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Review by David Ettinger

FDR and the Creation of the United Nations.
By Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997; 2000. Pp. xii, 287. $35 cloth; $16.95 paper.)

Historians Hoopes’ and Brinkley’s account of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal involvement in the establishment of the United Nations should provide interesting reading for students of the UN and American diplomatic history. The book meticulously chronicles the birth pangs of the world organization from its conception to the signing of the UN Charter. Drawing upon extensive scholarship on wartime declarations and meetingsthe Atlantic Charter, the Declaration by United Nations, and Moscow, Teheran, Dumbarton Oaks, Yalta and San Francisco Conferencesthe authors have synthesized the voluminous historical literature into an insightful behind-the-scenes analysis of the genesis of the world body.

FDR is the principal protagonist in this unfolding drama told against the backdrop of the Second World War, his pivotal role as the driving force behind the establishment of the UN taking center stage alongside a supporting cast of government officials, notably Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Undersecretary of State and Roosevelt confidante Sumner Welles.

A disillusioned Wilsonian, the thirty-second President was determined to avoid the mistakes of the past. He thus conceived of a future world organization rooted in realpolitik governed by a hegemony of the four great powersthe United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and Chinathe “Four Policeman.”

In a conscious attempt to build upon the strength of the wartime alliance, at the president’s instigation, planning for the postwar international order began years before the war’s end. The Department of State spearheaded the effort in what scholar Inis Claude, Jr. has termed “the most concentrated and elaborate study of international organization conducted by a government.” The mammoth undertaking was summarized in the 1949 Department publication “Postwar Foreign Policy Preparation 1939-1945.” Differences of opinion within the government and among national leaders, domestic and bureaucratic politics, and personal rivalries (especially between Hull and Welles) figure prominently in the authors’ narrative, enlivening what might otherwise have been a dry recounting of events.

Although State was responsible for the groundwork, it ultimately fell to Roosevelt himself to sell the U.S. blueprint to Churchill and Stalin. Each had decidedly different ideas about the shape of the future world organization, the former favoring a postwar system predicated on regional arrangements under the umbrella of a central international organization, the latter seeking to limit the future world body to strictly security matters.

It is a tribute to Roosevelt’s artful statesmanship that the American view for a comprehensive international organization, embracing economic and social issues and concern for human rights, ultimately prevailed. More than anyone else, it was Roosevelt’s personal oversight, dogged determination, and visionary leadership, always with a wary eye to Congressional and popular support, which shepherded and sustained the protracted negotiations through their long and precarious odyssey. It is tragically ironic that the UN’s “spiritual father,” who planted the seed for it and oversaw the lengthy and difficult gestation period, would not live to witness the birth of his much sought after child.

The authors conclude their work with an appeal for support for the present-day United Nations, an organization whose very real flaws they have clearly exposed. Even as they acknowledge its deficiencies and express reservations about its efficacy, they enjoin us “to recognize both the fundamental importance of the United Nations organization and its inherent limitations,” recommending the United States “make an effective United Nations a major goal and tenet of U.S. foreign policy.” Readers will have to determine for themselves whether their case is strengthened or undermined by their excellent historical overview and tribute to FDR’s legacy.

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