Thursday, March 9, 2023

When (and Why) Did “The United Nations” Begin?

Twentieth Century global conflicts set the stage for the world we live in today, and the problems we face.

In the latter part of World War II, the nations around the world (and their soon-to-be-independent colonies) who were united in the fight against Hitler and militant Japan began to refer to their global alliance as “the United Nations.” The leading allies were Great Britain, the (eventually-fully-restored) "Free French," the United States of America, China (under the decidedly anti-Communist Chiang Kai-Shek), and the Soviet Union. The War was so desperate that few considered the implications of the fact that the Soviet Union was still held ideological prisoner by the Bolshevik Communist revolution, which at that time meant that it was also the personal fiefdom of the murderous, genocidal Joseph Stalin (who was presented in affectionate terms as "Uncle Joe" during the war).

It was American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who envisioned this vast and unprecedented alliance continuing after the war and opening itself up to all the nations of the world, as a institution to preserve peace, to moderate disputes, to collaborate in global activities to the benefit of all, and to deliberate about what was necessary for the security of nations and peoples. Thus, The United Nations as we know it today emerged from World War II. 

Nearly 80 years later, it can be said that the U.N. has accomplished some good things, but overall the work of the U.N. has been quite a mixed bag, for many reasons. In particular, there is one structural problem that hobbles the U.N. to this day, and that is the nature and structure of the Security Council. In retrospect, it’s almost incredible to look back at the naive idealism of so many Westerners as the wars with Germany and Japan drew to a close in 1945.

The plan was that the “Big Five” allies in the wars would form the basis of the Security Council that would keep the peace, rein in offending nations, and authorize U.N. sponsored military interventions by member states if necessary. Other nations would also serve limited terms as Security Council members on a rotating basis. But the USA, Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union would be permanent members, and each would have veto power over any proposal made (even if everyone else on the Security Council favored it). When the U.N. Charter was drawn up in 1945, it appeared to be a peacetime continuation of the unity of the Powers that were working together on three fronts to win “the Good War” against the destructive Germans and Japanese.

In fact, reality was a lot more complicated. Roosevelt’s ill-considered demand for “unconditional surrender” compelled the Allies to conquer completely the offending nations, thus deflating the possibility of working with any internal resistance within Germany or Japan. It may be that there were no viable alternatives in the case of Nazi Germany. It’s still difficult to penetrate the internal politics of Imperial Japan at that strange time, except to say that there were diverse opinions, but these became irrelevant in the face of the prospect of total conquest and foreign occupation. 

Granted, the militarist Japanese were unscrupulous aggressors who perpetrated war crimes, and their decisive and permanent defeat was necessary. How else could it have been accomplished? There was never an opportunity to explore options other than conquering the entire island nation. The project was so daunting that the Allies saw no hope other than to unleash the dogs of war on a scale never before seen in history. But indiscriminate aerial terror bombing of entire civilian populations, even when considered in this desperate context, cannot be justified. And the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki recklessly ushered in the era of nuclear war. 

As I have said before, the USA is a good country. But when its political or military interests are “backed into a corner,” its leaders will turn to “consequentialist” moral reasoning. Doing evil for the sake of a (calculated) “greater good” is a perennial temptation of good people who possess great power. The world-situation we face today, however, suffers from “consequences” that no one could have calculated in 1945.

When the five great powers arranged their strategies to restore and sustain a peaceful world after winning the worst of wars, none of them could claim to be entirely free of guilt and compromise with evil. None of them were perfect. Some of them had more problems than they wished to reveal. But one of them was a snake

It is no longer denied that Joseph Stalin was a historical monster who—if not equal to Hitler in every way—was certainly in the same league with him. But during World War II Stalin used a gruff charm-offensive to appeal to the idealism of Roosevelt and the vanity of Churchill, to convince them that he had changed, or at least that they could do business with him. The alliance that defeated Hitler and the Japanese had an irreparable flaw. It enabled the expansion of Stalin’s totalitarian violence and extended its life beyond the dictator himself. 

Nevertheless, even before the Potsdam Conference, Churchill’s common sense began to awaken as he started to realize that Stalin intended to keep every inch of European territory that the Red Army liberated from the Nazis. After Roosevelt’s death, Truman was less taken with “Uncle Joe,” but he was still learning the ropes when Potsdam met outside defeated Berlin, and the powers agreed on the division of their “zones of occupation” and the timelines for yielding to popular governments freely, fairly, and (of course!) “democratically” elected. Stalin was experienced in the art of rigging elections and/or ensuring that any opposition “disappeared” before having a chance to actually oppose his hand-picked people.

The war in Asia, however, continued. Stalin promised his allies that he would “help them” defeat Japan as soon as the U.S.S.R.-Japanese non-aggression pact expired on August 9. The “help” was already on the move, with Marshall Zukov and 1.5 million Red Army soldiers crossing Asia on the Trans-Siberian railroad, headed for the Manchurian border. Stalin instructed them to “liberate” as much territory as possible. We’ll never know how the atomic bombing might have played out, had it not been for the Soviet Union’s Asian plan. As it was, Hiroshima was reduced to radioactive ashes on August 6th. The Japanese were warned that there would be another attack if they did not surrender unconditionally. 

Strangely, the Japanese Imperial council did meet to consider surrendering to the Americans. However, the meeting took place not immediately after Hiroshima, but in the early morning hours of August 9, 1945. What caused this meeting was news that caught Japan completely off guard: at 12:01 AM on August 9, a million and a half Soviet troops poured over the border of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Japanese forces were almost entirely engaged with preparing for an American invasion. Suddenly, the hated Soviet Communists were invading with a huge force from behind, facing virtually no opposition. Later that morning, while they deliberated, they received news of the second atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The rapidly advancing Red Army was, no doubt, also informed.

As Stalin’s invasion swept into Korea, the Americans scrambled to draw new lines for occupation of the Pacific theater. The 38th parallel jumped out from a hastily procured National Geographic map as dividing the Korean Peninsula, and the Americans got Stalin to agree to it as a demarcation line. This border would eventually cause another war, and is substantially still in place today. It is one of the most highly guarded places on earth, still dividing North Korea from South Korea.

The August 1945 Soviet invasion of Japanese-controlled East Asia lasted only a week, but it was an immense success. They established Kim il-Sung and his communist partisans in North Korea (where the Kim “dynasty” remains in power to this day). And although the Soviets had little interest in occupying northeastern China for long, their conquest there provided expanded space and much needed captured weapons for the Chinese Communists, who renewed and eventually won the civil war against Chiang Kaishek’s nationalists. The hoped-for Chinese ally in the United Nations was replaced by the paranoid, unhinged dystopia of Mao Zedong.

By March of 1946, it was already clear to Winston Churchill that the peacetime United Nations were not really united (and that the great alliance of “united nations” that won the war had perhaps never really been united either). On March 5, he made a famous speech at Fulton University in Missouri, where he spoke frankly about the dangerous new circumstances of post-war Europe and the treachery of Stalin: 

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and, in many cases, increasing measure of control from Moscow.”

The Security Council of the United Nations was also divided, with the Soviet Union as one of its five permanent members and capable of vetoing any proposal that did not serve Soviet interests. Instead of the security that everyone hoped would be the fruit of what had seemed like a great collaboration of nations in the common task of defeating Hitler’s brutal tyranny, the post-war world discovered that—for many nations—the result was only the exchange of one totalitarian state for another. The Cold War was already setting in, as the onetime allies now stood in opposition to one another. There was little that the newly founded U.N. could do to fix this crack in the foundation of its edifice.

Of course, Stalin and his successors ultimately “lost” the Cold War. Would this lead to a renewal of the United Nations and its ideals?

By the time the Soviet Union fell in 1991, political leaders had become accustomed to setting aside the urgent necessity for a true and secure peace in a world where many nations hoarded vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Instead they turned once again to the logic of power and domination, hoping to build a “new world order” of international consumerism—the globalization of rampant ambition, cupidity, and the continual stimulation of novel, artificial, insatiable urges for unnecessary products that were sold, bought, used, and thrown away. In their rage of desires, humans continued to pillage the earth, its resources, and its delicate ecosystem that had been entrusted to human stewardship. The even-more-delicate and intimate realm of the human ecosystem—where human life itself is given and received—was invaded from every direction, in search of technological control, potential for profit, and false “freedom” that reduced new human persons to commodities to be produced on demand and/or thrown away as inconvenient. Starting with the “original home” of the human person, homes everywhere were torn apart. Love grew cold. People knew not where they belonged, or if anyone cared for them. Many hearts were plunged into profound loneliness.

Money became the new ruling power (well, not new, really…but on massive scale never seen before). Rich nations looked for new ways to enrich themselves and poor nations scrambled for pieces of this seemingly ever-expanding pie. Global affairs had become habituated to the ways of power politics. At the same time, new ideologies were brewing and old dreams of legendary powers were waking up. The years after the fall of the Soviet Union did not bring forth anything close to a world of “united nations.” A great deal of good has been accomplished, but much may be spoiled or wasted if we continue to choose conflict over collaboration. People long for unity today, but to all appearances the world in which they live remains divided and broken.

We must move beyond the inadequate dreams and aspirations and myths of the second half of the twentieth century. We are far from “the end of history.” We have scarcely begun to grapple with the real challenges of this new epoch—this unmoored, immensely powerful, strange, fascinating, and dangerous globally interconnected world that we will hand on to our children and grandchildren. They ask us for bread. Can we at least give them something better than stones?