On a San Francisco Stage

Book cover
Act of Creationby By Stephen C. SchlesingerWestview Press. 352p $27.50

This engaging and lively historical study weaves personal stories, diplomatic correspondence and other accounts to depict the principal forces that shaped the founding of the United Nations. While the author focuses on a conference held in San Francisco from April to July 1945, he effectively outlines the role played by earlier events, like the failed U.S. acceptance of the League of Nations and the mood favoring international cooperation that the Great Depression and World War II inculcated in American leaders. The book’s jacketline sums it up: A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies and Their Quest for a Peaceful World. Act of Creation is colorful and lively, but at times needlessly detailed.

The act that Stephen Schlesinger recounts is mostly Americo-centric, and he gives great weight to the commitments and deeds of a handful of senior American menFranklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius (primary coordinator of the conference), and Senators Thomas Connelly and Arthur Vandenberg. (OthersState Department officials, presidential advisers and conference delegatesare also chronicled.)


The author does well in retelling this central episode in 20th-century global institution-building. It is the story of how views and positions of U.S. officials intermingled and then emerged in government action. The inside agenda and tactics reflect the powerful outside pressures from othersmost notably Stalin and the U.S.S.R., but also political leaders from the United Kingdom and Latin America.

Schlesinger, who is director of the New School University’s World Policy Institute, explains the Security Council setup, the membership and role of the General Assembly and the recognition of regional authority established in the U.N. Charter. He describes thoroughly the major historical struggle between big power politics and idealist ambitions that permeated the events surrounding the conference in San Francisco and the writing of the charter. In its chronicling of personal contributions and its recounting of human capriciousness among larger social forces, Act of Creation is both readable and insightful. In particular, it shows how U.S. strategy evolved. The story of personal motivations for creating the United Nations and obtaining Senate ratification is set within the larger frame of both domestic politics and global war efforts. The book’s 16 pages of photos are a useful and interesting feature.

Insights from recently declassified spy intercepts, however, offer little of importance. In our era of investigations based on the Patriot Act, the role of intercepts and spying seems marginal at best. The intelligence information does support attention to well-known bottlenecks that affected the U.N.’s creationfor instance, the struggle (lost) over promoting a democratic Poland and the debate over allowing Argentina to become an initial charter member in spite of its last-minute conversion from a leaning toward Nazism. At best the materials from spy archives, much like the discussion of particular journalists and their press accounts, form a backdrop for the debates within the U.S. delegation and between the United States and other governments.

Fundamental to Schlesinger’s account are stories that bring out the personal attributes of key individuals and their specific actions, intriguing tales artfully woven into the narrative. Secretary of State Stettinius’s devoted efforts and Truman’s dogged and pragmatic support of the U.N. vision add color to the book. The disproportionate attention given to some marginal players can be explained only because they factored prominently in other events or controversies. Substantial attention is given to Alger Hiss, for instance, although his role as acting secretary general in San Francisco seems inconsequential in the founding of the United Nations. Similarly, detailed discussions of the views or input of presidential advisers like Harry Hopkins and Averill Harriman merit little attention for their effect on the outcome of the United Nations. Their inclusion here rests perhaps upon their own stories in American history and their concurrence with the tide of support for the U.N. enterprise. But the story of their roles in making U.S. policy belongs elsewhere.

Some personal accounts of marginal players at the San Francisco meeting, however, are useful. The story of Nelson Rockefeller’s role as leader for Latin America perspectives inside the United States is one example. Another story, and an especially helpful one showing the powerful role played by support staff, concerns the Russian-born economist Leo Pasvolsky. This longtime State Department official, it turns out, was a tireless and driving government leader. He, more than anyone else, led the State Department in shaping the principal features of the U.N. Charter and in brokering competing perspectives within the U.S. bureaucracy.

The strengths of this book are its synthesis of myriad sources and its close attention to the powerful social forces that supported the creation of the United Nations. While this is primarily the story of key officials and their actions before and during the San Francisco meeting, the reader learns of the pressures put upon them by the larger public (represented by thousands of observers from voluntary groups who gathered at the conference), by the press and by the ghosts of past failures.

Beginning with Roosevelt’s death and ending with the ratification by the U.S. Senate, Schlesinger’s book reveals much about international affairs. We see both the long-term development of enmity between the United States and the Soviet Union, and as the short-term twists in positions.

In the months during which the conference drafted, revised and ultimately adopted the charter, the story of the intransigent positions of the delegations, emerging and then disappearing, makes clear the small importance of individual actions and the great importance of their accumulated effects.

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