SAN FRANCISCO — My acquaintance with Stephen Schlesinger’s book “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” occurred almost precisely at the same time as the March 2020 Covid lockdown.
And now I introduce you to the first episode of a three-part podcast series of the same name, “Act of Creation,” which uses the book as a springboard to a fascinating conversation with Schlesinger, setting the scene when the UN Charter was born 78 years ago; how the negotiations for it ensued from April 25 to June 26, 1945; and taking stock of this singular moment and its enduring relevance today about lessons about leadership, about isolationism and about the power of an educated public.
As a San Francisco educator and composer, I had only recently jumped into the UN orbit in 2020. I remember meeting with the president of the local chapter of the United Nations Association (a worldwide group whose mission is to educate the public about the UN), in the lobby of the San Francisco War Memorial Veterans Building. I knew this building well. It was home to the Herbst Theater, one of the city’s most prominent concert halls and a space I had been to, off and on the stage, at least a hundred times. Why meet here, I wondered?
The punch line, of course, is that I immediately learned that this very same Herbst Theater was where the UN Charter was signed on June 26, 1945. Neither I nor any of my colleagues in the arts world in the Bay Area knew this. (What does that say?) But it was at that moment — during that strange intersection — that I understood where my work for the next several years was to be focused.
That year, 2020, was also the 75th anniversary of the UN, which created the context in which I discovered Schlesinger’s 2003 book and solidified all my personal intuitions. For the first time, I began to truly understand the guts — the mind, body and spirit — of this massive organization. (And it wasn’t for lack of trying before that.) Every page was rich with history, drama and amazingly relevant lessons for our own time.
It was only when the war in Ukraine fully broke out, in February 2022, that I truly became a crusader for Schlesinger’s book. I was sure that everyone at the upper levels of the UN must “of course!” be well versed with all the lessons that scream out from every page, lessons filled with inspiration, wisdom and plenty of political savvy. But I was wrong. I believe the UN’s failure to act during the buildup to Russia’s invasion on that cold February day is the greatest betrayal of the UN Charter in my lifetime.
If I could have afforded to buy thousands of “Act of Creation” and pass them around to UN members, I would have. But it hit me that the next best thing might be to make a podcast series, and happily Schlesinger agreed to be interviewed for two long but lively afternoons in September 2022, coincidentally as the UN General Assembly was holding its big annual meeting across town in Manhattan. Much of the tone and spirit of Schlesinger’s book emerges from his own retelling of this amazing story. His personal voice, both figuratively and literally, creates a riveting 35 minutes — (in the first episode) — that anyone associated with or interested in the UN should listen to. Right before they buy his book.
It was my pleasure to produce this podcast, for which I hosted, edited and composed the music. The series is done in collaboration with PassBlue and co-sponsored by UNA-San Francisco. — DAN BECKER
PassBlue receives major support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations as well as from smaller foundations and, most important, from thousands of readers across the globe.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the first podcast episode of "Act of Creation"?
The UN is not relevant as it was created before how many countries in the South? It is time to see that the UN has no real purpose today! A new UN is necessary, imperative and useful to address issues facing this world today as we cannot and should not perpetuate colonialism et imperialism!
“But I was wrong. I believe the UN’s failure to act during the buildup to Russia’s invasion on that cold February day is the greatest betrayal of the UN Charter in my lifetime.” The author of this statement is out of touch with the real history of the violations of the UN Charter: The invasion of Ukraine is minor compared to the (illegal) invasion of the U.S. of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc. And let’s not forget Viet Nam. Or how the U.S. allows Israel to brutally oppress the Palestinians and blocks the UN from intervening.
In point of fact, the U.S. has violated the UN Charter even back in 1945 when the U.S. mocked the UN by atomic bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Civilians murdered for no legitimate reason.
World federalists have noted that the UN Charter cannot, and has not, ended war — the UN’s primary mission. Why its consistent failures? The Charter is wrong. It must be replaced. World federalists and world citizen activists have taken note by calling for a review of the UN Charter (Center for UN Constitutional Research) which will open the door for the Earth Constitution and a “new UN” – a redesigned world charter/constitution with a democratic UN, a UN World Parliament and a well-designed world judiciary system with enforcement.
Such a compelling story presented in a smart professional way. I loved the audio/radio clips. Kudos to Dan Becker!
Yes when the UNSG and its body fail to protect the UN Charter as explained above…we my need to have the history and take use of the knowledge of the Dag Hammarskjold Library and its historical staffing to help the UNSG to take use of the only tools he can to avoid any escalation or conflicts and also to solve all ongoing wars…as the history is written and stored at the Dag Hammarskjold Library on how to solve it…I saw it myself when the previous prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, did not find any solutions on how NATO could avoid this conflicts and saying lets talk on the big steps of the UNNY and clearly say lets not make Ukraine to be part of NATO or European Union now…but my after 2050 if we solved the Climate problems …who we all knows is the life on earth if we look after it…So her the UN VOICE WAS WEEK and sadly 1 year later we looking for excuses on how to repair it…The UN and UNSG has the answers…he just need to enforce it by the UN Charter and with UN DIPLOMACY ON ITS BEST…
Thank you Dan for this gift of history and perspective. On the 50th anniversary we organized a conference at the Opera House in San Francisco that featured and honored surviving founders of the UN. There were amazing stories shared that may be of interest to your podcast listeners. One that relates to the role of civil society was about a book published soon after the San Francisco conference by one of the young staff present at the creation, Dorothy Robins. https://www.amazon.com/Experiment-democracy-citizen-organizations-forging/dp/B0006CJTEU/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1NVDD5KF2YDEK&keywords=dorothy+robins+democracy&qid=1681812816&s=books&sprefix=dorothy+robins+democracy%2Cstripbooks%2C89&sr=1-1
The “war in Ukraine fully broke out in February 2022” as much as the “Polish war” broke out on 1 September 1939. Putin’s brutal attack was as unprovoked as Hitler’s, despite both dictators’ claim that their special operations were defensive. If truth is a war’s first victim, disingenuous language benefits the aggressor.
Wow! I could have spent hours listening to this insightful and engaging podcast. As a San Franciscan and lover of history I had no idea about the story of my city and its relationship to the start of the UN. I cannot wait for the second installment to learn more about this moment in time, so riveting to hear in both the archival recordings and in Mr. Schlesinger’s own words.