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The UN's real history: a response to Dan Plesch

About the author
Tony Millett worked as a journalist for ITN and Channel 4 News. He has just completed a PhD at King's College London, and is a member of the KCL War Crimes Research Group.

Dan Plesch’s openDemocracy article “The hidden history of the United Nations” (April 2005) purports to underpin the role of the modern United Nations by citing its origin in the victorious wartime alliance against the Axis powers, so providing “a much-needed reminder that the UN is not some liberal accessory but was created out of hard, realistic necessity”. To do this Plesch proposes the erroneous view that the designation given during the war to the Allies – the “United Nations” – was the same thing as the United Nations Organisation forged during the Dumbarton Oaks talks in 1944 and sealed at the San Francisco conference in 1945.

Tony Millett worked as a journalist for ITN and Channel 4 News. He has just completed a PhD at King's College London, and is a member of the KCL War Crimes Research Group

Tony Millett is responding to Dan Plesch’s openDemocracy article, “The hidden history of the United Nations” (May 2005)

An edited version of Dan Plesch’s article was published in the Guardian: “How the UN won the war” (22 July 2005)

The article was expanded into a paper – “The United Nations role in World War II: How they Helped defeat Hitler” – presented by Dan Plesch at a conference of the Transatlantic Studies Association at Nottingham University, England

This is an ahistorical approach with a vengeance. A true understanding of the period requires distinguishing between the purely titular United Nations (1942-45) and the entity whose flag, humanitarian teams, blue helmets and secretary-general belong to the UN of today. To do so, this article uses the abbreviations U-N to designate the former and UNO for the latter.

The origins of the United Nations Declaration

It is clear that the UNO emerged from the steadily developing belief in human rights (a belief strengthened by Nazi crimes and given some support by the (Anglo-American) Atlantic Charter signed in August 1941, combined with the requirement for a more robust world organisation to guarantee peace more effectively than had the inter-war League of Nations. However, its main connection with the U-N (apart from the name) is that only non-Axis and non-neutral nations took part in the formation of the UNO, which is hardly surprisingly as the Axis had yet to be defeated, let alone accepted back into the international fold. And these non-Axis, non-neutral nations were sometimes termed during the war “the United Nations”.

If we are looking for roots we should go back to the “United Nations Declaration” (signed in Washington on 1 January 1942) – of which Dan Plesch makes so much play. Two points are relevant here:

  • the terms of the agreement did not have the full approval of the British war cabinet, but Franklin D Roosevelt wanted to maximise the symbolism of a ceremony on the first day of 1942 and there was no time to change it
  • when the declaration was signed by twenty-six plenipotentiaries it was simply termed a “Declaration” – the words “United Nations” were added after the signing; it was merely, in the words of the secretary to the war cabinet, “a declaration of common purpose”

What was the significance of those added words? The phrase was thought up by Roosevelt to solve a problem. Although the United States was at war with Japan and Germany, the use of the term “allies” would, in the words of the British foreign office, have “placed the president in constitutional difficulties”. Indeed the BBC was strongly advised not even to call the US an “ally” of Britain. So rather than call those countries in a state of war with the Axis “associated powers” (a term which FDR rightly deemed to be “flat”) he concocted the phrase “united nations”.

Plesch asserts that the U-N “was a real entity” when in fact it was a very clever rhetorical label for the Allies, a brilliantly spun figment for the propagandists’ armoury, a PR stunt to give an appearance of unity of purpose in the war against the Axis nations.

The declaration itself, while citing the principles of the Atlantic Charter, pledged signatories to employ their “full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact [the Axis] and its adherents with which such Government is at war”, and not to make separate “Armistice or Peace with the enemies”. But nations “which are or which may be rendering material assistance and contributions in the struggle for victory of Hitlerism” could adhere to the Declaration. This did not make it clear whether, as well as neutral nations, those countries which had broken off relations with the Axis nations but not declared war on them, were disbarred from joining the declaration.

Indeed the question of who could and could not subscribe to this declaration became a huge problem. Nine of the twenty-six original signatories were Latin American nations, client states of the US, who were acting out of pan-American solidarity. They made it clear they would not fight Germany, were deemed not to be “allies” of Britain, and so clearly fell into the U-N category.

Three days after the signing ceremony, the state department announced that “appropriate authorities which are not Governments” could also sign up. This was primarily to let the Free French into the club. But it opened the floodgates to all sorts of embarrassing applicants – among them separatist movements (the Basques and Catalans), competing factions of exiled nationals (for instance the Rumanian Democratic Committee and the Rumanian National Committee) and a New York Italian wanting to sign up “on behalf of many Italian citizens and the Italian Socialist Party”.

The declaration was an orchestrated demonstration of the strength of the anti-Axis world. It sought to solidify the opposition to the Axis powers into, in the secretary of state’s words, “the greatest common war effort in history”. In modern terms, it was a presentational exercise and, as Plesch has found, remarkably successful. The declaration was subordinate to the will of the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and China. But the U-N took no decisions. It could not do so. It existed in name only.

There was no secretariat, no funds, no headquarters, no leader, no flow-chart of responsibilities. It had no detailed charter of responsibilities, duties and rights. It had no standing in international law. (There is one foreign office document in which a clerk has written a list of those “Acceding” to the declaration. He had forgotten that you can only accede to fully-fledged treaties and conventions. His “Acceding” and “Date of Accession” are angrily scored through.) And the U-N certainly did not decide how the war was to be fought.

Words, not action

The U-N did not decide any military strategy or tactics during the latter part of the war. It could not have done so because it had no forum or agreed process through which to operate.

It is quite true that several Allied organisations were given the U-N label to provide some sort of indication that they mattered and were important to the war effort. Plesch makes great play of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (U-NWCC), established in October 1943, as an example of his version of the UN at work. Three points can be made in response:

  • the U-NWCC was originally called the Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes, and “assumed” its later name
  • the U-NWCC shows disunity amongst the Allies that the U-N label was meant to conceal: the Soviet Union did not become a member, several Allied nations were denied membership (largely by foreign office diktat), and one resigned from the commission in some disgust
  • the U-NWCC shows the necessity of dissimulation in time of total war: Eden gave the game away by saying the commission’s main purpose was to make it easier “to deal with pressure from the Allied Governments for reprisals” against Germany

This commission was designed as a talking-shop to keep the issue of reprisals, retribution and war crimes trials off the public agenda. Despite strenuous opposition and obstruction from both British foreign office and US state department to its independent-minded suggestions, the commission did do much valuable work, though it is hard to quantify its influence on the charter for the Nuremberg trials (Dan Plesch will be no doubt intrigued to learn that its archives were later transferred to the UNO in New York.)

But it is a gross and misleading exaggeration to call the U-N information boards (originally titled Inter-Allied Boards), the U-NWCC or the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), “political bodies” in order to prove the status and institutional reality of the U-N. And it is noteworthy that all three were formed mainly to placate – even to appease – the insistent voices of the occupied powers (most with their governments-in-exile in London) for action to right the Nazi wrongs against their peoples and their lands. In the case of the first two, they provided words rather than action.

openDemocracy writers debate the past, present and future identity of the United Nations:

Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan’s challenge” (March 2005)

Shashi Tharoor, “A United Nations for a fairer, safer world” (September 2005)

Ian Williams, “It’s the nations, stupid!” (September 2005)

Julie Mertus, “The United Nations reform drive: a response to Ian Williams” (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

A victors’ peace

Plesch makes much of the Atlantic Charter. He says it “provided the political basis for countering Nazi ideology”. In fact it shows just how far from any notion of united nations the Allies were. It had (and has now) no standing in international law and was nothing more than a frothy bilateral declaration based on FDR’s earlier “four freedoms” with the prime aim of inspiring a highly sceptical American public opinion and persuading Congress that the Americans were not simply being asked to save “old” Europe as they thought they had in the first world war. (It is a sad truth that the charter was never signed by Churchill and Roosevelt, and the original final paper they agreed was mislaid.)

That the wartime alliance styled the “U-N” became the UNO is a fiction. It was not the same in intent, purpose or aim. Its grounds for membership could not be the same – there was a war on. And the equal rights of states, the great foundation of international law, and a base for most of the UNO’s rules, was suspended. No attention was paid to “members” of the U-N beyond the “big four” (United States, Soviet Union, Britain and China); and they could not participate in any policy debates about how the war was waged.

It is even a fiction that one morphed graciously into the other. The Dumbarton Oaks conference of August-October 1944 was attended only by the US, Britain, Soviet Union and China – none of the other twenty-two original signatories of the so-called “United Nations Declaration” were allowed a voice. It produced “Proposals for the Establishment of a General International Organisation”, so it cannot be said that the UNO already existed as the U-N before this date.

The San Francisco conference of April-June 1945 was attended by fifty nations. It was called officially not the “U-N Conference on post-war U-N policy” but “the U-N Conference on International Organisation”. (Plesch should read the foreign office files – there are plenty of them – most of which are clearly labelled “Future World Organisation: United Nations Plan”. And there’s a file on the “proposed United Nations conference” which is headed “Post-war problems”.)

At San Francisco, the strenuous and almost deal-breaking arguments between minor nations and the big four over their veto in the Security Council showed that what emerged was an example of a victors’ peace where the “victors” were not the U-N but those with the most powerful armies and who had done most of the fighting against the Axis powers. It is this nexus between the war and the current organisation of the Security Council that provides the greatest weakness in the current UNO. It is perverse and misleading to argue that UNO should gain strength from a wartime chimera of the same name.

It is true that some elements of the U-N were subsumed into the UNO – notably UNRRA which ceased operations in 1949, its work being divided between UNO’s new Food and Agriculture Organisation, the new International Refugee Organisation and the new UN Children’s Fund. Equally, the International Labour Organisation joined UNO from the League of Nations which itself was finally wound up in 1946. (The League’s Permanent Court of International Justice was replaced by UNO’s International Court of Justice which had a new statute and powers.)

The journalist Robert Fox, writing of his “disagreement with the (British) Ministry of Defence” over a planned history of the Iraq war, has noted that “(history) simply cannot be bossed around to fit some narrow political agenda.” These words should be noted carefully. I believe that the UNO does not need a bogus history based on the fallacy that labels automatically denote substance. What the UNO does need is a radical reform of the Security Council to reflect the massive changes in the world and in international relations in the sixty years since the victors ordained a set of rules designed primarily to reduce the chance of another world war.

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