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Managing the Impossible: Hammering Out the UN Charter

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Virginia Gildersleeve Signs the UN Charter
Virginia Gildersleeve, a member of the United States delegation, signing the United Nations Charter at a ceremony held at the Veterans War Memorial Building, San Francisco, June 26, 1945. With her, from left, other members of the US delegation: President Harry Truman, Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, Senators Tom Connally of Texas and Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. MCCREARY/UN PHOTO

Our latest episode of “Act of Creation” takes listeners deep into conversation with Stephen Schlesinger, author of the book of the same name, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this September and chronicles the birth of the United Nations through the signing of the UN Charter. That is arguably the moment when the UN was born, at the end of a two-month conclave that began on April 25, 1945, most famously referred to as the San Francisco Conference.

The second episode of our three-part series moves from the human flavor of the first episode, where we put the conference into historical context, setting the atmosphere, the quality of the air that was being breathed in at the time. World War II was still underway, Hiroshima was only a few months off and United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was by far the most central figure to the creation of the UN than most listeners realized.

Listen to the latest episode on SoundCloud, Stitcher, Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Episode Two begins with the gaveling of the conference itself, and the conversation between Stephen and me dives into the proceedings to explore several of the issues, debates, storm clouds and personalities that populated, for two often-foggy months, the city of San Francisco.

It’s not a spoiler to say that the Charter was signed on June 26, 1945, but you’ll hear plenty of details and suspense-filled moments that are bound to surprise. These include a nuanced view of the hard compromises that had to be made — such as those related to the often-loathed and always radioactive veto power of the permanent five members of the Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US. We’ll also hear about tensions with the Soviets over Poland, dangers resulting from Argentina’s ambiguous stance on the Nazis, how Belarus and Ukraine fit into the overall debates and a Russian-born bureaucrat in the State Department who played a crucial role in negotiating the Charter.

Most important, Episode Two reminds us of the close call the entire enterprise was navigating the whole time. Early in the podcast, I ask the question: “How on earth do you get so many separate nation-states from around the world, all who hold their national self-interest close to their hearts, to ultimately act in unison on one simple but not simplistic fact — that in the end humanity is one?”

While I immediately warn about romanticizing such lofty notions, it’s hard not to intellectually and intuitively sense that there’s a “secret sauce” running through this whole endeavor of establishing the UN. That mysterious ingredient will be part of our discussion in the final episode of our series!

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Until then, I ask listeners to consider carving out a chunk of their brain to ponder what this secret sauce might be — holding together and carrying this impossible venture to success. If such a “spiritual condiment” could be reverse-engineered, think how different the world might look, taste, smell and feel.

Listen to the latest episode on SoundCloud, Stitcher, Spotify or Apple Podcasts

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the founding of the UN?

Dan Becker is a composer, educator and board member of the UNA-San Francisco chapter. He received his doctorate of musical arts, master of music and master of musical arts from Yale University and has taught composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He has received awards and grants from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Meet the Composer, among many others. 

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Managing the Impossible: Hammering Out the UN Charter
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Slawomir Redo
8 months ago

Thank you very much for your reply and agreement. I am a part of a group of mostly Vienna-based Friends of the UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Programme (some of whom worked for it with a few of its staff transferred there from New York) and will gladly distribute your kind invitation to all of them. On a substantive note, it is extremely important that Steven Schlesinger’s with his authentic insights into the Framers’ minds about the Charter have been so clearly and vividly brought up through your interview with him. Great! We need more of this type of interviews!

Slawomir Redo
8 months ago

The two podcasts I listened to are very insightful. Neither the analysis of the Charter’s travaux préparatoires nor single academic and other texts put together could succinctly tell that much as the podcasts underway. Mr. Schlesinger’s insights are extremely informative. Since in your intro you referred to a 2-month UNCIO “conclave” are we to expect in the next podcast some insights regarding how come after its conclusion Henry de Rosen was invited to paint in the San Francisco Grace Cathedral the mural “Founding of the United Nations”?

Dan Becker
8 months ago
Reply to  Slawomir Redo

Greetings Professor Redo – Dan Becker here, producer of the podcast series, speaking on behalf of the entire team to say how much we appreciate your comments. While much of the discussion of episode three has already been recorded, we will be doing one more session and we will try to include a discussion of the Grace Cathedral mural you speak of. We agree it is very beautiful. And it would make a nice contribution to the story. Finally I’d like to ask a modest favor of you, because as the producer of the podcast I want so much to get Stephen‘s telling of this story out, especially as I agree that it is a very succinct and interesting way to share so much material, — and ideally to as many listeners as possible. If you might consider sharing the Podcast link with your followers on LinkedIn and elsewhere, you would be contributing to a very good (and very important) cause. All best wishes and thank you again, Dan B.

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