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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

October 21, 2015: UN Histories: Muir Woods

[October 24th will mark the 70th anniversary of the official establishment of the United Nations. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories connect to the UN, leading up to a weekend post on the worst and best of the US’s relationship to the organization.]
On a potent symbolic expression of memory and community.
In this post on the histories and meanings of Northern California’s Muir Woods National Monument, I highlighted a unique and striking May 19th, 1945 ceremony. On that spring day representatives from 50 nations, in the midst of the meetings in San Francisco that would produce the United Nations Charter, traveled to the woods to commemorate Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the histories and ideas that had led them and the world to this moment and the new organization it would create. Roosevelt, who had died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage just over a month before the ceremony (on April 12th), had proposed (inspired by his visionary, activist Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes) that the conference as a whole take place at Muir Woods. While that did not end up being the case, the May 19th ceremony in the woods represented a clear way for the group to honor Roosevelt’s vision, one cemented by their placing of a commemorative plaque at the site’s sacred Cathedral Grove in tribute to the fallen president and world leader.
The plaque and tribute bring into stark focus the contrasts between Roosevelt’s role in the origins of and support for the United Nations and those of Woodrow Wilson for the League of Nations. There were of course numerous factors and histories that contributed to those contrasts, and it’s neither fair nor productive to compare the two presidents and moments (or the two world wars, for that matter) as if they existed in a vacuum or on a level playing field. Yet without using the contrast to judge or blame Wilson, necessarily, it is nonetheless instructive to note Roosevelt’s far more consistent and successful connection to and advocacy for the international organization he had helped found. Indeed, while we might criticize the level of individual influence wielded by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the UN’s origins, there can be little doubt that without those two leading figures, and the ways in which they pushed their fellow Allied leaders to sign and support the 1942 UN Declaration, the idea for the UN might never have survived the subsequent years of war. For those and many other reasons, the May 1945 ceremony and plaque rightly remembered and celebrated Roosevelt’s foundational and vital role in the UN’s development.
The Muir Woods ceremony did more than just remember a fallen leader, however. It also captured two distinct but interconnected elements of an ideal global community, both reflected in Harold Ickes’s initial argument for holding the UN conference at the woods: “Not only would this focus attention upon the nation’s interest in preserving these mighty trees for posterity, but in such a ‘temple of peace’ the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere better than in such a forest.” The first clause of Ickes’s inspiring sentence highlights the global environmental advocacy toward which the UN would move over the next half-century; such environmentalism was of course not a focus of the organization’s wartime efforts, but could and did become an important ongoing emphasis for such a groundbreaking international entity. And Ickes’s second clause reflects the idea of a long view of global history and community, one that does not focus simply on specific conflicts or issues but also seeks to move beyond them and toward the kind of overarching understanding of humanity and the world on which the survival of both those entities ultimately depends. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” Muir himself argued—an idea expressed nicely by this symbolic and significant 1945 ceremony.
Next UN history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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