How It Was To Be: FDR and the UN's San Francisco Founding Conference, 70 Years On

As the dignitaries and delegates from 50 nations made their way the evening of April 25th, 1945 into the San Francisco Opera House for the opening of the founding conference of the United Nations, they encountered a stage redolent of an Enlightenment aesthetic. It contained four golden pillars linked by wreathes of olive branches, all awash in a sunburst of light against a pale blue backdrop.

The pillars symbolized the Four Freedoms at the core of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's philosophy and of his intent for the new organization he had long planned to bring into being. Freedom of expression. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear.

Roosevelt named the United Nations and he insisted on hosting its founding conference in San Francisco, a conference he intended to dominate personally. At his direction, the U.S. government had begun planning for a post-war global security architecture like the UN before the US entrance into World War II. The administration conducted a major PR campaign for months to gain public support before San Francisco; Roosevelt wanted no repeat of Woodrow Wilson's failure with the League of Nations. And Roosevelt was strongly considering resigning from the presidency once the war was won to become secretary-general of the new United Nations.

The founding conference of the United Nations began 70 years ago in San Francisco.

There was just one thing. FDR had passed away unexpectedly 13 days earlier.

The leading actor, for whom the stage was not only set but who had served as principal playwright and designer, was gone.

In FDR's absence, there was brand-new President Harry Truman on hand to deliver the opening remarks. Truman, the veteran senator and party wheelhorse who became FDR's running mate only after much of the party balked at Vice President Henry Wallace's leftishness. Truman, who had never set foot in the White House Map Room from which FDR ran much of World War II. Truman, who had not been informed of the existence of the atomic bomb. Truman, who was no part of FDR's dealings with Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and the rest of a complex phalanx of world leaders. Truman, who had no part of FDR's extensive and exhausting foreign travels which had caused him to repair for a few weeks of rest and recuperation at Warm Springs, Georgia in the first place.

In the absence of FDR, Truman, who had long favored an international body to deal with disputes, did carry forward on the United Nations concept. But he had Secretary of State Edward Stetinnius, who had recently replaced long-serving Cordell Hull, conduct America's presidency of the San Francisco conference for its two months of discussion and negotiation over the UN Charter.

Stetinnius did well, but in FDR's absence was more an enlightened functionary than global strategist. He was no Sumner Welles, the longtime undersecretary of state who had been Roosevelt's real chief foreign policy advisor. In today's set-up, Welles would have been the national security advisor.

With FDR's blessing, Welles, a very brilliant and arrogant man, constantly upstaged nominal boss Hull -- a courtly former Southern senator who looked the part but thought that trade was the key to all problems -- and along with Harry Hopkins, a general purpose advisor/operative/manager who frequently had no particular title beyond his name, undertook the most sensitive missions. Welles had also coordinated post-war world planning for Roosevelt until his messy private life caught up with him in a way that FDR could not entirely reverse. (Welles, who was bisexual, chose one night on a train ride to unwind from the intense pressure of wartime geopolitics with drink and a series of propositions of black male porters. A political rival in the Roosevelt circle learned of this and used the information to undermine Welles, destroying his own career in the process when FDR dramatically banished him from his presence. The damage, however, was done.)

While good things emerged in the form of the UN Charter and a subsequent organization, it could have been much more than the debating society, forum for containing big power conflict, and stop-and-start good works we have come to know.

After receiving the usual input from writers and advisors, FDR dictated the last complete speech of his life on the day before it ended. It was his speech for Jefferson Day, April 13th. The day after he died. As you can see below, he was very much looking forward to the future and the world to come after the final defeat of the stubborn fascist powers.

"We must go on to do all in our power to conquer the doubts and the fears, the ignorance and the greed, which made this horror possible.

"Thomas Jefferson, himself a distinguished scientist, once spoke of "the brotherly spirit of Science, which unites into one family all its votaries of whatever grade, and however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe."

"Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another.

"Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships--the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace.

"Let me assure you that my hand is the steadier for the work that is to be done, that I move more firmly into the task, knowing that you--millions and millions of you--are joined with me in the resolve to make this work endure.

"The work, my friends, is peace. More than an end of this war --an end to the beginnings of all wars. Yes, an end, forever, to this impractical, unrealistic settlement of the differences between governments by the mass killing of peoples.

"Today, as we move against the terrible scourge of war--as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world- the contribution of lasting peace, I ask you to keep up your faith. I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you, and to all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of an abiding peace, I say:

"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

FDR's references to science suggest that the very closely held secret of nuclear weaponry was much on his mind. As was the lately staved off threat of Nazi super-weapons.

The US and UK had cooperated early on the development of nuclear weapons, though Roosevelt later turned his Manhattan Project into an American affair. There had been no collaboration with Soviet Russia.

There were already signs of trouble ahead with the Soviets, but FDR believed he could personally manage and contain the inevitable disagreements. It was not for nothing that FDR, the great improviser who pulled the American economy back from the abyss with the experimental social and economic democracy of the New Deal and then led a divergent international coalition and once isolationist America to victory in the greatest war in world history, was known as a master juggler. He was primus inter pares of the "Big Three" which dominated the anti-fascist coalition, working with Conservative Winston Churchill and Communist Josef Stalin.

Though Churchill was, in 1946, to give one of the defining speeches of the coming Cold War, declaring that an "Iron Curtain" had descended across Eastern Europe, the reality is that he had discussed "spheres of influence" with Stalin as early as 1942. And, despite British commitment to Polish exiles in London, Stalin -- whom Roosevelt and Churchill jocularly called "Uncle Joe" (which Stalin actually did not particularly like) -- tacitly agreed as the war wound down and after to back away from Greece, on the longtime British lake of the Mediterranean, while Britain acceded to the obvious of Soviet domination of Poland.

There was a bigger agenda, and Churchill, with Roosevelt's obvious agreement, told Stalin that the Big Three were the "trustees" of world peace.

Frankly, there was no getting around the facts on the ground, much as ideologues later tried to ignore them. For the reality was that the Soviets undertook the bulk of the land war against Nazi Germany, incurring over 20 million dead after the Nazi invasion nearly took Moscow at the end of 1941.

And even with much of the Germany army occupied with fighting the Red Army, FDR had to employ his fabled charm to the fullest, not to mention promises of American supplies, to fend off Stalin's years-long demand for a "second front" of American and British Empire forces on the European continent.

Even when the D-Day invasion finally came off in June 1944, the Soviet offensive that summer on the Eastern Front was much bigger and much faster than that of the American and British allies, moving hundreds of miles in Eastern and Central Europe while the Western Allies struggled to break out of Normandy and had major setbacks in a large airborne operation and in the Battle of the Bulge.

Nevertheless, rather late in the game, FDR expanded the Big Three to the Big Four, bringing in China as Asian partner under Chiang Kai-shek. In this, he succeeded in getting Stalin to stiff his ostensible Communist ally Mao Zedong, who was then engaged in a fierce civil war with the forces of Chiang.

France was a given for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to-be, despite Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin's dislike of Charles de Gaulle.

FDR also wanted to include Brazil as a sixth permanent Security Council member and veto-wielder, but was talked out of it. As as we know at the time, that is.

For FDR, who also planned to go to Manila in August 1945 to grant early Philippine independence as an explicit challenge to clinging European colonialism, was in the midst of intensive planning for the UN when he died, planning taking place at Warm Springs and slated to continue on his train ride out to California.

FDR was an enthusiast of the UN concept even before he came up with the name early in January 1942 during Winston Churchill's post-Pearl Harbor visit to the White House. He literally burst in on Churchill as the prime minister toweled off from his bath to exclaim "United Nations!" as the name for the international anti-fascist coalition. (No nation which had not declared war on Germany or Japan was allowed to participate in the San Francisco founding conference.)

In his pre-polio political career FDR had been a great advocate of the League of Nations devised by President Woodrow Wilson, whom he served for seven-and-half crucial years, including World War I, as assistant secretary of the Navy. Wilson made many mistakes in his drive for the post-World War I League, failing to lead the needed international coalition and failing even to win U.S. Senate approval of America's membership in the League of Nations.

In the midst of these larger failures, FDR's backing for League of Nations ratification as the 1920 Democratic vice presidential nominee was for nought.

So the Rooseveltian imperative to create a global security architecture imbued with a sense of justice had a long time to gestate.

Of course, it wasn't all to be just a sort of peace-plus global New Deal. FDR was not simply a humanitarian; he was a power politician. He had every intention of having America continue its hard and cleverly won brand-new status as the most powerful nation on the planet. He pursued the atomic bomb even after it was clear that Nazi Germany had fallen hopelessly behind in the race. We don't know that FDR would have nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We do know that he allowed the firebombing of German and Japanese cities, killing mostly civilians in an effort to demoralize and demobilize the enemy populations.

It was no accident that the youthful FDR spent seven-and-a-half years as the number two civilian official running the Navy -- nearly as much time as he later spent as governor of New York -- the same post from which his cousin Theodore laid the groundwork for the Spanish-American War which vaulted America onto the global stage and put TR himself on a trajectory which made him president a few years later.

FDR agreed with the 1940 assessment of famed historian Arnold Toynbee -- then advising the British government on hoped-for post-war planning for a severely stressed British Empire -- that history was at a pivot point. It would swing between "a Continental or an Ocean pattern" of geopolitics, posing a choice between militaristic imperialism or maritime federation.

Had Roosevelt, only 63 when he died, continued to recover his energies at Warm Springs as he always had before, he would have had many opportunities to devise plans and influence international leaders in San Francisco.

In fact, the whole thing was arranged to present America, under FDR's leadership, as the attractive and appealing harbinger of the future. Most delegates flew in to the East Coast, then were placed on trains for the picturesque cross-country ride through America's vastness and abundance, culminating in San Francisco, which FDR picked as not only one of the world's most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities but also for its status as the humming staging area for America's war in the Pacific, then nearing its climax.

But without FDR in San Francisco, or as the UN's first secretary-general, big opportunities were lost.

Despite his success in San Francisco, Truman replace Stetinnius as secretary of state with his old Senate friend Jimmy Byrnes, who was soon jocularly threatening the Soviets, who had not yet stolen the secret, with nuclear weapons.

With an insecure Truman administration in place, a very different and much more fearful world came into being. As I wrote earlier this month, the death of FDR, who so famously told a frightened America that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" led to generations of American politics yet unfolding driven by fear.

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