THE United States has changed overnight from the rôle of observer at international conferences to the rôle of leader. After sitting in the stalls for twenty-five years complaining about the play, the players, the music and the general confusion, we have suddenly been shoved up on the stage and given the opportunity to help name the play, direct the music, and pick some (though definitely not all) of the players.

Fortunately, before the war ended, we had a little practice in the new rôle. We ran the Food and Agriculture Conference at Hot Springs, the first session of the UNRRA Council at Atlantic City, the Monetary and Financial Conference at Bretton Woods, the Civil Aviation Conference at Chicago, the preparatory security conference at Dumbarton Oaks, and the United Nations Security Conference at San Francisco.

Like all ingénues, we had our troubles. At Hot Springs we opened the play before either we or the cast were ready and we surrounded the theater with military police and kept the critics out of hearing distance. At Bretton Woods, we were pretty good to the critics. We not only let them in to hear the play but let them wander around backstage where they could see the wheels and pulleys and all the professional tricks; but we didn't get all our own players together for a rehearsal before the opening night and we neither prepared for enough guests nor had adequate facilities for those we expected.

At the Chicago Air Conference, the other players got the impression that we hogged the stage, gave out our own version of what was going on, and generally messed things up until, in the closing days, with astonishing abruptness, we fired our leading man (in this case Adolph Berle) and sent both the audience and some of the players home wondering if we were ever going to become professional.

Finally, at San Francisco, we got a good theater, learned our lines pretty well, struggled through a somewhat noisy and unruly first act, but came out in the end with more prestige and experience than we had had before.

As the location of these performances indicates -- Hot Springs, Bretton Woods, Washington, Atlantic City, San Francisco -- we have, of course, been touring the provinces. The big show is now coming on. The war is ended. The rehearsals are over. We are moving into the "big time." The action now will be concerned not with machinery but with life. Mistakes now will not simply mar the structure of an organization or affect the prestige of individuals or of nations; they will settle the question of life or death for millions.

What have we learned, first as observer, and then as ingénue? What mistakes have we made which we might be able to correct? Might we not be able to use up our good players less prodigally? Where are we going in this new rôle?


We have learned, in part at least, some of the lessons of 1919. We have learned, for example, not to try to crowd too much into one big peace conference. The statesmen at Versailles tried to deal simultaneously with all the complex and controversial questions of boundaries, reparations, colonies, relief and collective security. This time, even before we have called a peace conference, we have established our league of nations, set up an international bank and an economic and social council to deal with the economic causes of war, created an international relief organization, determined the principles which will guide our treatment of the defeated nations, and, with varying degrees of efficiency, created organizations to deal with food, labor, health and social problems. In addition, we have reached an understanding with some of our Allies about certain boundaries -- those of Poland and Finland, for example.

Secondly, we have learned how to recruit some of our players. We have achieved at least a basis for understanding among our two major political parties on the broad objectives of our foreign policy, and we have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that McKinley's practice of taking representatives of the Senate along as members of the American delegation to international conferences was right, and that Wilson's decision not to take them along undoubtedly helped lose him the necessary support of the United States Senate. All that has to be done to prove this point is to make a cursory study of the Congressional Record during the period of the Senate debate on the San Francisco Charter. It is perfectly clear from this debate that whenever the Charter seemed to be getting into any difficulty at all, it was the testimony of Senator Tom Connally, Democrat, of Texas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg, Republican, of Michigan, which was decisive. Their support was not achieved merely by putting the two Senators on the San Francisco delegation; they and other Senators had been consulted by Secretary Hull and Under Secretary Welles, and later by Secretary Stettinius and his assistants in the State Department, in the effort to give the Charter a form which they believed would be acceptable to the Senate. It may be argued that they formed the Charter too much to meet the desires of the Senate; but in any event they did not impose on the Charter anything which the executive branch did not want. Similarly, Senator Connally and Senator Warren Austin, of Vermont, like Senator Vandenberg a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, had been members of the American Delegation at the Mexico City Conference earlier in the year.

We also sought and found other methods of insuring support for American action at these conferences in addition to seeking the aid of representatives of the United States Senate. For example, we learned that to take along to San Francisco as "consultants" the representatives of the most influential non-political trade, religious, research, labor and farm organizations also broadened the general understanding of the Administration's policy and facilitated its acceptance. Their presence at San Francisco induced conviction, and their conviction produced support throughout the country which was reflected in the overwhelming ratification of the Charter in the Senate.

These are points of advance which will be understood by our own people perhaps better than by nations which do not have our sharp separation between the authority of the legislative and executive branches of government. However, those of our Allies who remember what happened to the League of Nations under the two-thirds rule of the Senate will not be inclined to dismiss them as mere technicalities.

In other respects, too, we have shown progress in the conferences held in this country before the end of the war. For a nation which not only has no widely accepted tradition of civil service but which sometimes acts as if there were something distasteful about public service as such, we did remarkably well in getting together at San Francisco a secretariat capable of making all the complex physical arrangements for such a conference; and, after a slow start, this secretariat functioned extremely well in getting out the heavy paper work of the Conference. Also, we showed at both the Inter-American Conference in Mexico City late in the winter and at San Francisco in the spring a capacity for improvising and compromising in extremely difficult political situations.

But all this having been said, it must be added that it is not good enough, these days, to prove that we have done better than we did in 1919, that we have made progress in solving some of the domestic aspects of the conduct of our foreign affairs, and that we have retained our democratic capacity for improvising and compromising. For the problems confronting us now are obviously much more complex than they were in 1919, and we failed so miserably then and must do so much better this time that the comparison loses most of its meaning.

Furthermore, we have not learned all the lessons of the last Peace Conference; and some of the lessons that we have learned have been put to good use at some conferences and ignored at others; and sometimes, even in the same conference, we have carried out sound principles with regard to one important question and violated them with regard to the next. This needs to be illustrated because it is the heart of the problem and suggests certain points of interest for the future.


Just before the Versailles Conference, some of the best minds in diplomacy tried to suggest a few simple rules of conduct, most of them dealing with the necessity of preparing for the conference in detail before it was called, arranging a careful agenda for it ahead of time, and sticking rigidly to that agenda. They are just as applicable now as they were then.

The French Ambassador in Washington in 1919, M. Jusserand, for example, wrote a careful memorandum on this subject for the Supreme Council, in which he proposed that a set of preliminary terms be imposed on the defeated enemy, drew up a sort of priority list of problems facing the Big Four of that time, and prepared an agenda for the conference.

Even before M. Jusserand put his precise Latin mind to work on this problem, Sir Ernest Satow, one of the best authorities on diplomatic procedure of the day, wrote an admirable little book on the lessons of previous peace conferences for the British Peace Conference delegation, and urged them, above all things, to prepare carefully, to agree on the purpose and procedure of the conference, and to stick to their agreed formula. "Experience demonstrates," Sir Ernest wrote, "that, in order to ensure the success of a Congress or Conference, a distinct basis or bases ought to be agreed upon beforehand; and the greater the definiteness with which the main points of the basis are formulated beforehand, the greater is the likelihood of a general agreement being reached. In past history, when Congresses failed to attain a definite result, the failure was generally due to the ground not having been adequately prepared beforehand."

The Big Four rejected these suggestions, partly because they suffered from the great man's weakness for relying too much on his own abilities and partly because Mr. Wilson did not like M. Jusserand's curt, if accurate, description of the Fourteen Points. At any rate, when the Conference was over, Colonel House, after long reflection, concluded that "the great fault of the political leaders was their failure to draft a plan of procedure."

It cannot be said that we have ignored this advice. The very fact that so many conferences were held before the fighting ended demonstrates the improvement in our preparation for this peace. Wilson wrote the first draft of the League Covenant after the last war while he was en route to Versailles, whereas first the Moscow Declaration and then the United Nations Charter began to be formulated by a special Advisory Committee in the State Department in 1942, and the Dumbarton Oaks proposals were published over six months before the end of the German war. Again, there was a preliminary conference of the major Powers at Atlantic City to arrange a basis of agreement for the Bretton Woods Conference just such as had been suggested by Jusserand and Satow at the end of the last war. In other respects, also, the principle of careful preparation has been carried out by our public officials, often in collaboration with specialists from outside the government, recruited for the purpose.

But while conceding that preparation must always be a relative thing, and that we have made great strides toward learning the lessons of past conferences, one must also admit that we certainly have not learned the lesson of the necessity of preparation as fully as we might.

The Mexico City Conference of February and March 1945 illustrates the point. The two most important decisions of that Conference were the decision to negotiate a general pact of mutual defense and security (the Act of Chapultepec) and the decision to clear the way for Argentina's return to the Pan American system and her entrance into the United Nations. Neither of these subjects came up as a surprise. The general security pact had been proposed by the President of Colombia to the late President Roosevelt during a visit to the White House in 1943; it had been approved by Mr. Roosevelt in principle; and our delegation had seen the Colombian resolution which raised the question. Yet despite all this advance information, our delegation was not ready with a policy to meet it and the Colombian resolution came to the very point of going through the Conference in a form which would have been rejected out of hand by the United States Senate. In fact, it was stopped merely because Senator Austin, who was not normally on the commission dealing with the subject, happened to be in attendance at the moment when the vote on it was being taken and asked for more time to consider it. Having thus stopped it, the delegation got in touch with President Roosevelt and worked out a resolution which produced a fundamental change in our conception of hemispheric defense.

Similarly, the delegation went to Mexico City with two completely different views on how to treat with Argentina, and sharply divided in opinion on how to relate the Pan American security system to the world security system. In this connection we proceeded to demonstrate the risk of assuming that a problem postponed is a problem averted, and the danger of our tendency to deal with situations only when they are so serious that we can no longer avoid dealing with them.

At Mexico City, one of our leading delegates was Adolph Berle, United States Ambassador to Brazil, and another was Dr. Leo Pasvolsky, special assistant to the Secretary of State in charge of problems relating to world organization. Mr. Berle argued at Mexico City that while it was essential to protect the possibility of creating a security system which would be strong and universal, it was neither necessary nor wise to give that organization the power to prevent the Pan American system from taking action against an aggressor in this hemisphere. Dr. Pasvolsky contended that the Mexico City Conference should do nothing which would restrict the freedom of action of the San Francisco Conference, scheduled to open in a few weeks, and that the world security organization should have power to prevent action by the Pan American system if it felt this to be necessary. The latter view prevailed at the time, despite the fact that there clearly was strong opposition among the Latin Americans to giving the world organization power to paralyze action by the Pan American system. It was decided to postpone the problem until San Francisco.

There was, admittedly, a case to be made for not anticipating the action of the San Francisco Conference or restricting the freedom of action of the United Nations at that Conference. The point is, however, that even after the Mexico City Conference we did not work out a formula for relating the two security systems, but, despite the pleas of both the press and the Latin American countries, waited until this problem became critical at San Francisco and then took an extra week at the Conference, in the most urgent and difficult atmosphere, to confirm the supremacy of the world security system without destroying the right of the American nations to exercise their collective right of self-defense against an aggressor.

It can be argued that it was not possible to work out this problem with the Latin American nations except under urgent pressure like that applied at San Francisco. Surely, however, it would have been possible for the State Department to think this problem through and to state its policy clearly to the American Delegation before the Conference started. As it was, the American Delegation, which should merely have been attempting to carry out a fixed policy on so fundamental a matter, was in fact endeavoring to define policy and negotiate with the other interested nations at the same time. The result was that almost everybody in the Delegation developed his own "formula" for solving the crisis; and it was finally solved only when one delegate went to the Secretary of State and told him that the time had come for the Administration itself to make up its mind as to what it wanted.

Improvisation was not perhaps as common at San Francisco as it appeared. Our Delegation had not expected the Russians to raise the question of bringing in the Ukraine and White Russia as members of the Conference. President Roosevelt at Yalta had simply agreed to electing them eventually as members of the future World Organization. We had agreed with the Latin American states, also, to keep the Argentine question out until the later stages of the Conference. But in the circumstances of the moment we decided to support Argentina's admission to the Conference for a variety of reasons, some connected with the demands of Soviet Russia regarding the admission of the Ukraine and White Russia, some connected with the politics of this hemisphere, some connected with the prestige of our officials. Later, of course, we at least had the good judgment to wish that we had been more loyal to our original agenda than to the emotions of the moment.

On several occasions, no doubt, we have improvised successfully. There was, for example, no agreement before the San Francisco Conference on a trusteeship system for the new league of nations. One was worked out there, largely through the diligence of Harold Stassen; and while limited in many respects, it represents an advance over the old League mandate system.

But more often than not when we have improvised, the results have not been satisfactory. At San Francisco we improvised in the selection of committee chairmen, choosing them by country instead of as individuals. As a result, some of the committees worked well because the chairmen were excellent, while others were a tedious scramble. We foresaw the language problem at Bretton Woods, and consequently the proceedings there were conducted with a minimum of translations, and committees were able to function smoothly. But we went to San Francisco prepared to translate documents into three languages, and finally decided to translate into five. This necessitated fundamental changes in the organization of the secretariat. We also agreed to translate all committee speeches not only into French but into Spanish as well, which turned the committee meetings into a series of prolonged translations and made deliberative study of questions extremely laborious. Some difficulty on this score cannot, of course, be avoided, but considering the technical efficiency of this country there is nothing to prevent our doing what was done at Geneva, namely, having earphones at every committee chair and translators speaking from booths as the speaker addresses the committee. In this way, each member can plug in on the translator he wishes and the tempo of the proceedings and the understanding of the delegates are improved.

At almost every one of the conferences held in this country, the problem of dealing with the press and radio correspondents has been improvised from one crisis to the next. It is a strange fact that the United States, which has elevated public relations into something between a science and philosophy, should find it so difficult to produce officials who can deal effectively with the press at an international conference. Yet it is generally conceded that this is a fact.

Admittedly, the problem presented is a tough one. Under our constitution the press is given a freedom which is little short of license. Certainly, too, it is true that we have our quota of reporters and commentators who either expect everything to be handed to them without any "digging" on their part or who find it more convenient (and unfortunately more profitable) to move in a realm of dogmatic opinion, unencumbered by too many ascertained facts.

At San Francisco it was also true that the sheer bulk of over 1,500 accredited "correspondents" was overwhelming and that the handling of them was a terrible responsibility. Many of them were merely there to see the San Francisco show through the courtesy of some benevolent publisher. Others represented official news agencies or government organs and consequently were "reporting" not so much to the public at home as to their officials, and were asking questions not in order to seek the views of the speaker but to propagate the views of the principals to whom they themselves really were responsible.

But all this is merely another argument against improvising our press relations at international conferences. Our officials are well aware of the habits of American newspapermen. Yet they establish machinery to deal with the press as they would like it to be rather than as it is. Thus, they knew before the San Francisco Conference started that the major decisions there would be taken in the meetings of the sponsoring nations. What they did not take account of was that because of this fact the American press would concentrate on the meetings of the Big Five rather than on the committee and commission meetings of the Conference, which dealt with major questions only after the Big Five had dealt with them in Secretary Stettinius' penthouse in the Fairmont Hotel. American officials thought the press should wait to report and comment on the decisions of the Big Five until they had been transmitted to the whole Conference. They therefore did not make adequate provision to release information from the Big Five meetings. The consequence was, as any working reporter could have told them, that the news "leaked" out of the Big Five into the newspapers before it ever got to the rest of the Conference. The official press organization attached to the Conference secretariat was very seldom the source of any real news.

Now some members of the press undoubtedly are inclined to underestimate the difficulties there would be in persuading the Russians, and even the British, to give out the news currently as it develops at international conferences. But it also seems to be true that our officials often cite those difficulties as an excuse for their own failure to work out an adequate press policy for the newspapers and the radio.

For example, at Dumbarton Oaks, Mr. Stettinius was persuaded that if he allowed the press to have any more access to the Conference than they had (which was virtually none) the Russians would walk out -- a view which, if true, does not bode well for the future of the security organization, but which, fortunately, few others who were at that conference support. At San Francisco, the press was promised a "liberal" policy. This turned out to be access to the plenary sessions, where nothing of great significance happened, and to the commission meetings, which did not meet until all the important decisions had been taken in the committee meetings. When the committee chairmen felt like it, of course, they would come down and report to the press on what had happened, or, more accurately, on that part of the developments which they thought the reporters were entitled to know. The fact remains, however, that there really were two conferences going on at San Francisco: the conference of The Five and the conference of The Rest. The vital decisions were being taken in the meetings of the former, but, as noted above, no adequate provision was made to advise the public regarding them.

Fortunately, even the regulations supporting the system of secrecy were improvised and finally broke down. When this happened and it was found -- as it is almost always found -- that the policy of secrecy breeds the very atmosphere of rumor and suspicion which officials seek to avoid, the system was finally modified and attempts were made to "leak out" to the reliable reporters some of the current developments of the Conference.

The problem of determining what is said to the press of the world by governments with vastly different political and social systems is, of course, one of the most difficult the major Allies have to deal with. Volumes might be written about it. For the purposes of this article only one or two observations need to be made.

The first is that unless the conference is held in a compound, as at Potsdam, the policy of secrecy does not work. It does not work because, at a fulldress conference, the information has necessarily to be very widely disseminated and too many people do not believe in the policy of secrecy and do not abide by rules they consider unnecessary.

The second is that the problem will never be solved until the presence of the press is looked upon by the conference officials as an opportunity rather than a nuisance. Admittedly, delicate negotiations cannot be carried on in the headlines of the world's press; the London Poles were the last to try it, and with melancholy results. But that does not mean that far more facts and background material on the matters under discussion cannot be released during conferences than is habitually the case. After all, on the general understanding of the people the success of these conferences will eventually depend.

The reason for some of the mistakes made at conferences is not difficult to find. In the first place, the planning for each conference has usually been done by a different official. In the case of Bretton Woods, the Treasury and the State Department fought for control; the planning for the Mexico City Conference was done by the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Latin American affairs; the preparations for San Francisco were in still different hands.

Thus, the promising American ingénue has not progressed from one play to the next, gathering experience and strength at each performance. What we have been doing is giving one group experience at one conference, then scattering it and calling in a new company for the next performance. This prodigal turnover of personnel in the American delegations is true not only at the level of civilian advisers and assistant secretaries but at the very top as well. Since the Dumbarton Oaks Conference ended, we are now operating through our third Secretary of State. This means that another new team, minus a great deal of the experience picked up by other men in the past two years, will carry much of the burden in the forthcoming discussions and conferences, including the vital conferences of the five foreign secretaries at which the peace treaties with the vanquished enemy states are to be written.

The lessons of the conferences which have been held to date are nevertheless there to be observed, and they have just as much validity whether the team is old or new. One of these lessons is that, now that the fighting has ceased, these conferences furnish one of the major means by which we can hope to grope forward toward the necessary understanding between Russia and the west. Another lesson is that the difficulty of reaching an understanding with Russia only emphasizes the need for the most careful preparation before undertaking discussions with her. For it is already clear from our experience of the past two years that we cannot "explore" a question with the Russians as we can do with the British or the French. The Russian does not like to sit down and "think out loud" or "exchange views." He tends to look on this pleasant, if casual, western habit with suspicion and thinks that we ought to come to conferences prepared to negotiate on the basis of a fixed policy, more or less as he thinks he does (though actually, of course, this doesn't always turn out to be the case).

We have made great progress since 1919. But it is not enough for us merely to be better now than we were then. The problems this time are so much more complex that any comparison with last time really has very little meaning. This time peace is not going to be decreed in a final peace conference. Peace will be attained, if attained it is, not by an act but through a process. Nor should the peace be planned, if it is to last, by a very few men, as was the case with the preparatory decisions taken at Casablanca, Teheran, Quebec, Yalta and Potsdam. It should be thought through, with all the expert help available and all the careful documentation procurable, by the men who have to negotiate it; and it should be negotiated, with as full publicity as possible, by the men who will have to operate it. For the peace will be not an arrangement merely between governments but between peoples, and they must understand and support it if it is to last. These premises are accepted by most of our officials intellectually; they should be accepted by them as guides to action also.

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  • JAMES B. RESTON, correspondent of the New York Times; winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for 1944; author of "Prelude to Victory"
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