It happened today - July 28, 2015

Eleanor Roosevelt speaks at the UN, 1947 Sixty years ago today the United States Senate approved the UN Charter. Examining the performance of the UN since I am tempted to reproach Senators for having done so. But in many ways it was a remarkable achievement.

I do not say so because the UN, or its Charter, are the revolutionary advance in human history that zealots and partisans claimed and sometimes still do. The UN is not a world government and I for one am glad it’s not. It does not warm the cockles of my heart that Eleanor Roosevelt was a U.S. delegate to the UN General Assembly and the first U.S. delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights. So why is it remarkable and not just in the same way that Chief Inspector Dreyfuss described Jacques Clouseau as “a remarkable man”? Because it signaled decisive American commitment to the maintenance of world order.

Key players in 1944 and 1945, from President Roosevelt himself to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Tom Connally (D TX) and ranking Republican Arthur Vandenberg (R MI), remembered the disastrous failure of the United States to join the League of Nations, a body almost as useless as the UN in practice but equally important from a symbolic point of view. As World War II wound down and Allied victory became inevitable they were determined to avoid a similar result once Germany and Japan surrendered. And while I have little use for FDR’s diplomacy generally, I will give him credit for understanding that his Democratic predecessor Woodrow Wilson had made a horrible botch of his effort to get the U.S. into the League of Nations partly by excluding Republicans from the effort and partly by excluding Congress altogether. FDR kept both his partisan adversaries and the legislative branch involved.

Perhaps the danger of American rejection of a leading postwar role was never that great. Popular opinion had clearly swung behind engagement and at least limited willingness to endorse multilateralism; hence the enormous margins by which resolutions passed the House and Senate in 1944 stating that Congress would not obstruct American membership in a postwar international organization (the “Fulbright Resolution” passed the House by 360 to 29; the “Connally Resolution” passed the Senate by 85 to 5). But it’s easy to be smug in retrospect. At the time it seemed both important and controversial. And that requires us to give at least some credit to those who managed to bring it smoothly to a successful conclusion.

Americans would of course come to regret much about their nation’s engagement in world affairs and to sour on the UN as they soured on their Soviet “ally” after 1945. But until very recently they remained overwhelmingly committed to leading the free world and we are very fortunate that they did.

As a practical matter American membership in NATO, formed in 1949, mattered more. The decision to join the UN was symbolic. But sometimes symbols matter. In 1945 this one did, and it is remarkable how decisively and clearly the American political establishment endorsed it with the clear support of a majority of citizens.