Prewar and wartime postwar planning: antecedents to the UN moment in San Francisco, 1945

1   Prewar and wartime postwar planning

Antecedents to the UN moment in San Francisco, 1945

Rofe, J. Simon1

“Fortunately, there is always liberty to dream, even if the result is nothing but dreams.”2 Then US assistant secretary of state Adolf Berle uttered these words in the spring of 1940 when contemplating the future of an “international organization.” The international organization about which Berle spoke with his colleagues in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State Department would become the United Nations Organization (UNO) at the San Francisco conference of April 1945, although it was by no means pre-ordained during the course of World War II. Berle’s remarks were part of a broad-ranging, complex, and often heated discourse surrounding the shape of the postwar world and the place of an international organization within it.

Importantly, these discussions were not isolated to the chief executives of the United Nations’ main protagonists—the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill at their wartime summits. Instead, as indicated in the opening words of this chapter, it was at the operational level—what Erik Goldstein has called the “marzipan” level—that the full breadth of the discourse about a future international organization becomes evident. The most complete records are to be found in the US and UK archives, particularly the former, as seen in the conceptual discussions of the US State Department in the late 1930s and early 1940s.3 Of course, discussions of the postwar world were not limited to the State Department; the huge expansion of the federal government during World War II meant that other facets of Washington’s bureaucracy, such as the War and Treasury departments, were intimately involved in planning for the postwar world. Furthermore, opinion from nongovernmental organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, and other governments, particularly those with experience in the League of Nations, were considered. Their views are also included in this historical examination of the UNO’s emergence.

The chapter explores the discussions on international organization that preceded the world organization’s creation, not only at San Francisco in April 1945, but also before the 1 January 1942 Declaration by United Nations. It begins by looking at the genealogy of international organization through the Progressive era and World War I, and into the interwar period, providing a critical reading of the interwar legacy of the League of Nations to the United Nations itself. Central is the influence of the Woodrow Wilson administration, the Versailles conference, and the birth of the League of Nations. Particularly, they shaped the educational and professional experiences of a generation of diplomats who would find themselves deliberating about a postwar world by 1939.

Then this chapter looks at the period between 1937 and 1943 as the world accelerated into global war. This period was critical in illustrating the importance of preparing for the postwar world in political and economic dimensions while the war was being fought by an increasing number of protagonists. The failings of the League to prevent conflict were laid bare, before the Declaration by United Nations would emphasize the Alliance’s dual war aims. Before then, the challenge was how to reconcile the future parameters of an international organization against immediate security threats: a dilemma that has confronted the call for reform at the United Nations ever since.

The chapter concludes that the legacy bequeathed to the United Nations by statesmen and diplomats before Pearl Harbor has been overlooked and requires repositioning in our understanding of the UNO that resulted from San Francisco. Only by understanding the breadth and depth of the debate of this previous era can the eventual shape of the United Nations as it unfolded be fully understood, and hence its position in the twenty-first century. A parallel story can be told of the creation of the Allied Supreme War Council in the closing stages of the Great War on the Allied military interest in formalized cooperation after 1939. The debates about an international organization during the latter part of World War II are well documented, but to understand the link between them and the implications for the immediate postwar world and beyond, it is salient to consider the words of one of the League’s architects, Robert Cecil, at that institution’s final meeting in 1946: “The League is dead. Long live the United Nations.”4

The antecedents of international organization

The planned international organization that emerged from the Dumbarton Oaks conversations in late summer 1944, and which would go on to become the United Nations Organization the following year, had long-term antecedents. Predating the nation-state’s recognized birth date in 1648 in the Treaty of Westphalia, bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church through the Holy Roman Empire operated in a fashion that we now recognize as being analogous to an international organization. The mid-nineteenth century saw the founding in 1865 of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which sought to establish universal standards of medical care for wounded combatants. The ICRC, along with the Universal Postal Union founded in 1874, brought international levels of cooperation in an alternative realm to the Concert of Europe, which itself was important in “innovating international affairs.” Mark Mazower continues that influenced by the likes of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who held “that humanity not only possessed reason but would ultimately be guided by it,” the Progressive movement of the end of the nineteenth century believed in the human race’s capacity to organize itself to trade peacefully and to arbitrate conflicts.5 These ideas, the latter discussed at the Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907, were widespread in the Anglosphere and in the empires they governed around the world.6 Although contested by disaffected groups within Western society, the inevitable “triumph” of progress would be challenged by the catastrophe of the Great War that blighted these same societies. Remarkable in many ways, the pervasiveness of the concept of an organized international framework transcended the carnage of World War I and endured.

The clearest evidence of the concept of an international organization becoming manifest was seen in US president Woodrow Wilson’s January 1918 address to a joint session of the US Congress. Coming as the final point of his “14 points,” Wilson called for “A general association of nations” to be formed “under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.”7 His address drew upon the endeavors of the “Inquiry” that his proto-national security adviser, Colonel Edward House, had initiated in the autumn of 1917. House called upon a then 28-year-old Walter Lippmann to coordinate leading scholars in an effort to provide guidance to the pressing dilemmas of international affairs. Within the inquiry’s discussions, the prospect of an international organization was prominent, and although debate exists as to how far Wilson listened, there is a self-evident link to the “general association of nations” that the president espoused in 1918. The inquiry was the foundation for the Council on Foreign Relations, which came into existence in July 1921—a link between the interwar period, the deliberations that ended with the United Nations, and postwar international affairs.8

With the end of the Great War in November 1918, the 14 Points were the Allies’ only publicly stated war aims. When the peace conference began in Paris in 1919, many, including the defeated Germans, expected them to form the basis of the peace agreement. The tale of Wilson’s feted arrival in Europe and the “old” diplomacy of Versailles have been told elsewhere. Suffice to say that it was no little achievement for the American president to secure the agreement of the European, née global, powers to the establishment of a League of Nations by the Treaty of Versailles.

The League, which met for the first time in November 1920 in Geneva, with 54 members signing its Covenant, began its work with a near universal sense of hope and good will. That its hopes would not be fulfilled is a story that need not be retold. What is significant here is the legacy that those debating a future international organization drew from their experience of the League of Nations.

The genealogy of the United Nations can be identified in at least two key areas. First, the League bequeathed to World War II policymakers a blueprint for issues that would face a future international organization in the postwar world. There is a remarkable similarity to the issues that the League actually addressed in the 1920s and 1930s—for example, repatriation of refugees, freedom of trade, regional security, minority rights, and disarmament—to be tackled on the basis of collective security.9 Inis L. Claude’s seminal text points to the link between international organization and the concept of collective security: “If the movement for international organization in the twentieth century can be said to have a preoccupation, a dominant purpose, a supreme ideal, it is clear that the achievement of collective security answers that description.”10 The League and the United Nations grappled with this concept, and the continuities did not end there. Striking similarities can be found in the solutions being proffered in engaging with these issues in the interwar years and by the planners of the post-1945 international order, to the extent that Mark Mazower argues that “the truth is that the UN was in many ways a continuation of the earlier body.”11

The League itself provided a platform for its own evolution better to meet the requirements of managing international affairs. These suggested “reforms”—a term without its late twentieth-century baggage—were based on the reflective qualities to the League’s Geneva-based secretariat. Patricia Clavin’s Securing the World Economy reveals how the League was able to exert a new and material influence in economic and financial affairs in the interwar years providing substance for her subtitle, The Reinvention of the League of Nations 1920–1946. Furthermore, the League provided a stage for debate about the shape of an international organization in international affairs—a “multiverse,” as she describes it. The League of Nations, she writes, “became a site where a plurality of views about global and regional coordination and cooperation were generated, and where they could be compared and could compete.”12

At the time Joseph Avenol became the League’s second secretary-general in the summer of 1934, and in the face of the failures of the World Disarmament Conference, the London Economic Conference, and the challenges arising from totalitarian regimes, a series of discussions on the League’s structure and performance were formalized in an eponymous report. The essential tenor of Avenol’s recommendations was to separate the “technical” and “humanitarian” issues from those of a “security” and “political” variety. Avenol did not make this distinction dogmatically by ignoring the implications of one upon the other—he had previously been deputy secretary-general from 1923 to 1933—but did so in order to advance the League’s efforts to alleviate the plight of humanity by addressing “social and economic” issues. An experiential reading of the League in the mid-1930s could point to a notable body of work across a “myriad of programs concerned with relief and resettlement of refugees, commerce, health, transit and communications, finance, the Opium trade, prostitution, child welfare, and intellectual cooperation.”13 As Roosevelt himself said in the 1920s, the League had become “the principal agency for the settlement of international controversy, for the constructive administration of many duties which are primarily international in scope, and for the correction of abuses that have been all too common in our civilization.”14

The second legacy of the League and the interwar period bequeathed to the United Nations was the involvement of the United States with the cause of a postwar international organization: the vision of the postwar world was quintessentially American, according to Michael Howard.15 Here, this author disagrees with Mazower’s suggestion that US centrality to the founding of the United Nations is an “optical illusion.”16 Famously absent from the official membership of the League of Nations, the United States became increasingly involved in the workings of the League in Geneva during the interwar period. As a small example, by 1938, New Deal veteran and future US ambassador to the United Kingdom John G. Winant would be elected head of the International Labour Organization (itself unique within the UN system as a direct carry-over from the League era).17 Before practical and institutional links were manifest, the idea of an international organization, and the US relationship with it, were intertwined at the culmination of the Great War in the shape of Wilson.

From the outset of that conflict “America’s mission centered on neutrality and mediation, not preparation for war,” Justus Doenecke writes, with the president desiring to “serve as the world’s peacemaker.”18 Upon returning from Paris in the summer of 1919, Wilson’s adherence to the League of Nations—which ultimately drove him to tour the United States pleading its case and the subsequent breakdown of his health—blended the cause of an international organization with US domestic politics. This would have repercussions for the fate of the League in 1919 and 1920 as the Senate rejected US membership and then the Democratic ticket lost the 1920 election; however, they also form a backdrop 20 years later for those debating the merits of US involvement in international affairs.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of World War I on the American body politic. While sheltered from the war’s immediate ravages, the collective narrative of “returning home” built in an added poignancy as tales were retold, and memories waned. For the American people, as Michael Carew states, “The First World War was their most immediate reference point in relation to American foreign and defense policy.”19 Importantly, and underpinning the overly simplified debates about isolationism and internationalism, the war and the international organization that followed provided first-hand experience for those Americans who came together to deliberate the shape of what became the United Nations.20 Clavin’s account of the League’s wartime home in Princeton from 1940 points to the number of Americans with League experience in the halls of officialdom. Alongside the number of veterans who had served in the conflict itself, both the League and the war were not easily overlooked by the 1940s.21

The significance of the earlier period on the future shape of the United Nations alliance and the subsequent organization on one protagonist in particular is noteworthy. Long before Roosevelt led the United States as a wartime leader, he stated “I have seen war” and “I hate war.”22 His experience of the Great War as assistant secretary of the navy, on visiting Europe, and being present at Versailles, and in the vehemence of the debates about the League as part of the 1920 election, would be formative in Roosevelt’s understanding of affairs beyond US borders. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., attributes a great deal of the global perspective that Roosevelt exhibited during World War II to his tenure as assistant secretary of the navy, during which he “learned the strategic necessities of international relations. He learned how to distinguish between vital and peripheral interests.”23

As Roosevelt contemplated re-entering public life after his health travails of the early 1920s, his appreciation of the “global” was evident in a 1928 article in Foreign Affairs. Outlining the Democratic Party’s position, he argued that the United States “should cooperate with the League as the first great agency for the maintenance of peace and for the solution of common problems ever known to civilization, and, without entering into European politics, we should take an active, hearty and official part in all those proceedings which bear on the general good of mankind.”24 This passage provides insight into Roosevelt’s attitude toward a multifaceted international organization, mindful of domestic political pressures that would also come to bear during his presidency. Importantly, for its later implications on debates surrounding the United Nations and spheres of influence, was the article’s approach toward the Western hemisphere. Roosevelt stated that US policy toward Latin America should be “aimed not only at self-protection but, in a larger sense, at continental peace.” Such sentiment carries the hallmarks of what became Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy and would be exhibited in the agreement on Principles of Inter-American Solidarity and Cooperation, at Buenos Aires in December 1936. The passage on Latin America was drafted by Franklin’s close confidant Sumner Welles, an expert in Latin American affairs who would go on to become under secretary of state in 1937 and a key foreign postwar planner after that.25 By the time that the Roosevelt administration was contemplating the United Nations Organization after Pearl Harbor, the Good Neighbor precedent of the United States as a strong international citizen working in conjunction with a concert of other countries was important in discussions of a postwar world in relation to the idea of “sphere of influence,” given the term’s “strong pejorative connotation.” As Susan Hast notes, although “as a foreign policy tool [sphere of influence became] morally unacceptable, representing injustice,”26

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