WHY did the United States not try to reach agreements with other members of the United Nations on political and territorial problems while the war was still in progress? Perhaps no one question about the conduct of wartime diplomacy is asked more frequently than this, and in no field of policy are critics--writing in the perspective of 1950--more sharp in their comments on the shortsightedness of Allied leaders. It is true that the President and his Secretary of State were officially committed to a policy of no agreements on territorial adjustments or political settlements until the war was over, at which time these could be taken up for consideration and decision at a peace conference of the United Nations. This very definitely was also the policy favored by the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. Perhaps it may be helpful at this crucial juncture of our affairs to review the background of this decision. Another fateful wartime decision, to create the United Nations organization while the war was still in progress, had a happier outcome. How and why that decision was reached I shall also attempt to relate in the pages which follow.

If the great peace conferences of Vienna in 1815 and of Paris in 1919 had taught any one lesson clearly, surely it was that victorious allies invariably quarrel among themselves over the division of the spoils. At Paris in 1919 we saw in particular how appallingly difficult it was to overcome the exaggerated forms of selfish nationalism to which a victorious war gives rise. This was so even though we then were negotiating primarily with Great Britain, France and Italy, Western nations with ideals and practices similar to our own. This time we would be dealing with the Soviet Union. The Stalin-Hitler deal of August 1939 and the Kremlin's subsequent course hardly gave ground for confidence in the inherent altruism of the Bolshevik Politburo's foreign policy. What reason was there to think that, after the defeat of our common enemies, Russia triumphant would be disposed to give the claims of humanity to peace, freedom, happiness and prosperity priority over her own demands for what Stalin would term "security?"

All the "spoils" that the United States wanted for itself at the end of the Second World War were a peace founded on justice and practical common sense so that future wars might be avoided. We would hardly be likely to secure this single end if we postponed taking action until once again the victors were quarreling around the peace conference table. Yet at the very outset the possibility that we would be able to take any steps in that direction seemed to be precluded.

Early in December 1941, Anthony Eden, then British Foreign Secretary, was about to go to Moscow. The United States was not yet at war, but he had let us know that the future status of the Baltic Republics would undoubtedly come up in his talks with Stalin and Molotov. I myself expressed the strong hope in talking with both the President and Secretary Hull that we would urge the British Government not to make any final agreement which would commit Great Britain to support the permanent obliteration of the three states in question--Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. A message in that sense was sent to Foreign Secretary Eden on December 5, 1941, through Ambassador Winant in London.

But the message sent by Secretary Hull went much farther indeed than a mere note of caution on this specific issue. The position he took was that, inasmuch as the Soviet, British and United States Governments were bound by their acceptance of the Atlantic Charter to be guided by its principles in all postwar settlements, no specific terms of settlement should be agreed upon before the final peace conference. The Secretary of State very properly concluded by also urging that in any event no secret commitments should be made. At the moment when the message was sent (only two days before Pearl Harbor) the terms in which it was couched seemed innocuous enough. The principles for postwar policy laid down by the Atlantic Charter provided an altogether desirable pattern.

Yet they constituted a pattern, and nothing more. They gave no slightest indication, for example, as to the justice or injustice of a given settlement covering eastern Poland. The Soviet Government might claim quite plausibly that its retention of eastern Poland would not be territorial aggrandizement of the sort prohibited by the first article of the Atlantic Charter, but, on the contrary, a "territorial change" that fully accorded "with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned," as authorized by the second article. Yet the Polish Government-in-Exile would inevitably maintain that such a "territorial change" was aggrandizement at its worst and that the wishes of "the peoples concerned" could not be "freely expressed." Agreement upon the broad principles of the Atlantic Charter would never in itself prevent future bitter controversies over frontiers and zones of influence.

In any event, the message to Anthony Eden created a precedent upon which a policy was soon erected. When the British Foreign Secretary left for Moscow he took instructions from his Cabinet which were similar in intent to the request made by the United States Government. In Moscow, however, he was met with an insistent demand that Great Britain without further ado formally commit herself to the recognition of Russia's 1941 frontiers as they had been established by Stalin's deal with Hitler in 1939. Stalin also proposed the restoration of Austria as an independent state, the detachment of the Rhineland from Prussia as an independent state or protectorate, and possibly the constitution of an independent state of Bavaria. Other suggested territorial changes included the transfer of East Prussia to Poland and of Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia, as well as certain adjustments in the Balkans. "As regards the special interests of the Soviet Union," according to Mr. Eden, "Stalin desired the restoration of the position in 1941, prior to the German attack, in respect of the Baltic States, Finland and Bessarabia. The 'Curzon Line' should form the basis for the future Soviet-Polish frontier, and Rumania should give special facilities for bases, etc., to the Soviet Union, receiving compensation from territory now occupied by Hungary."[i] British recognition of the Soviet demands was to be a preliminary to any Anglo-Soviet treaty of alliance.

In accordance with his instructions, Mr. Eden limited himself while in Moscow to the promise that the Russian claims would at some future time be considered by the British Commonwealth as well as by the United States. But upon his return to London he was further pressed by Mr. Molotov, and from Mr. Eden's messages it appeared that he felt the need to comply unless the English-speaking Powers were willing to run the risk of an early break with their Soviet ally and of a separate peace treaty between the Soviet Union and Germany.

The issue was, of course, clear-cut. It was evident that even at the climax of the furious German assault upon the Soviet armies Stalin wished to be sure that he would retain the fruits of his earlier collusion with Hitler. The Soviet Government had just subscribed to the United Nations declaration and, consequently, to the provisions of the Atlantic Charter. Yet it was now pressing for a commitment which would violate the spirit as well as the letter of the Charter.

From our standpoint in Washington such an agreement was unthinkable. Our acquiescence in it would have been interpreted in every quarter of the globe as meaning that the Atlantic Charter, in which the British and American Governments had solemnly announced their intention of securing a future peace which would assure "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live," was, in fact, no more than a hollow sham, a collection of high-sounding phrases designed merely to impress the ingenuous. It would have lost the United States that invaluable measure of moral support which was forthcoming in all the countries where people were still able to think and speak freely, and which eventually proved to be of such great avail in the winning of the war.

We found that Mr. Churchill stood four-square with us on this issue. He stated categorically during his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister what he has frequently since reiterated, that "the Baltic States should be sovereign independent peoples." In a message to Mr. Eden of January 8, 1942, he said: "The transfer of the peoples of the Baltic States to Soviet Russia against their will would be contrary to all the principles for which we are fighting this war and would dishonor our cause. This also applies to Bessarabia and to Northern Bukhovina and in a lesser degree to Finland, which I gather it is not intended wholly to subjugate and absorb. . . . In any case there can be no question of settling frontiers until the peace conference. I know President Roosevelt holds this view as strongly as I do, and he has several times expressed his pleasure to me at the firm line we took at Moscow. . . . There must be no mistake about the opinion of any British Government of which I am the head, namely, that it adheres to those principles of freedom and democracy set forth in the Atlantic Charter, and that these principles must become especially active whenever any question of transferring territory is raised."[ii]

It was thus, barely a month after the United States entered the war, that a firm agreement was reached between the American and British Governments that no commitments upon postwar political and territorial settlements should be made until the peace conference. For the time being, the Soviet Government acquiesced. When Molotov visited Washington six months later, in June 1942, he proffered no demand for a reconsideration of the American and British refusal to recognize Russia's frontiers prior to June 1941.

Yet it was inconceivable, of course, that the lesser Powers which had territorial or political disputes with the Soviet Union, or with their smaller neighbors, should not seek during the war, while they were bound together in the common cause against Hitler, to get by direct negotiation a settlement that would be confirmed after the victory. If any demonstration of this had been needed, it was soon afforded, first by the several visits to Washington of General Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, and later by the visits of President Beneš of Czechoslovakia.

Sikorski recognized, of course, that no final commitments as to the future status of Poland or the future extension of Polish territory could be made by any Polish Government-in-Exile, but that these matters must await the freely expressed decision of the Polish people themselves. Nevertheless, he told me that it would be criminally short-sighted on his part not to seek an opportunity during the war of reaching an agreement with the Soviet Union and with Czechoslovakia on political and territorial issues, so that the entire problem could be successfuly clarified before any peace conference was held.

He felt--correctly, I think--that there would be no difficulty in finding an agreement with Czechoslovakia. Whether he was equally justified in speaking so confidently, on the basis of his conversations with Stalin in Moscow in 1941, of his ability to negotiate a fair settlement with the Soviet Union is another matter. I remember clearly how he told me that Stalin had quoted to him, with apparent approval, Lenin's remark to the effect that the Soviet Government must realize that the Poles had reason to hate Russia and must treat them in a friendly way and give Polish nationalism full recognition. In any event, after Sikorski had succeeded with British help in restoring diplomatc relations with Moscow, and had arranged for the formation of a Polish Army to fight against Germany on Russian soil, he felt that he had made concrete progress and that he was not unduly optimistic in believing that fair political and territorial adjustments might be negotiated with Stalin.

President Beneš had had greater experience in the international arena and so was less sanguine. He recognized realistically, as he told me, that the future independence and security of Czechoslovakia lay solely in her ability to walk the tightrope over the abyss between the East and the West. For that reason he undertook his wartime visits to Moscow in the belief that only through understandings reached directly with Stalin could there be any hope that his country would be saved from Russian hegemony in the years to come.

In the same way, the representatives of almost all the smaller European members of the United Nations spoke to me of this, that or the other territorial rectification or reparation which they were determined to seek and which they hoped to consolidate by prior agreement before the end of the war.

In fact, one of the questions uppermost in my mind during the two years after Pearl Harbor was whether the United States Government was not losing an unparalleled opportunity to further the achievement of the kind of peace desired by the American people. By the spring of 1942 we had already commenced within the State Department our intensive study of the kind of world organization and of the kind of political and territorial settlements that we wanted to see made. The work was undertaken by the Advisory Committee on Post-War Foreign Policy, set up in the State Department under my chairmanship on the authority of President Roosevelt exactly three weeks after Pearl Harbor. The Committee at first was small, consisting of a few Department officials, a handful of private citizens called in because of their special knowledge, and several Congressional leaders of both parties whom the President had authorized me to invite. Later it became unwieldy, and was the subject of endless bickering and internecine feuds.

But even in the period when the Advisory Committee could function effectively the results of its studies necessarily represented merely the formulation of what we Americans believed to be wise, right and just. We might assume that our views would be found to coincide very largely with those of the British Commonwealth, of our neighbors of the Western Hemisphere and of the lesser Powers of Western Europe. But in the light of our experience to date with the Soviet Union, what possible assurance could we have that when the peace conference arrived Moscow would be willing to accept even a small percentage of our recommendations? Was it not the part of wisdom, as soon as our own views had been formulated, and as soon as we had ascertained what the views of our American neighbors and of some of the smaller countries of Europe might be, to try to do what Mrs. Roosevelt had suggested three years before, namely, set up officially an international group "continuously to plan for future peace?" Should we not create a body, similar in its composition to what later became the Security Council of the United Nations, and representing all of the United Nations, so that this organism might commence without delay to study the future structure of the world, iron out so far as might be possible difficulties among the several members of the United Nations, and be prepared at the end of the war to present for the final approval of the peace conference a series of settlements and of postwar policies already agreed upon in principle? I naturally discussed this possibility with the other members of the Advisory Committee. There the suggestion met with general approval, enthusiastic on the part of some and tepid on the part of others. Yet at the highest level it was summarily turned down.

I think it is wholly accurate to say that, while the President decided to reject the proposal, the intrinsic idea commended itself to him. In judging his decision we must remember the several influences which were being brought to bear upon him and the considerations by which a Commander-in-Chief must necessarily be guided. Winning the war was and had to remain the foremost objective. No step in the political realm, however beneficial it might promise to be later on, could properly be taken if it jeopardized or threatened to postpone the victory.

The first ten months of 1942 were for us the darkest period of the war. We had to face not only the succession of disasters which had struck us in the Pacific but also the series of calamities which had overtaken the British war effort since Pearl Harbor--the setbacks in Libya, the Nazi occupation of Greece, the fall of Crete, and the growing threat to the security of Egypt. The Russian armies were resisting the German onslaught magnificently, but how long could they hold?

It was altogether natural that the Joint Chiefs of Staff should constantly warn the President that, whatever advantages might theoretically be gained by trying to settle political and territorial problems during the war, these future assets must be regarded as offset by the immediate dangers of awakening controversies with Russia. If we joined with the British in such an attempt we would at once run headlong into a renewed demand that we recognize the 1941 frontiers of Soviet Russia. How could we do so in view of the position which we had already taken? And would we not inevitably find it impossible to concede other claims that Russia might advance later--for control of the Straits, for a predominant position in Iran, and for strategic and territorial concessions in the Far East--without incurring the legitimate resentment of the peoples of Turkey, the Middle East and China?

On the other hand, suppose we continued firm in rejecting the Russian claims. Would we not, at best, bring about a breakdown in Russian coöperation with us in the war against Germany or, at the worst (and this possibility was in the minds of the Joint Chiefs of Staff throughout the war), encourage the Kremlin to negotiate a separate peace with Hitler? The Joint Chiefs of Staff frequently emphasized the significance of the British Cabinet's belief that a message received from Moscow as early as September 5, 1941, conveyed the impression that Stalin was already then thinking of coming to terms with Germany separately. Representations like these would have been persuasive at any time. During the dark year of 1942 they were necessarily decisive.

There were other considerations as well. The Secretary of State was temperamentally disposed to put off dealing with controversial issues as long as possible. He preferred not to cross the proverbial bridge until he came to it. A remedial policy was to him preferable to a preventive policy. If the discussion of such exceedingly thorny problems as the Baltic States or Poland's eastern frontiers could be postponed until a peace conference, that was infinitely better than grasping the nettle now with decision and dispatch. And this was a moment, it is to be remembered, when as a consequence of the extreme friction that had arisen between President Roosevelt and Mr. Hull in January 1942 the President was making every effort to avoid running counter to Mr. Hull's recommendations.

Nor must we lose sight of the President's never-failing preoccupation with his rôle as wartime leader of the American people. He was determined to preserve national unity. If it became known that the Government was engaged in discussions about the future frontiers of Poland, the future status of the Baltic States and other East European postwar settlements there could be little doubt that large racial minorities in this country would at once be greatly exercised and become divided into quarreling and antagonistic groups.

Last, but by no means least, was the fact that while the President saw clearly the advantages of going to the peace conference with prior agreements on political and territorial problems he by no means felt that our hope of securing a good peace would necesssarily be prejudiced by postponing the discussion of these issues. For he had--and justly--great confidence in his own ability as a negotiator.

It is perhaps only fair to add that President Roosevelt was apt occasionally to place too much reliance upon a few favorite panaceas in his approach to problems which actually were too basic and far-reaching in their origins and nature to admit of easy solutions. For example, he had a faith in the efficacy of plebiscites as a cure-all for most of Europe's territorial controversies. He was even more wedded than Woodrow Wilson had been to the idea that plebiscites are a universal remedy. It was at about this time that he talked to me one evening for well over an hour about the desirability of employing this method to settle once and for all the friction among the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which had so beclouded the history of Jugoslavia as an independent state. He apparently did not attribute much importance to the harm that would be done to the national economies of all three peoples should they decide to become independent entities. It was also his original intention to recommend this same plebiscite principle if and when the time came to discuss the future of the Baltic States with Stalin. He said that he was certain that he could get Stalin to agree that a freely-conducted plebiscite should be held in all three of the republics, under international auspices. As is now well known, the President found out at Yalta how vain this illusion had been. Stalin told him that the subject was one which he refused to discuss, inasmuch as the Baltic peoples had already voted to join the Soviet Union.

As the months passed, however, it became plain that while it might be much easier and in some ways perhaps more expedient to postpone discussions of such problems as these until the peace conference, the morale of certain countries--China, for example--would be seriously impaired if their governments could not be given a firm assurance as to their future status. It was also becoming more and more apparent that the appetite of a victorious Soviet Union might well become inordinate if no effort was made to check it before the end of the war. The recognition of these imperious necessities resulted in several purely political actions. Declarations covering the restoration of Austrian independence and the future status of Italy were issued when the Foreign Ministers of the four major allies met in Moscow in October 1943; and a declaration covering Korean independence and the restoration to China of Manchuria, Formosa and the Pescadores was made when the President met with Chiang Kaishek and Churchill at Cairo in December of the same year.

At Teheran and at Yalta new and significant political agreements were reached. It was at Teheran that the President first brought up the suggestion that Russia should have access to the Manchurian port of Dairen. At Teheran, too, Stalin temporarily reversed the position which he had taken in his conferences with Eden the year before; he stated that there was no need at that moment for him to speak of Russia's future territorial interests, but added, not without grim significance, that "when the time comes we will speak." It was at Yalta that Roosevelt and Churchill conceded Stalin's demands in the Far East, including the recovery of Southern Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands and the acquisition of a position in Manchuria that was tantamount to full control of that ancient Chinese province. At Yalta, also, Poland's future limits and the political composition of her future government were taken up.

What this brief record shows is that the position so confidently and firmly taken by the British and American Governments in January 1942 was wholly at variance with the course which they later actually pursued, and that this change of policy in a matter of vital significance apparently was not due to a conscious decision by either of them. They seem to have been drifting into a fundamental modification of policy without any realistic apprehension of all its implications.

It must be ruefully admitted, also, that many of the American discussions of postwar territorial and political problems with the Soviet Union were undertaken in a singularly haphazard fashion and without full consideration or preparation. In January 1942 there were two clear-cut alternatives before the United States. One was to create an official international commission, "continuously to plan for future peace." The other was to refuse resolutely to discuss any political or territorial question until a peace conference assembled. Each course had its advantages and disadvantages. My own judgment now, as it was then, is that the advantages of the former far outweighed its disadvantages. By sticking neither to one nor the other we fell between two stools. The immense influence which the United States possessed immediately after Pearl Harbor was not exercised. When the United States did attempt to negotiate political settlements its influence was no longer decisive.

Further, it would be hard to deny that before 1943 the influence of the United States would probably have been conclusive if it had been utilized to support postwar settlements which, although insuring legitimate security to the Russian people, would at the same time have seemed just and wise to the remaining peoples of Europe, the New World and the Far East. At that stage its moral influence was incomparably greater than that of either of its major allies. Mr. Churchill had aroused the hearts and souls of the English-speaking world by his resplendent war leadership. Nevertheless, the part played by his predecessors in European affairs during the decades between the two world wars, his own more recent quarrel with the French, and Britain's rôle as a colonial Power in Asia, Africa and the Near East diminished popular confidence in the British Government. As for the Soviet Government, the suspicion and mistrust aroused by its policy after 1917, and the long war waged by the Kremlin upon organized religion, had deprived Soviet Russia of the moral support of a large part of the world outside of the Communist Party membership. Her struggle against Hitlerism had brought her admiration and a measure of popular backing. Nevertheless, it was to the United States, and in particular to Roosevelt himself, that countless millions of men and women in every part of the globe were turning more and more for leadership in winning freedom and security.

The political influence of the United States was at its peak. Its military strength was already far greater, in proportion to the strength of its allies, than it ever had been during the First World War. The success of the North African operation had revealed its military potentialities. In the production field it was plainly supreme. Two years later, it is true, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force were to be immeasurably greater in striking power. Yet by then the Soviet armies had demonstrably defeated the Nazi invaders.

Stalin himself, at the Teheran Conference at the end of 1942, declared that, except for American production, "the war would have been lost." The armament production which he wrested from the hardly beset Russian people after the German invasion was nothing short of miraculous. But the arms and airplanes which he received from the then limited resources of the United States, in those first dire months when the Russian armies were so sorely pressed that he begged both the British and American Governments to send divisions under their own command to fight on Russian soil, helped greatly to make possible the victory at Moscow.

Should not the United States, at the moment of which I speak, have explored the possibility of reaching a firm agreement with Stalin on postwar political and territorial settlements? Is it not probable that if it had done so its influence would have been sufficiently potent to have kept those settlements within the bounds which a subsequent peace conference of all the United Nations would have been disposed to accept as legitimate and equitable?

To answer these questions we must try to estimate what Stalin would have regarded as the irreducible minimum of his demands. We know what those demands were in December 1941, when he presented them to Mr. Eden. At that very moment the German armies had reached a point only a few miles from Moscow. It would be logical to assume that when Russia's fortunes seemed to be at their lowest ebb Stalin was not resorting to sheer bargaining, and that he was sincere in maintaining that if Russia were victorious she could not accept less than the territorial security that his demands represented.

Of the commitments for which Stalin then asked, one, the Curzon Line, had long been regarded in the West as a legitimate boundary between Poland and Russia, for ethnic as well as strategic reasons. It was in fact accepted by Churchill and Roosevelt at the Teheran Conference later that year. The adjustments involving Bessarabia and Bukovina were not a major difficulty. From the American standpoint, the only one of the commitments sought by Stalin that could not have been accepted was that for the permanent incorporation of the three Baltic Republics into the Soviet Union.

Yet even here it is doubtful whether Stalin in the winter of 1943 would have proved altogether obdurate. Up to the time of the deal with Hitler his own record had been one of consistent opposition to all projects for the increase of Russian territory. It is not often remarked nowadays that it was Stalin himself who went to Helsinki in 1917 to declare the independence of Finland from Russia. Time and again he had announced as his immutable policy, "Not one foot of foreign soil." In this he was, of course, repeating one of Lenin's most cherished tenets. And we find him in 1925 announcing that any effort on the part of the Soviet Union to acquire spheres of influence abroad would be "the road to nationalism and degeneration, the road of full liquidation of the international policy of the proletariat." Until the eve of the Second World War, so far as we can tell from the documents so far made public, as well as by Stalin's support of Litvinov's efforts on behalf of collective security, he had never wavered from that position. It seems by no means unreasonable to assume that some fair solution of this one basic difficulty might have been found if the matter had been broached in the early days of the joint war effort. Such a settlement would of course have had to include an assurance to Stalin that the solution would provide security against a new attack from a rearmed Germany in the years to come. This danger was an obsession with him which governed all his thinking in his dealings with his major allies.

But if Stalin had proved impervious to all American suggestions, what course could he have pursued in the winter of 1943? He could not have risked a withdrawal of lend-lease assistance or a diminution of Anglo-American coöperation without inviting a Russian defeat. The consensus of opinion in Washington and London was that he might sue for a separate peace with Germany. We now know that he was equally fearful that his Western allies might make such a peace. Yet Stalin at that time had by no means attained the measure of popularity that was to be his during the last years of the war; and to sue for a separate peace would have been most unpopular with the Russian people, then in a state of savage fury over the devastation of their homeland and the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis. Finally, what prospect was there at that moment that he could secure even as good peace terms from an enraged Hitler as had been granted to Russia in the shameful Brest-Litovsk Treaty 25 years before?

From that time on the situation altered rapidly. The victory at Stalingrad was followed by the ultimate German retreat. The Red armies occupied the territory to which Stalin had laid claim. The moment for negotiation was gone. Simultaneously, as Russia's military strength increased, the leverage which American political, military and industrial strength could exert upon the Kremlin correspondingly diminished. Soviet Russia had become the principal Power in Europe and in Asia, and her ambitions grew proportionately.

As I see it, the critics of the agreements reached at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam confuse cause and effect. The agreements so bitterly assailed would have been far different in their nature had the President decided in 1942 to insist upon the creation of a United Nations Council charged with the duty of finding solutions for political and territorial problems before the end of the war. His refusal to do so was in accord with the advice given him by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by his Secretary of State, and by most of his White House advisors, as well as with the views then held by the Prime Minister of Great Britain. He made his decision in the conviction that as Commander-in-Chief he possessed the paramount obligation to permit nothing to jeopardize the winning of the war. Yet with the advantage that hindsight gives us, is it not fair to say that it was that decision which was largely responsible for the division of the world today into two hostile camps?


In another field where the Advisory Committee on Post-War Problems did long and careful work the accomplishment was more satisfactory. The planning for future international organization which was undertaken in the Department of State during the war did not at first appeal to the President. But in 1942, counter to his early inclinations, he approved it as the basis for the Moscow Declaration which opened the way for the subsequent Dumbarton Oaks Conference. In the early stages of the war he had not believed that the time was propitious to create a world organization. Yet at Teheran in 1943 he initiated the discussions with Churchill and Stalin which later made possible the negotiation of the U.N. Charter at San Francisco. To him, indeed, and to him alone, we owe the fact that a preliminary United Nations organization came into existence before the end of the war; and without that there would have been no United Nations today.

Why did Roosevelt believe, as late as 1941, that the United States should make no commitment to help rebuild an "effective international organization?" As a Vice-Presidential nominee in the campaign of 1920 he had made more than 800 speeches in support of the League of Nations. Yet all of his intimates knew that during the following two decades his enthusiasm for the League had cooled to a point where it might fairly be described as glacial.

This was due in part, I think, to his disgust, after the first few years of the League's existence, with the way the British and the French, particularly the former, so frequently prevented the League from facing any major issue squarely. He said to me once, in 1935: "The League of Nations has become nothing more than a debating society, and a poor one at that!"

But it must also be remembered that the President himself, consummate politician that he was, was never blind to what was politically inexpedient. In the early thirties he felt that the American people were firmly wedded to a policy of isolation, and that the question of American participation in the League--as distinguished from the World Court--had become altogether academic. Had he raised the League issue in the campaigns of 1932 or 1936 he knew his Republican opponents would have secured great political advantage from playing again on all of those jealousies, fears and suspicions that had so fatally confused the voters in the 1920 campaign.

It is also, perhaps, a characteristic of many of the members of the Roosevelt clan to overestimate the value of success in itself and to appraise unsuccessful causes and endeavors too cheaply merely because of their failure. And no one could deny that the League of Nations had been an abject failure.

Another compelling motive for the President's failure to devote much thought to the details of international organization immediately before and after Pearl Harbor was his preoccupation with his rôle as Commander-in-Chief of America's armed forces. He felt that his first obligation was to persuade the American people to subordinate every other consideration to winning the war. As early as September 11, 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt had publicly stated: "Let us pray that this time we will have strength and foresight enough to plan a more permanent way of peace. . . . I should like to see an international group meeting now continuously to plan for future peace." But I know that her view was not shared by most of the President's White House advisors. Some of them, like Harry Hopkins, were inclined toward isolationism because of early environment and individual preference. Others whose duties were largely confined to the field of practical politics strongly felt that anything resembling an appeal for American participation in a postwar international organization would resurrect the old League of Nations controversy and would be filled with political dynamite. They insisted that it was a dangerous and unnecessary risk.

These influences were all the stronger because they coincided with certain of the President's own inclinations and prejudices. Yet the factors which brought about a complete change in his viewpoint proved in the long run more powerful still.

There were, first of all, the spectacular results of his own initiative in summoning the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace at Buenos Aires in 1936. During the next five years the President had seen the rapid and steady growth of a regional organization composed of the 21 American republics. He had seen this organization bring hemispheric solidarity against the Axis Powers. He had also been profoundly impressed, and somewhat surprised, by the enthusiastic reception which American public opinion had given the Atlantic Charter. The Charter represented a total break with the narrowly isolationist policies of the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover Administrations. It declared that the United States, a nation still nominally neutral, would coöperate after the war in laying the foundations for a decent and peaceful world. He had seen the American people respond with almost universal approval.

The mounting list of casualties within the family of nations also affected his thinking. He had been revolted to the very depths of his soul in 1939 and 1940 by the prospect of the kind of world that Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were so rapidly creating. His original reaction had been the concept of an Anglo-American policing job. But as time went on he saw that, appealing as the idea might be, it could not work. Britain, even though victorious, would be ruined at the end of the war. New and mighty revolutionary forces were arising throughout the world, and even the unparalleled power and resources of the United States could not successfully cope with them alone. Some other answer had to be found.

But I am convinced that the determining factor was the immense impact of Pearl Harbor itself. The disaster brought home to him the full realization that today Great Power aggression can be forestalled only by effective collective security. In any event, the definitive change in Roosevelt's beliefs took place between the Atlantic Charter meeting and the spring of 1942.

The reason I feel that I can speak with authority on this is that in the very many talks which I had with the President between 1936 and the summer of 1941 on the subject of international organization, he never once was willing to agree that an organization composed of all non-totalitarian countries was as yet feasible. Much less did he agree that the United States should attempt to participate in the construction of a new international organization. After Pearl Harbor, however, he not only became steadily more engrossed in the possibility of international organization; he made plain that I might take it for granted that, when and if, in his judgment, the moment became ripe, he would assert American leadership in an attempt to create the kind of new world envisaged in the Atlantic Charter.

During the first part of 1942 it is quite true the President frequently used to say that he did not want to become drawn into the intensive studies of postwar settlements already under way in the Department of State. This was primarily because he feared that if he did really get into them he would become so interested that he might be tempted to devote less of his time and thought to the war effort itself. It was also probably due to his wish to keep an open mind regarding frontiers and other postwar problems, knowing that some compromises would be inevitable and that it would be inexpedient for him to become too fixed in advance in his own convictions about particular solutions.

At the beginning of 1943, after I had been urging him to let me have the needed time, the President finally gave me an uninterrupted two hours at the White House in which I might show him in written form the tentative conclusions reached by our Advisory Committee regarding a future international organization. He saw me in his office late one afternoon after the day's appointments were finished and after he had signed the urgent papers in the wire baskets which flowed so endlessly across his desk. For once he was not in a digressive mood. He read very carefully the memoranda and charts that I placed before him.

At that stage the members of the Departmental committee were almost unanimously of the opinion that any new world structure should be built upon regional organizations similar to the Organization of American States. Each of these regional organizations would periodically elect representatives to sit in a superior executive council to which supreme authority would be delegated by all of the members of the United Nations. This executive council was to be composed of 11 members, seven of them to be elected by the regional organizations and the remaining four to be delegates of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and China. These four were to have permanent seats, with a veto to the extent that the employment of military force could be ordered by the supreme executive council only if nine of its members voted affirmatively. However, if any one of the major Powers was found guilty of aggression, that country should not be permitted to veto the use of military sanctions upon it.

In general, the President thought well of the project. He expressed considerable doubt, however, whether regional organizations of the Near East and, for that matter, of Asia, could be expected to function efficiently in view of the lack of experience in self-government of most of the peoples in those areas.

The President held some exceedingly decided views as to the nations that should be given the ultimate authority to run the world during the first years after the war. There was naturally no question about the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States. But he could not persuade himself that France was entitled at that juncture to be regarded as a major Power. He felt that her recovery would be impossible if she continued to spend the major part of her national revenues upon armaments and a standing army, and that, since Germany must be dismembered, disarmed and placed under international control, there was no reason why France should continue to maintain a great military establishment.

On the other hand, he was equally positive that China from the outset should be regarded as a major Power, with a permanent seat on the supreme executive committee of the United Nations. He felt, he said, that recognition of China's status as one of the four major Powers would prevent any charge that the white races were undertaking to dominate the world; that it would do much to stimulate patriotism and national pride in China, and to pull the various contending factions together; and that a stable China, recognized as one of the Great Powers, would be a barrier to Soviet ambitions in the Far East and serve as a centripetal force in Asia. This would be of the utmost value in limiting the effects of the revolutionary tidal wave already looming in the Far East.

I fully agreed with the President's conclusions concerning China. But I believed that only harm would result if he persisted in his views about France. In fact, I argued with him for some time, pointing out that, if, as I hoped, Germany was going to be disarmed and divided into a number of autonomous sovereign states, Great Britain alone could not be expected--especially in view of her losses during the Second World War--to balance in Western Europe the weight of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. I doubt that my arguments had much effect at that time. Two years later, however, the President himself was to urge the Soviet Union to agree to French participation in the military control of Germany. He also subsequently dropped all ideas of French disarmament, probably as a result of the representation made to him by Mr. Churchill. At all events I never heard him refer to it again.

The State Department's projects had been thoroughly digested by the President and were very much in his mind when Anthony Eden, then British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, came to Washington in March 1943 to canvass our Government's views on postwar problems. Shortly before his arrival, Mr. Churchill had delivered a speech on postwar problems which gave the impression that he was interested solely in the creation after the war of a regional European organization which the United States should be invited to join, and that he had abandoned his earlier support for a more general international organization. Mr. Eden made it plain that he himself staunchly favored the construction of a new, universal, international organization, though he deprecated the idea that the Prime Minister really differed with him in that regard.

Mr. Eden came to the White House one day late in March for a full discussion with the President, the British Ambassador, Secretary Hull and myself. The President outlined the kind of international organization which he had been thinking over since my talk with him in January. He emphasized, rather more strongly than I hoped he would, his belief that Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States, together with China, must for a long time to come assert the right to make all the basic decisions affecting the maintenance of world order. As I remember the conversation--which was comprehensive, although at times it ran off on side issues--there was already a very remarkable meeting of minds between the British and ourselves, even on the subject of trusteeships.

In June of that year I gave the President the final blueprint of the United Nations as we had formulated it in the Department, and when I went to see him the day before he left for the Teheran Conference this draft with his own notes and suggested amendments was lying on his bed. The sketch drawn by the President at the Teheran meeting, reproduced in Sherwood's "Roosevelt and Hopkins,"[iii] conveys simply but graphically all of the essential features of the project we had so often discussed. In the meantime the major members of the United Nations, including China and so far excluding France, had issued at Moscow the joint declaration announcing their intention of establishing a universal organization. But it was at Teheran that Roosevelt and Stalin first discussed, around the table, the form which that organization should assume.

In view of Russian policy since the war, it is worth noting that at Teheran Stalin opposed the inclusion of China as a major Power. China would never have been so accepted had not Roosevelt overridden the joint British and Russian objections. Moreover, by then Stalin had come to favor the creation of regional councils entrusted with responsibility for maintaining peace, and he advocated that the United States be included in such a regional council for Europe. What is equally worthy of note is the President's blunt statement at the conference that the chief threat to the future peace of the world would be aggression on the part of a major Power. He insisted that in this case such a Power must automatically be subject to bombardment, or invasion, or both, by the police force of the world organization.

During the months between the Teheran Conference and the meeting of the four major Powers at Dumbarton Oaks in the late summer of 1944 much was accomplished in ironing out the differences regarding world organization which had begun to show at Teheran. The President had long since reached the conclusion that these differences must be solved before the end of the war if there was to be an international organization in which all the major Allies could take part. He had not failed to recognize the sinister significance of the insulting message sent by Stalin to Churchill in the spring of 1944, containing the threat that unless the Soviet Union could have her own way with regard to the Polish settlement, Russian "coöperation in other spheres" would not be forthcoming. President Roosevelt's final correspondence with Stalin shows plainly how well he realized not only that the Kremlin's suspicions of United States motives had by no means been dispelled, but also that the Soviet Union would probably refuse to live up to the spirit of her political agreements with the West if her strategic position enabled her to evade them with impunity. He was not blind to the signs that the Russian defeat of Hitler's armies had rapidly stimulated the Russian ego, nor to the fact that after Germany's defeat the Soviet state would be by far the most powerful entity in Europe and in Asia.

Yet for these very reasons he was more than ever convinced that the only form of insurance which could be devised at that stage was to secure the active participation of the Soviet Union in the United Nations organization, with all of the restrictions and limitations upon her that this would provide. What is surprising is that at this very juncture the President succeeded so well in dealing with Stalin that there was little difficulty at Dumbarton Oaks in securing a joint agreement upon most of the principles which we regarded as basic in any new international organization.

The serious difficulties, in fact, were only two. One was whether the Soviet Union should be given what amounted to three votes in the Assembly instead of the one vote to which it was legitimately entitled. The other, far more important, was whether the right of the veto granted the permanent members of the Security Council should be unlimited or whether, as the British and Americans desired, the veto should be restricted to proposals to use sanctions in disputes in which the major Powers were not themselves participants.

The Soviet Union was adamant at Dumbarton Oaks that every Great Power should have not only the right to veto the imposition of sanctions by the Security Council against itself but also to veto the mere consideration by the Security Council of any international dispute in which that Great Power might claim it was a participant. The Soviet Government at first threatened that it would never join an international organization which did not guarantee it an unlimited veto power. Yet here again by direct negotiations with Moscow--undertaken, it may be remembered, during an exhausting Presidential campaign--the President secured agreement on a compromise formula which was later officially approved at the Yalta Conference.

This compromise admitted the Soviet contention that the veto might legitimately be employed by a major Power to prevent sanctions against itself. But the Soviet Union conceded the American contention that the veto should not include the right to prevent consideration of any dispute by the Security Council, even if a major Power was a participant in the dispute. The compromise formula, therefore, made it possible for the Security Council to ventilate publicly all controversies in which Russia or any other Great Power was involved.

From our standpoint the formula is, of course, imperfect, since it admits the right of the Soviet Union to prevent the Security Council from imposing sanctions upon her if she commits an act of aggression. Resort to collective action to check the aggression must, therefore, be undertaken by recourse to other instrumentalities. Yet after all, the fact is that the world organization does exist and action has been possible. As we saw when Russia threatened aggression against Iran in 1946, the ventilation of such a dispute by the Security Council and the consequent impact on public opinion throughout the world can be extremely effective. And in the recent case of aggression against South Korea, 53 members of the United Nations were able to join in armed resistance to the aggression, notwithstanding the Soviet resort to blackmail, intimidation and parliamentary filibuster.

In the light of conditions as they existed in 1945, could any objective observer who believed in a universal international organization as the only efficient means of securing peace have seriously maintained that it was not far better to obtain a United Nations of which Russia would be a member from the outset than to risk having no United Nations at all by refusing to compromise? It is possible to amend the Charter, moreover, whenever world experience shows such amendment to be necessary.

The President's concession that the Soviet republics of the Ukraine and Byelorussia should be invited to become members of the Assembly, whereby the Soviet Union secured three votes in that body, was made reluctantly. At the outset he was determined to refuse. He felt that he could persuade Stalin not to press this demand by telling him that he would agree provided Stalin also agreed that the United States should be given 48 votes in the General Assembly, one for each of the sovereign states in the American Union. I can only assume that the President finally gave in because he believed that the question was not in itself of practical importance--as, in fact, it was not--and because the British felt strongly that the concession might prevent Soviet opposition to the voting rights of the members of the British Commonwealth--as, in fact, it did.

I have known no man in American public life who believed more implicitly than President Roosevelt that the hope of the world lay in the renewal of the people's faith in democracy. He saw more clearly than most of his contemporaries that the power and menace of Communism lay in the fanatical faith of its prophets and of its addicts, even more than in the military force and vast potential resources of the Soviet Union. To him, Communism was bloody, stifling and intolerable. It was revolting to the passion for individual freedom which he had inherited from his Dutch and New England forebears. He frankly recognized the appeal which Communism's promise of economic security held for millions of starving and down-trodden men and women in many parts of the world. But he believed Communism would never prevail provided democracy became a living reality here in the United States and in the other free nations, and provided those who cherished democracy were willing to strive for its fulfillment and eventual supremacy with the same self-sacrificing fervor shown by the Marxists in fighting for their ideology.

Beyond and above all else, he had reached the conclusion that Communism's stoutest ally was war, and that only in a world at peace could the basic tenets of democracy ultimately triumph. He was one of that rare and select number who "see visions and dream dreams."

[i] Winston S. Churchill, "The Grand Alliance." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950, p. 628.

[ii] Churchill, op. cit., p. 695.

[iii] Robert E. Sherwood, "Roosevelt and Hopkins." New York: Harper, 1948, p. 789.

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  • SUMNER WELLES, Under Secretary of State, 1937-43; delegate to many meetings of the American Republics; author of "The Time for Decision" and "Where Are We Heading?"
  • More By Sumner Welles