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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.