Even before the United States officially joined the war effort, in the early months of World War II U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull established a departmental planning group for the purpose of creating the UN. At a meeting off the Newfoundland coast in August 1941, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill included a broad proposal for an international security system in the Atlantic Charter, which was their declaration of overall war objectives.
On 1 January 1942, the governments of twenty-six nations fighting Germany, Italy, and Japan issued the Declaration by the United Nations affirming their alliance against the Axis powers and also stating their commitment to liberal war objectives, as set forth in the Atlantic Charter, and the restoration of the principles of international law. In 1943, both houses of the U.S. Congress also passed resolutions demanding the creation of a postwar international security organization in which, they implied, their own country should take the leading role that it had abdicated in the League of Nations. Meeting in Moscow in October 1943, foreign ministers of the four leading Allied powers—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—signed the Declaration of Four Nations on General Security, committing their nations in general terms to the creation of a postwar international organization.
More specific proposals came out of the Dumbarton Oaks Conference held in Washington, D.C., from August to October 1944 in which thirty-nine nations participated. These recommendations represented a compromise between the ideas of Roosevelt and other devotees of realpolitik—that agreement between the Big Four Allied powers, "the four policemen," must be the foundation of postwar international security—and more idealistic popular visions of a world in which all powers, great and small, enjoyed equal status and protection. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference agreed to create a bipartite UN modeled on the earlier League of Nations but reserving ultimate authority to the dominant Allied states. Any peace-loving state that was prepared to accept the terms of the UN Charter would be eligible to apply for membership. All member states would be represented in the UN General Assembly, which would debate, discuss, and vote on issues that came before it. Executive authority rested with the eleven-member UN Security Council, which would have five permanent members: Britain, France, the United States, Russia, and China. The remaining Security Council representatives were drawn from other UN states, all of which would serve two-year terms in rotation. Besides providing an international security mechanism, the UN was also expected to promote international cooperation on economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian issues.
At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allies—at Soviet insistence—agreed that each permanent Security Council member should enjoy veto power over all General Assembly decisions. The Soviet Union also obtained separate representation for Belorussia (Belarus) and Ukraine. The Yalta Conference further agreed on a UN trustee system to administer both former League of Nations mandatory territories—originally colonies taken from Germany and Turkey after World War I—and areas seized from the Axis powers when the current war ended.
The Yalta Conference formally invited all Allied and most neutral powers to attend a conference that would open in San Francisco on 25 April 1945 to establish the UN. Representatives of fifty-one nations attended this gathering, which ended on 25 July 1945, and hammered out the details of the UN Charter, which accorded smaller states slightly more authority than had the original Dumbarton Oaks proposals. The charter incorporated the International Labor Organization (ILO), established under the original 1919 League of Nations Covenant. To pursue its stated nonsecurity objectives, the charter also created the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), together with an eighteen-member Economic and Social Council, a Trusteeship Council, an International Court of Justice, and the UN Secretariat, which administered the organization. By the end of 1945, all fifty-one states represented at San Francisco had ratified the UN Charter. In 1946 the body held its first session in London and in 1947 moved permanently to the United States, where its headquarters was completed soon afterward in New York City.
So vast were the mandate and responsibilities of the UN that much regarding its future role remained open when it was founded in 1945. As is not uncommon with bureaucracies, additional agencies proliferated, and its structure gradually became more complex. As former colonies won independence and large states were sometimes partitioned into smaller units, by the end of the twentieth century the membership had expanded from the original 51 member states to close to 200. As the number of members soared, the Security Council grew from 11 to 15 members, and the Economic and Social Council rose first to 27 members and eventually to 54. By the mid-1990s, the UN system embraced fifteen specialized institutions, among them the ILO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank Group, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization (WHO); two semiautonomous affiliates, including the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA); fifteen specific organizations established by and responsible to the General Assembly; six functional commissions; five regional commissions; and seventy-five special committees. By the mid-1990s, more than 29,000 international civil servants worked for the UN in its New York headquarters and its subsidiary offices in Geneva and Vienna.
The UN soon became an arena for Cold War contests and disputes in which the major powers tested their strength, while third world nations came to see the UN as a forum where, given their growing numbers, the concerns of less-developed countries could be voiced and made effective, especially in the General Assembly, which was empowered to discuss all international questions of interest to members. In the Cold War context, the UN became a venue in which the Western and communist camps contended for power. Despite its stated security role, the organization proved remarkably unsuccessful in defusing the growing tensions that, during the second half of the 1940s, rapidly came to divide the former World War II Allies such that the Western powers of Britain, France, and the United States were soon fiercely at odds with the Soviet Union.
With UN endorsement, in 1948 the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) established a pro-Western and noncommunist government, while the communist Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) failed to win UN recognition. A much greater test of strength came after the communist takeover of Mainland China in October 1949, when the United States vetoed Soviet-backed efforts to transfer UN representation for China from the rejected Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) government—which still controlled the island of Taiwan—to Mao Zedong's new People's Republic of China (PRC). In protest against the veto, the Soviet delegation withdrew from the UN, a boycott that was maintained for several months. Only in 1970 did the PRC win UN membership and China's Security Council seat.
When the UN was founded, it was anticipated that peacekeeping and the restoration of international security and order, if necessary by military means, would be among its major functions. Under Article 43 of the UN's charter, member states were originally expected to agree to make specified military forces available to the UN for deployment under the organization's control, for use on occasions when military intervention was required to maintain or reestablish international peace and security. In practice, no nation signed any such agreement relinquishing control of any military forces to UN authority.
The Soviet boycott permitted the United States in June 1950 to win UN endorsement for military intervention in Korea after North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Subsequent Soviet attempts later that year to veto the continuation of UN intervention in Korea were blocked when the United States persuaded the General Assembly, where it possessed a majority, to pass the Uniting for Peace Resolution, allowing the assembly to recommend measures to member states to implement the restoration of international peace and security. The Korean War was the only occasion until the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War on which the UN itself intervened militarily to restore the status quo. In practice, the United States provided the bulk of troops involved, although other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, most notably Britain and Canada, provided substantial forces, as did Australia and New Zealand. The fact that the stalemated Korean War lasted for approximately three years, despite all UN efforts at mediation, illustrated the limitations of the peacekeeping functions of the organization.
Between 1945 and 1988 the UN did, however, undertake eleven limited peacekeeping operations, deploying an Emergency Force of troops—usually from states such as Canada, Colombia, Sweden, Norway, and Pakistan that were not permanent members of the Security Council—at the request and on the territory of at least one nation involved in a conflict or crisis in efforts to maintain peace. The first such occasion was the Suez Crisis of October 1956, when British, French, and Israeli forces attacked Egypt. The UN responded to a request from Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser by sending a contingent of 6,000 lightly armed personnel to oversee truce arrangements and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Although such arrangements were supposedly neutral, in practice the UN normally acted on the request of one party or the other in a dispute, and its forces often came to be identified with that side. When UN forces were dispatched to the Congo for several years in the early 1960s, they were soon perceived as working closely with Lieutenant General (and future president) Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko and against Prime Minister Moise Tshombe, a situation that soon led to increased casualties among UN forces.
Apart from such peacekeeping efforts, the UN responded to most international crises, such as the successive Arab-Israeli wars, with calls for cease-fires and truces and offers of mediation. After the failure to implement the Geneva Accords of 1954, which mandated the unification of Vietnam after nationwide elections, the UN refused to admit either the northern or southern Vietnamese states as members. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, successive UN secretary-generals nonetheless made repeated though unavailing efforts to negotiate a peace settlement in Vietnam. The UN verbally condemned the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the imposition of martial rule in Poland in 1981. Often, too, the UN embargoed the shipment of military equipment to states at war, although the effectiveness of such sanctions varied according to the willingness of member states to enforce them.
The UN General Assembly was the arena for some of the most significant pronouncements and dramatic confrontations of the Cold War. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his "Atoms for Peace" address before the assembly, calling for international cooperation to develop peaceful uses for nuclear energy. More tense occasions included those when the flamboyant Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev openly defied the Western powers, and U.S. representative Adlai Stevenson's challenge to his Soviet counterpart in October 1962 to confirm the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, UN Secretary-General U Thant offered to mediate a settlement, an offer that President John F. Kennedy might have accepted had his own efforts proved unsuccessful. More embarrassingly for the United States, during the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion attempt against Cuba in April 1961, Stevenson initially denied that his country was involved, a statement that he was later forced to retract. The UN generally encouraged all international efforts toward arms control and provided the arena for the negotiation of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and the 1992 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons.
The rapid increase in UN member-states during the 1950s and 1960s, largely the result of decolonization, brought growing numbers of African and Asian representatives to the General Assembly. In 1964, African, Asian, and Latin American nations formed the Group of Seventy-Seven, whose numbers eventually grew to 120 states from third world or developing nations and who frequently voted as a bloc and constituted more than a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly. Cuba, the bête noire of successive American presidents, took a prominent role in this grouping. The group's concerns focused primarily on economic issues (including the global distribution of wealth, resources, and power), the Arab-Israeli conflict, and South Africa rather than the Cold War per se. These concerns nonetheless frequently put them at odds with the United States, while the Soviet Union endorsed most Group of Seventy-Seven positions. It was largely at the group's instigation, for example, that the UN in 1970 expelled the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan), admitting the PRC in its place, and sought to impose international economic sanctions on countries such as Israel, Rhodesia (subsequently Zimbabwe), and South Africa that defied UN resolutions. Western moral authority within the UN was also affected by the revelation in the late 1970s that as a young man during World War II, the Austrian-born UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had belonged not just to the Nazi party but also to a military unit that had committed atrocities in Yugoslavia. No secretary-general since Waldheim has been of European origin.
Faced with declining influence in the UN and from the mid-1960s finding itself on the winning side less than 50 percent of the time in General Assembly votes, from the late 1960s onward the United States became decidedly less enthusiastic toward the organization. In the mid-1970s, U.S. representative to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan chose to adopt more confrontational tactics, aggressively putting forward his country's position and its commitment to the values of liberty and democracy. For the rest of the 1970s his successor, Andrew Young, nominated by President Jimmy Carter, was more conciliatory, but under President Ronald Reagan UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick once again adopted a confrontational stance, fiercely defending American values and the U.S. commitment to authoritarian but noncommunist regimes and assailing the communist position around the world. In Nicaragua, the United States not only supported the Contras who sought to undermine the left-wing Sandinista government but also defied the International Court of Justice by mining the harbor of Managua, the capital. In 1985, distaste for the organization's policies, outlook, and management led the United States to withdraw from UNESCO, an action that the United Kingdom and Singapore soon emulated. Even more significantly, citing financial mismanagement and inefficiency, in 1985 the United States, which normally contributed at least 25 percent of the UN's budget, declined to pay a substantial portion of its assessed contribution, a decision reversed only in the mid-1990s.
The announcement in 1988 by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev that his country intended to renounce the "use or threat of force" as an "instrument of foreign policy" and to cut dramatically its military forces in Eastern Europe marked the beginning of a new era for the UN. Initially skeptical, U.S. leaders gradually came to credit Gorbachev's good faith. The Soviet Union and the United States were no longer at odds in the Security Council, and the Group of Seventy-Seven could no more rely automatically on Soviet, or subsequently Russian, support. Between 1988 and 1994, the Security Council undertook twenty peacekeeping operations, while the UN helped to bring about a settlement of the Iran-Iraq War and to facilitate Soviet withdrawal from its lengthy and fruitless intervention in Afghanistan. The UN also encouraged negotiation by the Soviet Union and the United States of wide-ranging arms control agreements that, by the mid-1990s, had massively reduced the numbers of nuclear weapons each side deployed on its own soil and elsewhere.
Although less controversial and publicized than its efforts to maintain peace and resolve international conflicts, at all times many of the UN's energies were devoted to economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian efforts, including the eradication and prevention of disease, environmental and climatic issues, human rights, women's and children's rights, immigration, education, the care of refugees, and measures to combat such transnational problems as international dealings in human beings and the narcotics trade. The UN was perhaps most successful in promoting joint international action on humanitarian, economic, social, and environmental issues that transcended national boundaries and demanded concerted international action, such as food and hunger, health, trade policies, social justice, women's rights, pollution, and other ecological concerns. The ending of the Cold War facilitated UN endeavors to promote such objectives by removing some of the East-West barriers to their successful implementation.
Although sometimes derided as ineffective and handicapped in international crises by its reliance upon military forces contributed by member states, the UN often provided a valuable forum for the quiet exchange of views and the promotion of humanitarian and social goals. On occasion, it also conveniently furnished a useful alternative channel of communications among powers whose diplomatic relations were otherwise limited or even nonexistent. While never as effective in terms of resolving international conflicts as its founders envisaged, the UN proved considerably more successful than its predecessor, the League of Nations, in attracting and retaining as members most of the world's major as well as minor states, whose continuing membership implicitly bestowed authority and legitimacy upon the organization's statements and actions. Although often hampered by Cold War antagonisms, during the forty-five years from 1945 to 1990 the UN played a significant role in moderating Cold War tensions and defusing at least some international crises, providing an arena in which disputes could be nonviolently resolved.
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