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The hidden history of the United Nations

About the author

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

The history told about the defeat of Nazism and the founding of the United Nations in the 1940s has become distorted. A false view of the past is being used today to shape how we think about our future. The military power of the victorious wartime allies is offered as a model for running the world, while the UN’s supposed utopianism is seen as ineffective and irrelevant.

This is a travesty of the facts (see the boxed timeline). We are taught that the UN began with the signing of the Charter in 1945. In fact, that agreement was the culmination of a complex military and political effort that began in 1941. Understanding the UN’s wartime origins provides a powerful and much-needed reminder that the UN is not some liberal accessory but was created out of hard, realistic political necessity.

The historical records show how Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt created the United Nations to win the war both militarily and politically, and to create the foundations for a lasting peace. Their first expression of Anglo-American policy was in the Atlantic Charter of 1941; this included freedom from want, social security, labour rights and disarmament as well as self-determination, free trade and freedom of religion. Churchill himself remarked during the height of the fighting in 1944 that the “United Nations is the only hope of the world”.

In the documentary records of the war years, countless references demonstrate the UN’s origin as a strategic engine of victory in the second world war. The document that formalised the Nazi defeat in the war includes the words: “This Act of Military Surrender is without prejudice to, and will be superseded by, any general instrument of surrender imposed by, or on behalf of, the United Nations on Germany…” President Truman broadcast on 8 May that: “General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations”.

These references may seem odd today. But at the time, it was normal to talk about the United Nations fighting the war. Major George B Woods, chaplain to a “band of brothers” in the 82nd Airborne Division, gave an address for the burial of the dead at Wobbelin concentration camp. He explained that “these crimes were never clearly brought to light until the armies of the United Nations overran Germany”.

A real coalition

The “United Nations” had been the official name for the coalition fighting the axis powers since January 1942, when Roosevelt and Churchill had led twenty-six nations, including the Soviet Union and China, in a “Declaration by United Nations”.

The declaration committed the twenty-six not to cut separate peace deals with the Nazis and to subscribe to the principles of the Atlantic Charter for the post-war world. The Charter provided the political basis for countering Nazi ideology; it caught the imagination of people around the world, including the young Nelson Mandela and other anti-colonial activists.

The United Nations was a real entity, not a spin-doctored slogan offering a gullible public the promise of world peace at the end of the war. The allies fought the war as the United Nations and created organisations in its name and on its foundation. The British Library holds scores of wartime publications by or about the United Nations. It was celebrated in music, prayer and exhibitions. Anthologies were published of the exploits of “Heroes of the United Nations”.

In Europe, General Eisenhower accepted the surrender of Fascist Italy in September 1943, declaring: “Hostilities between the armed forces of the United Nations and those of Italy terminate at once. All Italians who now act to help eject the German aggressor from Italian soil will have the assistance and the support of the United Nations.” He was soon sent to Britain to begin planning for D-Day. His orders told him to do so in “conjunction with the other United Nations”.

Eisenhower’s broadcast to the troops aboard their landing craft reminded them that “the United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man”. Even the unit shoulder-patch of his Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force included a light blue band representing the peace offered to the enslaved peoples of Europe by the United Nations.

United Nations political bodies were also created during the war. Their work can still be found in the records of the wartime organisations and the earliest archives of the post-war UN. In 1942, United Nations information boards with offices and organisations were established in New York and London, producing documents on Nazi atrocities and publicity about the Allied war effort and plans for the peace. The New York office’s mail was franked with the slogan “United Nations: in War and Peace.”

In 1943, the United Nations War Crimes Commission and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration were created. By 1944, planning for the post-war had gathered momentum and United Nations conferences were organised at Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods to tackle the financial and political issues.

A Times headline reported that the economist John Maynard Keynes was flying to America to create a “United Nations Bank”. This is just one example of thousands of wartime references to the United Nations in the pages of the Times that are now available through its digital archive.

In 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organisation opened in San Francisco, which the United States postal service marked with a stamp and special commemorative envelopes.

A lost history

Today, the United Nations is all too often regarded as an unnecessary bauble attached to the allied victory. At the time, the UN organisation created in San Francisco was regarded as the grand culmination of the war effort.

George W Bush and Tony Blair seek to persuade their citizens that other nations are just too intransigent to deal with in their campaign to make the world free and safe. They would have us believe that Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac are tougher customers than Joseph Stalin and Charles De Gaulle.

Roosevelt and Churchill had both experienced the first world war and seen the failure of the League of Nations. They did not respond to fascism with a doctrine of pre-emptive war and totalitarian neo-liberalism. Quite the opposite: just three weeks after the surprise attack upon Pearl Harbour, they set about creating an agenda that, in modern terms, is left-wing social democracy. In doing so, they knew that hard bargaining and unpleasant compromise might be necessary. They understood that cooperation was essential to survival: a lesson learnt even before the invention of the atomic bomb. Today, that lesson has almost been forgotten in America and Britain – though not elsewhere.

Reasserting the reality that the United Nations is a realist necessity rather than a liberal accessory becomes much easier once we remember that it was to the United Nations that the Nazis surrendered.

Why has this history been lost? I have no clear answer, but I can offer some suggestions. The new UN organisation wanted a clean start unencumbered by the wartime experience. The many new nations created as the British and French empires collapsed regarded the UN as a new organisation, whose wartime origins seemed of little relevance. Everyone knew the UN had been created out of the ashes of the war; there was no need to labour the point.

More importantly, the creation of images of competing evil empires in the cold war meant that neither right nor left wanted to remember that they fought the axis together. American conservatives in particular, who had opposed US involvement in the second world war and never supported the UN, have been keen to eradicate all reference to the Democrat Roosevelt’s work. Nowadays, journalists assigned to prepare anniversary coverage may come across the occasional reference to the United Nations and omit it as an oddity – or even a mistake.

In 2005, as the sixtieth anniversaries of the end of the second world war and the signing of the UN Charter are commemorated, rediscovering the role of the United Nations in war and peace is doubly crucial. It can reinforce the importance of the modern United Nations and strip away the spurious moral authority the present Anglo-American alliance tries to claim from the wartime experience.

The signing of the UN Charter in 1945: a timeline

The UN Charter, Article 3, records that the original members of the UN includes those states that had signed the “Declaration by United Nations” in Washington on 1 January 1942.

  • 14 August 1941: Churchill and Roosevelt issue the Atlantic Charter of political objectives for the post-war world. These include freedom from want, social security, labour rights, disarmament, self-determination, freedom of religion, free trade and a new international security system
  • 1 January 1942: Declaration by United Nations. Twenty-six nations agree to make no separate peace with the axis of Germany, Japan and Italy, and subscribe to the Atlantic Charter
  • 18 March 1942: General Douglas MacArthur takes command of United Nations forces in southwest Asia
  • 14 June 1942: United States flag day becomes United Nations flag day in the US, the British Empire and Commonwealth, and other states. A great parade at Buckingham Palace for United Nations Day
  • 1942: United Nations Information Board creates an organisation that opens offices in New York (and in London in 1943)
  • December 1942: United Nations statement about Nazi atrocities against Jews in Poland
  • 14 June 1943: United Nations flag day parades. US issues stamp of “Nations United” with “United Nations” first day covers
  • September 1943: Italy surrenders to General Dwight D Eisenhower acting for the United Nations
  • October 1943: United Nations War Crimes Commission created
  • November 1943: Council of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilation Administration meets in Atlantic City, US
  • 1944: United Nations conferences create World Bank and financial system at Bretton Woods, and set framework for new international organisation at Dumbarton Oaks
  • February 1944: Eisenhower ordered to liberate Europe with the other United Nations
  • 1944: Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania surrender, agreeing to stop aggression against United Nations; Soviet generals accept their surrenders on behalf of the United Nations
  • 1944: world leaders (Dwight D Eisenhower, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill) make speeches and broadcasts describing the victories and great armies of the United Nations
  • April 1945: United Nations conference on international organisation opens in San Francisco; US issues commemorative stamp
  • May 1945: Nazis surrender and accept the authority of the United Nations over Germany in Article IV of the surrender document
  • 26 June1945: United Nations Charter signed; enters into force 24 October.


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