Tuesday, October 20, 2020
October 20, 2020: UN Histories: World War II
[October 24th will mark the 75th anniversary of the official establishment of the United Nations. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five histories connected to the UN, leading up to a weekend post on global interconnectedness in 2020.]
On why it’s important, and challenging, to remember the UN’s wartime origins.
I imagine just about everybody with a sense of history understands that the United Nations was created in the immediate aftermath of, and thus directly due to, World War II. Yet far less well known, I would argue, are the UN’s earlier origin points, the two crucial wartime moments that produced this next international organization. Both followed almost immediately upon the US’s official entrance into the war: in late December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill worked together to draft a “Declaration by United Nations”; and just a short time later, on New Year’s Day 1942, Roosevelt, Churchill, and the leaders of the USSR and China signed what came to be known as the United Nations Declaration, with representatives from 22 other world leaders adding their signatures in the days that followed. While the organization would not be formally established until the war’s end, it was these wartime moments that set the process in motion.
While of course it’s important to remember these histories accurately for their own sake, doing so also helps us differentiate the origins of the United Nations from those of the League of Nations (about which I wrote in yesterday’s post) in two meaningful ways. First, while the League was formed as part of a contentious peace process, and thus seemed to some observers to be punishing particular nations and rewarding others based on the Great War’s enmities and outcomes, the idea for the United Nations originated in the horrors and exigencies of war; indeed, that initial 1942 UN Declaration overtly prohibited signatories from making their own peace and bound these global allies together. Which is to say, while the League’s creation arguably and ironically amplified international divisions and separations, the UN’s Declaration responded to existing such divisions (reflected in an ongoing war) by constructing instead a vision of global unity and shared effort. The new organization’s name itself exemplified that emphasis on global unity, on a mutual recognition of the interdependence that bound together even seemingly opposed nations such as the US and the USSR.
At the same time, there was an irony within this wartime origin point for the UN. That is, not only was the new organization not overtly framed (as had been the League) as seeking to achieve to international peace, but in fact a prominent element of the 1942 Declaration was the signatories’ pledge to put forth “maximum war effort.” That may have been an understandable and necessary element in the heat of World War II, but as the UN has transitioned into its full postwar existence and mission, and especially into the emphases on global peacekeeping about which I’ll write more later in the week, the challenge of wedding that mission to the organization’s origins has persisted. To cite one prominent component of that challenge, the five permanent members of the UN’s Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) are drawn directly from those nations that signed the 1942 Declaration (along with France, which was occupied at the time but closely tied to the UK in its resistance to the Nazis), and quite purposefully do not include any of the war’s Axis nations (Germany, Italy, Japan). That choice does not necessarily lead to any particular actions or outcomes, but it certainly reflects the complex legacies of the UN’s wartime origins into its ongoing existence and identity, legacies we can better consider if we remember when and why the UN was created.
Next UN history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?