Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations

Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations

by Stephen Schlesinger

In Act of Creation, Stephen C. Schlesinger tells a pivotal and little-known story of how Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and the new American President, Harry Truman, picked up the pieces of the faltering campaign initiated by Franklin Roosevelt to create a "United Nations." Using secret agents, financial resources, and their unrivaled position of power

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In Act of Creation, Stephen C. Schlesinger tells a pivotal and little-known story of how Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and the new American President, Harry Truman, picked up the pieces of the faltering campaign initiated by Franklin Roosevelt to create a "United Nations." Using secret agents, financial resources, and their unrivaled position of power, they overcame the intrigues of Stalin, the reservations of wartime allies like Winston Churchill, the discontent of smaller states, and a skeptical press corps to found the United Nations. The author reveals how the UN nearly collapsed several times during the conference over questions of which states should have power, who should be admitted, and how authority should be divided among its branches. By shedding new light on leading participants like John Foster Dulles, John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Nelson Rockefeller, and E. B White, Act of Creation provides a fascinating tale of twentieth-century history not to be missed.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Amazingly, the event that led to [the] ceremony -- the San Francisco conference, which once gripped the world --has been almost totally ignored by historians. Stephen Schlesinger, a historian of foreign affairs who runs the World Policy Institute at the New School University, has filled that gap with Act of Creation, a superb book that reconstructs this drama with great lucidity, and illuminates its contemporary relevance. — Richard Holbrooke
Publishers Weekly
When President Roosevelt died in April 1945, the plans for a United Nations suddenly fell into peril. Many wondered if the unassuming new president from Independence, Mo., would postpone the long-planned San Francisco conference scheduled to begin in two weeks' time. But Truman's commitment to the global organization was steadfast. For the previous 50 years, he had carried in his pocket a folded piece of paper with the words of his favorite poem, "Lockesley Hall," by Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd/In the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World./There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe/And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law." Thus, nothing halted the gathering of delegates from all over the world to discuss the thorny issues that would be addressed in the U.N. charter. Most of Schlesinger's book covers the nine-week San Francisco conference, a fascinating web of intrigue, power and greed. Most interesting is the performance by the American secretary of state, Edward Stettinius, chief overseer and coordinator of the conference. While his ability was doubted and he was criticized by many, Stettinius performed brilliantly, according to Schlesinger, who credits him with the conference's success. Whatever the reader's opinion of the U.N. and its current role, Schlesinger, director of the New School University's World Policy Institute, provides a masterful account of the drama acted out on the pressure-filled stage of San Francisco. He handles the complexities with ease and provides the reader with an engaging and thorough account. 16 pages of b&w photos. 40,000 first printing. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
A fascinating history of the diplomatic dramas and political intrigues behind the launch of the United Nations, especially the pivotal months in the spring of 1945, when the new President Truman struggled to keep his predecessor's vision of a postwar international peace organization alive. Schlesinger shows American officials maneuvering around an array of obstacles — Soviet intransigence, small-country aspirations, bureaucratic infighting, isolationist skeptics, and the ghost of Woodrow Wilson. From his first days as president, Truman struggled to reconcile his desire to get the Soviets to accept the UN with his determination to challenge their increasingly provocative intrusions in Poland and Eastern Europe. A deeper struggle, meanwhile, churned between idealist ambitions and the realities of power politics. At every turn, Roosevelt and Truman were determined to avoid Wilson's mistakes, and Senate ratification was the ultimate arbiter of their success. What Schlesinger makes clear is how thoroughly American the UN was from the very beginning, imbued with the country's values and political goals. Beyond this insight, however, the book remains silent on the lessons that this vivid narrative holds for today's UN controversies.
Kirkus Reviews
A sturdy account of the UN's birth, starring the seven American politicians and civil servants who, "balancing peace with cold-eyed realism," engineered the San Francisco conference that led to its creation. The idea of an international body devoted to conflict resolution and cooperation was not new, writes World Policy Institute director Schlesinger, though previous efforts to forge one had had mixed success: the Treaty of Westphalia, which concluded the Napoleonic Wars, had ushered in more than half a century of peace and prosperity in Europe, but it came crashing down with the onset of WWI, and the League of Nations effectively died in childbirth. Still, that idea found adherents among both American conservatives (John Foster Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller) and liberals (Adlai Stevenson, Sumner Welles) in the late 1930s, and throughout WWII these influential men, working with behind-the-scenes players such as the Russian-born economist Leo Pasvolsky, worked to engineer consensus among their fellow decision-makers while balancing the sometimes conflicting visions of the postwar world that America's allies harbored. Dealing with Stalin proved to be particularly vexing, Schlesinger shows, for by the time of Yalta the Soviets had developed a clear idea that they would be calling the shots in much of Europe. But, he adds, smaller countries had their worries, too. Many objected to the original UN charter, which vested veto power in only five major powers, causing a Turkish delegate to warn that "the small states are inevitably going to be reduced to the status of satellites of the great." Yet, against formidable opposition, the seven US delegates succeeded in bringing their nation, and thengovernments worldwide, into agreement with the general aims of the charter, producing a body that, Schlesinger urges, has been largely successful in its mission ever since. A great resource for students of modern history and international law. First printing of 40,000

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Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.27(d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Schlesinger is Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City. In the mid-1990s, he worked at the United Nations, and also served as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor to New York's Governor Mario Cuomo for twelve years. He is a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and the New York Observer. He lives in New York City.

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