People have varying opinions about the United Nations (UN), which is a 75-year-old intergovernmental peacekeeping organization. But whatever your opinion, there is no doubt that the UN has played a major role in shaping world history since its inception on New Year’s Day, January 1942.
Before the United Nations, there was the League of Nations, which was initiated at the close of World War I during the Paris Peace Conference. The Covenant under which the League of Nations was organized only involved the five major superpowers at the time, namely, France, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, a fact that is pointed to as a reason the organization failed. Also, there is the not so small issue that regardless of covenants or organizational structure, the League of Nations failed to prevent World War II.
The United Nations, whose name was coined by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was formed during the course of World War II, not after, and consisted of a group of countries intent on putting down the Axis powers and reinstating world peace.
Roosevelt and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, led the charge to form the United Nations and were initially joined by the head of the USSR and China in signing the initial brief declaration document on January 1, 1942. The next day, 22 other countries joined the party including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Poland, Union of South Africa and Yugoslavia.
Later this group was joined by Mexico, Philippines, Ethiopia, Iraq, Brazil, Bolivia, Iran, Colombia, Liberia, France, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon. (Source: The UN)
The initial declaration talked about the “common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world.” These were powerful words during a frightening time.
Three years later in June of 1945, the details of how the United Nations would work and exist were hammered out at the San Francisco Conference by the initial signers of the declaration (a/k/a the group listed above).
By the time the San Francisco Conference was held, Roosevelt had died and Harry S. Truman was now President. Truman spoke to the delegates ahead of the conference with eloquent wisdom that really captures the focus on the UN at that time. He said: “If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.” (Source: UN Foundation)
Another famous quote about the United Nations that is often wrongly attributed to Churchill read, “The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.” If you are thinking about buying a kitchen magnet on Amazon with Churchill as the author, don’t. That comment was actually made later during the 1950s by the second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld.
What Churchill did famously say, which many people attribute to the UN was, “It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.”
If you have the opportunity to buy THAT refrigerator magnet, do it, but just know that Churchill didn’t actually say it about the United Nations. He said it in June 1954, while speaking to Congress about the threat of the spread of communism, as reported by the New York Times.
But the UN has used that line, often, even in their job recruitment materials. And they should, it’s classic Churchill, and perfect.
Through the years, the UN has expanded to include agency organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and further extended its initial charter beyond peacekeeping to other issues such as human rights.
World leaders have remained largely supportive of the UN, but there have also been a few critics. US President Donald J. Trump voiced his opinion in a 2017 speech arguing that the United States “bears an unfair cost burden, but to be fair if it could actually accomplish all of its stated goals — especially the goal of peace — this investment would easily be well worth it.” (Source: GlobalCitizen.org)
Despite these comments, the United States, even during the Trump presidency, has remained the largest supporter of the UN and has not followed through with any significant funding cuts. Trump has, however, been incredibly critical of the WHO’s handling of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.