake of waiting until the end of the war to set up the machinery of peace. This time, as we fight together to get the war over quickly, we work together to keep it from happening again….
Roosevelt took great pains to keep the United States Congress on his side. He also insisted that a major effort be made to win over the people of the United States before the Charter was to be considered by an international conference. To this end, he launched a nationwide public relations campaign that was headed by Archibald MacLeish and Adlai Stevenson, a brilliant young lawyer and public servant. Ironically, the success of this effort to sell the as yet unborn world organization to the American people—94 percent were estimated to be in favor of San Francisco—has sometimes been blamed for the eventual, perhaps inevitable, disillusionment with the less impressive reality of the United Nations.
The New York Times columnist Anne O’Hare McCormick, Roosevelt’s closest confidante among journalists, wrote that it was primarily because of the United Nations that he made “the hard, perhaps fatal, trip to Yalta….” Schlesinger quotes McCormick’s account of her last interview with Roosevelt:
He was looking to the inauguration of the San Francisco Confer- ence as the crowning act of his career…. He prepared it, set the time and place of the meeting, speeded up the preparations in the belief that it was supremely urgent…. All his hopes of success in life and immortality in history were set on getting an international security organization in motion.
Roosevelt had even mentioned to his inner circle that he would consider resigning the presidency when the war was over in order to become secretary-general of the United Nations.
Harry Truman was, in his own way, a no less fervent supporter of the future world organization. Schlesinger mentions that from his early days Truman had carried in his wallet the famous visionary verses from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall that culminate in the lines, “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer and the battle-flags were furl’d/In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World.” Truman’s first act as president was to confirm that the San Francisco Conference would go ahead as planned.
Roosevelt had personally appointed the United States delegation to San Francisco. It was headed by the secretary of state, Edward R. Stettinius, a former chairman of the board of US Steel, chairman of the War Resources Board, and later supervisor of Lend- Lease. As the opening date of the conference approached, a well-founded rumor circulated that Truman intended to replace Stettinius as secretary of state with Senator James F. Byrnes. After demanding reassurances of support from Truman, Stettinius took up his extremely challenging San Francisco assignment even though his future was in fact uncertain.
The delegation included the recently converted isolationist Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan; the humorous and cantankerous chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Tom Connally of Texas; Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, a strong internationalist; Adlai Stevenson; Nelson Rockefeller, who was to deal with Latin American questions; Averell Harriman with the Soviet Union, where he had been ambassador; and John Foster Dulles. These headstrong personalities, some with strong views of their own, had to be kept in line on day-to-day decisions on US policy as well as on the handling of the crises, large and small, that erupted during the conference. Truman, whom Stettinius consulted daily by telephone, was unfailingly supportive so long as both the Republican and Democratic members of the delegation were in agreement.
The backing of two parties in particular, the US Congress and the Soviet Union, was vital to the ultimate success of the conference. As president of the conference, Stettinius had also to preside over the daily meetings of the Big Five foreign ministers: France, Great Britain, the US, the USSR, and China. (France, thinking better of its original idea of leading the smaller nations, asked to become the fifth big power during the conference.) The Big Five had a veto over proposals coming before the conference and frequently disagreed among themselves. Vyacheslav Molotov, the dour and unpredictable foreign minister of the Soviet Union, required special handling. Other groups—the Latin Americans or the smaller states opposed to the veto—also demanded constant attention.
One of Schlesinger’s many important contributions is his reinstatement of Stettinius as a serious public figure. Washington tended to be prejudiced against Stettinius, who was seen as a rich outsider, superficial, inexperienced in international diplomacy, and generally maladroit. His achievements at San Francisco, as described in detail by Schlesinger, belie such criticism. Stettinius’s handling of the presidency of the conference was a major factor in its success. In the last days of the conference, he was informed that Byrnes would indeed replace him as secretary of state and that he would be offered the post of the first United States permanent representative to the UN. He served in this post in London and New York for only six months. An affable, always smiling, theatrically handsome man with snow-white hair, black eyebrows, and unnaturally white teeth, he treated his fellow ambassadors as honored guests and was generally well liked, if not widely respected. Once the news of his replacement as Truman’s secretary of state became public, his achievements at San Francisco were quickly forgotten. Stettinius died in 1949 at the age of fifty and was belatedly praised by Averell Harriman as “one of the most underrated Secretaries of State.”
For the foreign delegates at San Francisco, many of whom came directly from the wreck and squalor of war in their own countries, the sparkling beauty of the city itself and the conference’s vision of hope, peace, and a new beginning were dazzling. Schlesinger quotes Francis Williams, the British wartime controller of the press and censorship, who described coming “from blacked- out London into a fantastic world of glitter and light and extravagant parties and food and drink and constantly spiralling talk.” The United States assumed all costs of the meeting, including the travel of many of the delegates. Special trains brought some of them across the country from Washington; US military transport planes delivered others, including Molotov. (In an effort to ensure that nothing went wrong, the United States bugged the communications of forty-three of the forty-five original delegations.) There were 850 delegates, including 37 foreign ministers and 5 prime ministers; 1,000 members of the secretariat and 120 interpreters; and, dwarfing all other groups, 2,500 journalists.
Schlesinger quotes the remark of Arthur Krock of The New York Times that San Francisco was “the most over-reported of all international conferences.” John F. Kennedy, on his first journalistic assignment, was an accredited reporter, as were, more surprisingly, Lana Turner, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth. The most celebrated American journalists and commentators—and they were all there—played an important, and not always helpful, part in the proceedings. As Anne O’Hare McCormick put it,
finding it hard at best to drum up daily interest in a drafting job, especially in competition with a crashing drama of action in the war theaters, the reporters tend to exaggerate the tugs and pulls that are bound to develop in such meetings and to describe them in terms of real warfare as “victories” or “retreats.”
Krock and his colleague at the Times James Reston, who had better official sources than anyone else, persuaded Stettinius to appoint Adlai Stevenson to brief United States correspondents. “I’m the official leak,” Stevenson told them.
While his every action was dissected and publicly commented on in the national press, Stettinius had to deal with a series of political dilemmas, each of which could, theoretically, wreck the conference. He soon found out that the most sensitive discussions within his own delegation would invariably be leaked to Reston, complicating immeasurably his dealings with Molotov and Andrei Gromyko, and sometimes with other delegations as well. The most difficult problems were with Molotov. United States public opinion was still largely friendly to the Soviet Union, a wartime ally still fighting the Nazis and with twenty million dead. Commentators as different as Walter Lippmann and I.F. Stone were sensitive to any positions that appeared to take an unduly hard line with the So-viets. Harriman and Vandenberg, on the other hand, were more skeptical. Molotov himself was certainly aware of these differing perceptions and exploited them skillfully.