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Current Events at the United Nations

Aired December 24, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is a time for making friends and there is a time for action. The time for action is here now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think America's greatest gift to humankind is that they created the United Nations. But I think Americans forget that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could I have your attention, please? I'm trying to give you some useful information.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN ANCHOR: Before there was Kofi Annan, before there was a Security Council, before there was a humanitarian worker, heck, before there was an international cafeteria, there had to be a birth. The creation of the United Nations.

Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth.

There is only one United Nations. Some critics say that is one too many. The 191 member countries would disagree, though the most powerful U.N. member country, the United States, has leading government figures who sneer often at the global organization. Quite a different attitude back in 1945, when the United Nations was created in San Francisco.


ANNOUNCER (voice-over): The conference presents a pageant of nations banded together to make peace. Men of goodwill from around the world attend, including the distinguished Saudi Arabian delegation and, from South Africa, Prime Minister and Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, a founder of the League of Nations.


ROTH: Well, world diplomacy isn't as black and white now as that film clip, and according to this author, who signed his book in the U.N. bookshop, the start of the United Nations also had its intriguing, curious events.

He's Stephen Schlesinger, author of "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations." He's currently director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University here in New York.

Steve, welcome to the program.

So, how did the idea of the United Nations come about?


It really came about due to the vision of one of the great American presidents, Franklin Roosevelt. He had conceived of this idea when he was a junior minister in the Woodrow Wilson administration. He was assistant secretary of Navy, saw what happened to the League of Nations, which was defeated by the U.S. Senate, and he realized that the most important thing coming out of the Second World War was to have the United States be part of a larger global security organization which would guarantee peace in the future.

ROTH: So some actual planning before war had ended. A bit of a change from what we saw in Iraq.

SCHLESINGER: Absolutely. Roosevelt, in fact, back in 1939 was already planning this organization. One of the great visionaries of all time.

ROTH: You describe, I think, in your book, how did the name, United Nations, get coined. Describe that moment.

SCHLESINGER: There was a moment in which Roosevelt suddenly had this wonderful idea. Churchill was staying at the White House, and he burst into Churchill, who was taking a bath at the White House, and told him about it, and Churchill of course thought it was terrific, and that's how it came about.

ROTH: How did they make changes to avoid creating a League of Nations again?

SCHLESINGER: There were a lot of conditions that were met in order to guarantee that the Senate would ratify this treaty. Among them were first of all to have only five countries have the veto, rather than the entire body, which was true in the League -- every state had the veto.

Second of all was to make sure that this organization was conceived during wartime, so that people would focus on making sure it would happen. They were afraid that if the war ended, everybody would go back to their home states and forget about this peace organization.

ROTH: Was this a different style international conference?

SCHLESINGER: It was certainly a different style in the sense that unlike Versailles, in 1919, this is a conference the Americans actually dominated.

It was held in San Francisco. It was paid for by the United States. It was basically made in America.

ROTH: The atmosphere there, FDR, who you mentioned, creating the United Nations, he died two weeks before this 9-week conference started?

SCHLESINGER: He did. This was one of the most dramatic events of all of that period. What happened at that point was nobody really knew whether there was going to be a conference or not, and suddenly this totally untried president, Harry Truman, comes onto the scene.

He's a man who never went to college. He hadn't even been abroad except for once, in Europe, and he was supposed to take over this incredible organization and make sure it actually happened, and he was able to do it.

ROTH: The Americans, you say, dominated, at that point because they were influential in winning the war? Was that acceptable to everyone? There was some opposition to some proposals, right?

SCHLESINGER: There was. There was. The United States obviously wanted to get the charter exactly the way it had drafted it. The State Department actually had done the original charter, and so when the United States went out to San Francisco, there were some disputes that it didn't really anticipate.

First of all, that only five states should get the veto. Second of all, that there should be a regional part of the charter, that regional organizations should be part of the United Nations. Third, that the General Assembly, how much power it should have.

There were also even disputes about which countries should be admitted. All of these became issues that almost disrupted and ended the conference.

ROTH: We hear a lot about spying at the United Nations these days. Spying took place also in San Francisco, right?

SCHLESINGER: Spying has been part of the United Nations from day one.

There were three different U.S. intelligence agencies at work in San Francisco: the FBI, the OSS, which was the precursor of the CIA, and finally the Army Signal Corps, which was intercepting all of the cable traffic of all of the diplomatic missions coming to San Francisco, which meant that the United States knew in advance the negotiating positions of almost every country coming to the Golden Gate City.

ROTH: And the United States has been accused of spying during the pre-run-up to the Iraq War, to find out how Security Council members were voting. So, 50 or 60 years later, nothing changes.

SCHLESINGER: Nothing has changed. The FBI never stopped spying from day one until today, it continues to monitor the United Nations.

ROTH: Who was Leo Pasvolsky and what kind of role did he play in the formation of the United Nations?

SCHLESINGER: Leo Pasvolsky was a colorless bureaucrat in the State Department who nobody had ever heard of until this book was written, and yet he was probably the foremost author of the U.N. charter.

He was the one given an assignment by Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, who was then secretary of state, in 1939, and he spent six years actually drafting that charter, the charter which we now basically have today before us in the United Nations.

ROTH: He was a Russian immigrant and a journalist, right?

SCHLESINGER: He was a Russian immigrant. He came here at the age of 12. he was a journalist, and then he went to the Brookings Institute, where he spent most of his life.

ROTH: And now he's doing cable TV interviews. No. I don't believe he's alive still.

What about Harry Hopkins, aide to Harry Truman. He got out of a sickbed to help save this conference. What's the story there?

SCHLESINGER: Probably the most dramatic moment in the conference was midway through. It was a 9-week conference.

The issue was the veto. The Russians wanted to have -- the Soviets wanted to have a much broader veto, which would prevent even discussion of an issue in the Security Council. The United States said no, no, you've got to have a veto which at least allows crises to be brought to the Security Council for debate. So they were at loggerheads.

Truman realized he had to send somebody to Stalin in order to make sure that this was resolved. He sent Harry Hopkins, who had met with Stalin in the past. And Hopkins, despite the fact that he was suffering from stomach cancer and was to die within six months, flew to Moscow, very arduous trip. Met with Stalin, had a showdown with him, and finally convinced him to back off, and that's really how the conference was saved.

ROTH: What about the U.S. delegation. You say they called the tune there. This was a very interesting group of future stars, diplomats, political leaders. Tell me about that group.

SCHLESINGER: It was probably one of the most talented groups of people put together by an American government since the creation of our own Constitution.

For example, Adlai Stevenson was the press officer of the U.S. delegation. John Foster Dulles, later secretary of state under Eisenhower, was the legal advisor for the delegation. Senator Vandenberg, from Michigan, was the leading Republican on the delegation. Harold Stassen, who was the former governor of Minnesota, a young man, one of the wunderkind of the Republican Party, he was there on the delegation. It goes on and on.

I mean, it was really -- Nelson Rockefeller was the assistant secretary of state for Latin America. What an extraordinary group of people.

ROTH: Rockefeller goes on to become vice president, Stevenson U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, all of these people playing a big role.

And I remember, we talked about it on the program, John F. Kennedy, future president, was there as a journalist covering the conference, right?

SCHLESINGER: John F. Kennedy made his first journalistic debut out in San Francisco, covering the U.N. conference for the Hearst papers.

ROTH: And part of that delegation, Edward Stettinius, the lead delegate there, because Cordell Hull was sick, right?


ROTH: Now, in the book you -- how was he described by Truman and Ralph Bunch? Was he respected? And what were his accomplishments at the conference?

SCHLESINGER: Stettinius had a bum rap as far as I can see having finished this book. Everybody regarded him as a kind of dunderhead, that he didn't really have foreign policy experience, he didn't really know how to organize a meeting like the U.N. conference, and yet when he went out there, despite the fact that he had -- a lot of people felt very uneasy about him, he performed magnificently.

I think without Stettinius, it might never have been a U.N. charter in the end.

ROTH: How do you think the people who were there at the beginning would feel about how the U.N. is viewed today, in such contentious terms, especially in the United States?

SCHLESINGER: I think on the one hand, they would be affirmed that the Security Council, which had been setup to create conditions for peace around the world, is now operating the way it should be, once the Cold War ended back in 1989.

On the other hand, I think they would feel there is still too much dispute on the Security Council and it prevents issues like Iraq to be addressed in the way they should be.

ROTH: How did France get to be one of the Big Five with a permanent veto right since they were not necessarily some of the, quote, as you mentioned "four policemen" who ended the war?

SCHLESINGER: Originally, the four sponsors, China, the United States, Soviet Union and Great Britain, wanted France to be the fifth, but France refused to participate because De Gaulle, who had an enormous ego, felt that nobody had invited him to the Yalta Conference about five months before the San Francisco meeting. And because of that, he was so offended, he said France is not going to participate with the other big powers.

However, a light bulb went off midway through the conference. The French suddenly woke up and said wait a minute, we're not going to be one of the smaller states. We want to be with the big guys, and they finally decided they were going to join the top five, and that was the end of their romance with being a veto-less country.

ROTH: Briefly, more letters. The NGOs, the nongovernmental organizations, how did they play a role, if any, in San Francisco? They certainly play a big role now on the world stage.

SCHLESINGER: No question that they play a role today, but in fact they began their role back in 1945. It was another one of Roosevelt's brilliant strokes, which was inviting NGOs, these are nongovernmental organizations, civic organizations from around the country, all of whom are supportive of this organization, to San Francisco, because they'll give us a broader constituency when the ratification fight comes up.

And so as a result of their being there, there was an article passed in the U.N. Charter which now preserves the right of NGOs to participate at the United Nations.

ROTH: You and I were both in San Francisco in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali was there, Madeleine Albright. I know you were there. How easy was it for you to get a book about the United Nations in San Francisco, or a book about the United Nations, published?

SCHLESINGER: Very difficult. The moment I took my outline to any publisher, they went into a yawning position because they felt the United Nations is either over-written about or that it's just fundamentally a kind of boring organization full of dusty papers and research reports that never get read and nobody cares about.

So it was very difficult. It took me two years, and even then I got a lousy advance, but in fact I felt so strongly about this book that I persevered for nine years and I eventually think I got a good reception for it now that it's been out.

ROTH: Thank you very much.


ROTH: U.N. defenders have heard all the barbs aimed at the organization over the years. Certainly in recent years, the description "talk shop" has been lobbed quite often. Finland's ambassador to the United Nations, Yarmo Sarava (ph), says that kind of talk is cheap.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The world may need a talk shop. It may need a place where each and every of the 191 member states can wear its heart on its sleeve.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: . to bring back the story and to look at again what actually happened when the United Nations chose Greenwich as its site.


ROTH: Trouble in suburbia. That was Deborah Mecke (ph) of the Greenwich, Connecticut Historical Society and believe it or not, the United Nations was considering at one time to base itself in Greenwich, a city on the border with New York state.

Yes, after the United Nations was created in San Francisco, the question was then where to put it. It was not going to be a simple skyscraper. The designs were for an international city, taking over private land and property, much bigger than the eventual Manhattan site.

A campaign against the United Nations locating in Greenwich sprung up. One of the opponents, Prescott Bush, grandfather and father of two U.S. presidents, who thought the United Nations would spoil the character of Greenwich. The Bushes joined the fight, calling it No to U.N.O.-ville (ph). The title might have been a little week, but the campaign succeeded in blocking the United Nations from coming to Greenwich.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The site selection committee of the United Nations never asked the people in the community or even solicited them as to whether they might be interested in having the United Nations here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole concept of the United Nations was for it to be spread out rather than a skyscraper. Perhaps if they had had a skyscraper, they might not have had so much opposition, because they wouldn't have been taking so much land from the landed gentry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think there was just the shock of it, that this beautiful countryside, you know, hundreds and hundreds of acres, would be taken over for a city that would be built, an international city, and that the town would have no control over it. It would be international. So I think there were a lot of fears about what this would do to a small town like Greenwich.

Somebody who wanted to influence opinion in town hired people who would create alarm, you know, walk through town speaking different languages, look like, you know, we were being taken over by, you know, international people coming, and I think that this person, you know, was a politician and was out to try to sway votes and sway influence in town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's amazing, the detail in the place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think what comes through is that there was a swelling of support for some kind of United Nations peaceful institution, you know, an institution that would work for peace, and I think people knew that while they didn't want to lose their town, they didn't also want to -- the overwhelming majority did not want to see the United Nations fail. So they were torn in terms of how they would pose the opposition. But 70 percent of the town voted against.

I think the United Nations would look very different. Can you imagine the traffic on I-95 if the United Nations were here and everybody was fighting that community traffic, but out back up this way it certainly would have changed Greenwich, that's for sure.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I apologize for this problem. I am going to suspend this meeting for a few minutes now because I do hope that Ambassador Arias (ph) will be here when we begin the meeting. This meeting is suspended.


ROTH: Don't keep a Security Council president waiting. This was the scene in the chamber as the French ambassador, serving as the president in March, grew impatient. One country, Spain, was missing. I was outside the room and saw Spain's delegation running through the hallway, but the president couldn't wait and eventually got up from his chair.

In recent years, Security Council leaders have stuck to a more strict timetable to keep the flow of meetings on time.

Diplomats need more these days. Not just on time meetings. The flow of news has exploded and diplomats have a hard time keeping up, but if this 21st century crop of ambassadors think they have it rough, what about envoys in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Joining us from Washington is the author of a book called "Under the Wire: How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy" and, certainly, in affect, history. He's David Nickles, and he is also a U.S. State Department Historian.

Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE, Mr. Nickles.

DAVID NICKLES, AUTHOR: I'm glad to be here, Mr. Roth.

ROTH: Can you tell us, what was life like for the ambassadors of those days, far from their capitals?

NICKLES: Well, before the telegraph, diplomats had had somewhat leisurely lives. They were able to take a great deal of diplomatic initiatives on their own. They weren't constantly bombarded by telegrams. And they felt like they were pretty good at what they did.

But in the age of the telegraph, they felt like they were at the end of a wire, receiving instructions all the time, and many of them felt that they had lost a great deal of autonomy and were not happy.

ROTH: What were the ambassadors like? They weren't a very active bunch before the telegraph, were they? What was their physical condition?

NICKLES: Well, in general they worked very short working hours and took very long vacations. This could sometimes be a problem. If diplomatic crises took place over the summer, oftentimes the diplomats would be out of position.

For example, in July 1914, people had gone on vacation and around that time the diplomatic crisis which led to the First World War arose. By the time the diplomats had gone back to their posts, it was too late to engage in diplomacy to avert the war.

ROTH: And they were at spas and hunting retreats a lot, right?

NICKLES: Exactly. Many diplomats tried to get postings close to their favorite spa.

ROTH: How do you think that would do in today's world of cable television and Internet?

NICKLES: I think there is a great deal more professionalism among diplomats now than there was the.

ROTH: I think in your book you talk about the CNN effect?

NICKLES: I do. Many people in recent years have been talking about how the media, especially a station like CNN, which is so important at presenting news around the clock --

ROTH: Yes, you can be invited back now because of that. Go ahead.

NICKLES: -- seems to drive the agenda of governments at times, and policymakers complain about that, but it's really not as new a phenomena as we think. This also happened in the late 19th century.

ROTH: So these ambassadors started complaining when the telegraph came in, right?

NICKLES: Yes, they did. One of them referred to the telegraphic demoralization of the diplomatic corps, and another one argued "I might have been a great man had it not been for the telegraph."

ROTH: How did the telegraph effect history? How did it possibly stop a war from maybe coming around or in another case didn't help at all?

NICKLES: Well, people often point to the War of 1812 as a war which might have been prevented if there had been a telegraph, because the British made concessions that the United States did not know about before the United States declared war on Britain.

On the other hand, the Zimmerman Telegram is a very famous example of how the telegraph made espionage much easier.

ROTH: This is the Zimmerman Telegraph of 1917.

NICKLES: Exactly.

ROTH: All right. Tell us more.

NICKLES: The German government was concerned that the United States might enter the First World War against Germany, so they made a diplomatic proposal to Mexico, saying that if the United States enters the war, Germany will help Mexico regain American territory, which it had lost a century earlier.

The British intercepted this telegram and presented it to Woodrow Wilson, who had it published in the American papers. It led to outrage among the American public and the U.S. declared war against Germany not long thereafter.

ROTH: Your book contains at the back -- there are a lot of pages backing up -- it's a very interesting historical document. Why is there so much citation of the history and memos? There's almost more than the entire book.

NICKLES: Well, I was covering a lot of ground and I wanted other people to see where I had gone. There is a great deal of research that went into it, so I think -- I just wanted people to be able to follow-up on my sources.

ROTH: How did your current job help you in preparation of this book, being a historian at the U.S. State Department?

NICKLES: Well, one thing that's wonderful about working in a foreign ministry is that you really get a sense of the day to day life of diplomats, and I think there is a tendency for people who write diplomatic history to just think that policymakers and diplomats are very abstract and only think about ideas. But in fact, material conditions can sometimes affect them.

I mean, some of the stories back then about how people were on vacation and out of position were the sorts of things that traditional diplomatic historians have ignored.

ROTH: There was a lot of slow travel eventually by ship of people, like Franklin going to Paris and things like that. How did the telegraph change that?

NICKLES: Yes, well, one way in which the United States was affected was that at the beginning of the First World War, there was a sudden flood of telegrams and the United States was using the Paris embassy as a hub for sending telegrams to the rest of Europe, because that was the cheapest route.

That hub became completely overwhelmed and many of the diplomats there became sick, suffered from nervous exhaustion, had to stop working, and the whole U.S. telegraph system for a whole broke down at that point.

ROTH: All right, well, hopefully our viewers have better feelings in their stomach after watching weeks of our program.

David Paull Nickles, "Under the Wire" is the book, "How the Telegraph Changed Diplomacy." Certainly the technology changes -- television journalists who try to cover these diplomats.

Thank you very much for joining us in Washington -- David.

NICKLES: Thank you, Mr. Roth.

ROTH: Word is now coming in from a faraway control room telling me we've run out of time. So that was David Paull Nickles, author of "Under the Wire," published by Harvard.

Thank you for watching. That's DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth, in New York, the latest, telegraph or otherwise, CNN news is next.



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