In February of 1945, Harold Stassen was aboard a battleship in the Pacific when he received startling news. While serving as assistant chief of staff for Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, Stassen discovered that he had been appointed a member of the seven-person delegation that would represent the U.S. at the founding of the United Nations that spring in San Francisco. President Roosevelt made the selection personally, and Stassen quickly embraced the opportunity to fulfill his life's ambition. "It is as much my duty to take an assignment to work for a successful peace," he declared, "as to work for a successful war." This is the story of how he did it.
Excerpt from the chapter, "The United States of the Earth" from Stassen Again by Steve Werle:
As delegates from around the world arrived in San Francisco, Harold Stassen busied himself assembling a crackerjack staff to assist him at the conference. He wired the presidents of Yale and Harvard looking for the names of students who “had shown great ability in international affairs and studies and had been off to war.” He quickly chose Cord Meyer from a list of possible candidates. Meyer was a twenty-four-year-old veteran who had lost an eye and was soon to lose his twin brother during fierce fighting in the Pacific. A graduate of Yale, Meyer threw himself into the work at San Francisco and performed admirably. Before long he agreed with the press that Stassen had clearly “distinguished himself as one of the most able members of the American delegation.” But by the summer of 1945, Cord Meyer would have serious misgivings about the UN’s prospects for success. He harbored lingering fears that “the strength of nationalistic feeling and the deep-going ideological differences in the world” would prove fatal to the peacemakers’ plans. Meyer drifted farther to the ideological left and served as a founder and president of the United World Federalists before pursuing a career with the CIA that lasted over a quarter of a century.
Another aid to Stassen was furnished by the State Department. Ralph Bunche, a young foreign service officer, became the only African American to work on behalf of the American delegation at San Francisco. It proved the beginning of a long and distinguished career at the UN for Bunche, who would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. In the spring of 1945 he rolled up his sleeves to begin preparing for what he called “the hardest working conference I have ever attended.” Bunche labored tirelessly providing information for Stassen, who took the lead on negotiating the thorny issue of trusteeship. “He is an easy person to work with,” Bunche wrote of Stassen, “provided you don’t mind working. He goes at a terrific pace and demands plenty of materials prepared for him—but he reads and uses it, and that is gratifying.” Like Cord Meyer, Bunche became disillusioned at times. In a bout of frustration he wrote, “There is practically no inspiration out here—every nation is dead set on looking out for its own national self interest.”
This then was the fundamental challenge that Harold Stassen knew he and the other delegates—representing fifty nations in all—would have to overcome if they were to make the United Nations work. Stassen did his best to help with the public relations blitz surrounding the proceedings. He received hundreds of letters a day from fellow citizens who pinned their hopes for peace on the United Nations. Just as the conference began, Stassen penned an article in the Rotarian explaining exactly what the delegates intended to accomplish and how. He ended it with characteristic flourish:
The San Francisco Conference is an opportunity, a golden opportunity, to win a beachhead in the battle for peace. Whether it will become the jumping-off place on the long, hard drive toward winning the peace is a question to which the people of the United Nations and their leaders hold the answer.
Already the voices of the pessimist and the cynic are heard. They point to the things that divide the peoples of the United Nations. But I believe that the differences are less strong than the deep desire of human beings around the earth that from the present conflict will emerge a peace that shall last.
By mid-May the United Nations committee on trusteeships, of which Stassen was already a central figure, had become hopelessly bogged down in semantics. The intended purpose of the Trusteeship System was to provide a mechanism for administering and supervising territories that had not yet achieved—for various reasons—sovereign nation status. The committee was chaired by Mr. Peter Fraser, former prime minister of New Zealand. Despite Fraser’s best efforts, it was clear that the traditional imperial powers— Britain, France, and the Netherlands—viewed the issue from a completely different perspective than countries like China, the Philippines, and the Soviet Union. While the various representatives generally agreed that “self-determination” should be the ultimate goal of all peoples, British and Dutch delegates balked at the inclusion of the word “independence” in the UN Charter. It simply hit too close to home. Many of the delegates doubtless remembered Winston Churchill’s famous remark, “We mean to hold our own. I did not become His Majesty’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Maximo Kalaw, a delegate from the Philippines, perhaps best summed up the sticking point on May 10 when he declared, “If you want to do away with this bickering and animosity between the dependent peoples and the conquering powers, you cannot take away the position that whatever power is in control of the dependencies will look at the qualifications for self-government through the light that suits that nation best.”
Other delegates entered the fray. Dr. Hubertus van Mook of the Netherlands held that “the realization of self-government needs no trusteeship, no commissions, and no time-table as long as the intentions of both parties remain unsullied by greed, tyranny, or bad faith.” The Chinese delegate, Dr. V. K. Wellington Koo, argued that “self-government alone, as a political objective to be obtained, will not be sufficient” and stressed that his nation attached “great importance to the introduction of this word ‘independence’ as well as ‘self-government’ as among the objectives of the territorial trusteeship system.” After a few days of mulling it over, Lord Cranborne of Great Britain suggested that forcing the issue of independence would be counterproductive, using a classic colonial metaphor to compare the British Empire to a ladder: “On the bottom rung you will find the most primitive people, who are only fit as yet to take a very limited part of the administration of their affairs, and then, as you climb this ladder, you find territories where the people take an ever increasing part in the local administration . . . Independence, if it comes, will come as a natural evolution.”
At this point Harold Stassen began to assume the role of mediator between the colonial powers and those nations seeking independence. He announced that the U.S. delegation was endeavoring to formulate a working paper to help focus negotiations on a few key yet contentious issues. Propelled by the encouragement he received from the other committee members, Stassen formally introduced his “Proposed Working Paper on the Subject of International Trusteeship” the next day—May 15. The committee voted unanimously to make it the basis for further discussion. Two days later the Chinese and British delegates locked horns once again on the use of the word “independence.” Stassen quickly intervened:
It is our basic and general position that the Charter that we draft at San Francisco cannot successfully have a hope of attaining the great objectives for which we meet, the objectives of future peace and security and advancement and welfare, the objectives for which millions of people throughout the world are looking for accomplishment, unless it can start out, as we conclude our work in San Francisco, with the solid and combined support of the five major powers and of the maximum number of the other United Nations . . . We must seek the maximum area of agreement.
He was characteristically searching for some sort of middle ground. Stassen only objected to the use of the word “independence” if its inclusion meant that the British and French would refuse to sign the charter. He was sympathetic to the pleas of smaller nations, but when push came to shove he did not want to see the entire United Nations derailed by a single word. He emphasized his point:
Now then we have before us the proposal that we add some additional language, language which in different countries means different things . . . I say that on this direct basis, that we should not go beyond where the five Powers can agree on the things that should go in the Charter . . . nor should we go beyond the places where the majority of the other United Nations can agree. If we go beyond, then we draw a paper that will not have breathed into it the life of ratification and support and future use that will mean the real welfare and security and peace of the world.
Representatives from several small nations, including Iraq, praised Stassen for his eloquence and then insisted on proceeding with the Chinese amendment anyway. Chairman Fraser, sensing that the committee had reached an impasse, directed delegates from the United States, China, Australia, the Soviet Union, and Britain to get together and work out exactly what was meant by the term “self-government” so that they could get to the bottom of the “independence” issue.
While other committees hammered out agreements on the use of the veto by permanent members of the Security Council, regional arrangements, an International Court of Justice, and the role of the UN secretariat, among other important issues, Stassen’s committee continued to flounder. On May 31 another delegate from the Philippines took issue with the original language proposed by Great Britain in Chapter XI, Article 73, Section A of the charter, which began with “State members of the United Nations which have responsibilities for the administration of territories inhabited by people not yet able to stand by themselves.” Carlos Romulo, a Filipino writer, soldier, and diplomat, questioned the meaning of the phrase. When Lord Cranborne of Great Britain suggested that it was quite obvious, Romulo begged to differ, saying, “I wonder if it is. I wonder if that doesn’t mean ability to protect themselves. That is the way I interpret it. Perhaps my English is very poor. If that is the interpretation, how many nations during this world holocaust would have been able to stand by themselves without the aid of other nations?” Romulo’s position was unassailable given the current state of global affairs, and everyone at the committee meeting realized it. Lord Cranborne did not know how to respond, and the debate ended abruptly. Stassen had been watching the exchange intently. He grabbed a piece of paper, scribbled a few words in pencil, and sent the note over to where Romulo was sitting. The message said, “Congratulations. We are proud of you.” The original British wording never made it into the final UN Charter.
But the fight raged on over the use of the word “independence.” The delegate from Iraq weighed in with a passionate defense of what he phrased “Wilsonian principles and the Atlantic Charter,” declaring,
When we speak of equality, it should be for all. When we speak of independence, it should be for all. When we speak of the right of self-determination, it should be for all. Unless we leave this Conference with that view of universality, with that view of brotherhood, unless we practice that, the world will continue to suffer from pains and agonies, and wars will succeed one after the other . . . We see, Mr. Chairman, this Charter lacks greatly giving people some channel, some way of expressing their own feelings, their own rights, or participating in self-determination. The words we have are all weak and vague. We want clarity, Sir. We want definiteness.
The committee on trusteeship convened for its twelfth session on the afternoon of June 1. Stassen presented his fellow delegates with wording he hoped would garner their collective support. He and his assistants had worked most of the previous night trying to craft language that satisfied all of the nations present. They essentially pursued the middle way. In Article 73 the Americans formally declared the UN’s responsibility “to develop selfgovernment, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions.” And then to meet the persistent demands of the Chinese and many of the smaller nations, they revised Section B of Article 76 (which covers the basic objectives of the trusteeship system) to read as follows: “to promote the political, economic, social, and educational advancement of the inhabitants of the trust territories, and their progressive development towards self-government or independence as may be appropriate to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples concerned, and as may be provided by the terms of each trusteeship agreement.”
The delegates accepted Stassen’s revisions and several members went out of their way to praise his efforts. Carlos Romulo of the Philippines thanked “Commander Stassen to whom we owe so much for his patience and tact and skill in drafting, redrafting this working paper.” And then, in a gesture that no doubt would have thrilled Harry Truman, Romulo quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson by rejoicing, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
Stassen thanked his colleagues and insisted that many people had a hand in forming the final document on trusteeship. He referred to his role in the process as “a distinct honor” and said he hoped that “our document will live and will mean progress for the peoples of the world, including particularly those peoples who have not reached the stage where they can be directly represented at the United Nations Council table.” That statement was greeted with applause. But perhaps the most gratifying note of praise came from the committee’s chairman, Peter Fraser of New Zealand, who said,
I pay tribute—of course I hope to do it in public—to Commander Stassen’s handling of this program—on this paper I mean. You talk about all the other committees. They had brick, they had clay and straw; they had all the materials. We had none. The children of Israel’s task was small compared to ours. We had no guidance. We had a blank sheet of paper, and I think the method we adopted, that was to place the job, just like a bill in Parliament or Congress, in the hands of one man, I think that has been amply fulfilled, and the example of cooperation with him we have had is one of the most inspiring things about the conference and one of the best organs for the future of the conference.
On June 26, 1945, President Harry S. Truman joined the American delegation to officially sign the United Nations Charter. “History will honor you,” he told a crowd of 3,500 people packed into the San Francisco Opera House. This charter means, he explained, that “we all have to recognize— no matter how great our strength—that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please . . . This is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace.” John Foster Dulles, serving as an advisor to the U.S. delegation, enthusiastically declared, “I believe it can be a greater Magna Carta.” And Senator Arthur Vandenberg told the press, “In my opinion, our intelligent American self-interest indispensably requires our loyal cooperation in this great adventure to stop World War III before it starts.”
As Commander Stassen prepared to rejoin Admiral Halsey in the Pacific, he could afford to bask briefly in the glory of a job well done. He had helped to accomplish what many people thought was impossible. The United Nations was a reality at last, and Harold Stassen had played a major role in bringing it to fruition. It may have pleased him to learn that a Newsweek poll of foreign correspondents queried at the end of the conference had ranked him as one of two delegates who had the greatest impact on developing the final text of the UN Charter. Even the folks back at home in Minnesota knew how hard Harold had been fighting to win the peace. The Winthrop News, published two counties over from William Stassen’s farm, proudly announced, “It is little wonder that news men and others attending the conference from all over the world look to Harold Stassen as one of the great men of the day and whose star has but begun to shine.”