Preamble of the UN Charter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As it became increasingly apparent that Nazi Germany would be defeated at the end of World War II, one of the main topics of discussion among the Big Three leaders of the Allied nations—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—was how the peace would be kept after the war. Created in the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations had been ineffective in its goal to create an international organization through which countries could resolve their differences peacefully. The Big Three, eager to learn from the failure of the League of Nations, held discussions in Tehran, Iran, in 1943 that set the general framework. Over the following year, conferences were held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, and at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, DC, focusing on the specifics of the new peacekeeping organization. Finally, from April through June of 1945, delegates from fifty nations met in San Francisco to conclude the charter for the United Nations.

Summary Overview

As it became increasingly apparent that Nazi Germany would be defeated at the end of World War II, one of the main topics of discussion among the Big Three leaders of the Allied nations—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—was how the peace would be kept after the war. Created in the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations had been ineffective in its goal to create an international organization through which countries could resolve their differences peacefully. The Big Three, eager to learn from the failure of the League of Nations, held discussions in Tehran, Iran, in 1943 that set the general framework. Over the following year, conferences were held at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, and at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, DC, focusing on the specifics of the new peacekeeping organization. Finally, from April through June of 1945, delegates from fifty nations met in San Francisco to conclude the charter for the United Nations.

Defining Moment

Early in World War II, before the United States even became involved, Allied leaders like US president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill saw both the weaknesses and the still-unrealized potential of an international group devoted to peace. One of the main weaknesses of the League of Nations had been the unwillingness of the United States to participate in the organization, which US president Woodrow Wilson had himself proposed at the end of World War I. Given the role of the United States as an emerging superpower at the end of World War II, it was more important than ever that it play a key role in another such organization.

The 1941 Atlantic Charter articulated the first vision of what would become the United Nations (UN), and twenty-six nations together issued the Declaration of the United Nations on January 1, 1942—less than a month after the United States entered the war—agreeing to fight the Axis powers and then establish the United Nations once the Axis was defeated. Roosevelt, a Democrat, involved Republicans in the process of creating the UN in order to avoid a repeat of Wilson's failure. Roosevelt's secretary of state, Cordell Hull, worked directly with Congress to build bipartisan consensus around the idea and draft a potential charter for the UN, while Congress passed a number of resolutions stating support for the UN after the war was over. The foreign ministers of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, and the Chinese ambassador to the Soviet Union issued the Moscow Declaration in October 1943, officially committing all of the Allies to the idea of the UN.

Throughout late 1944, as the American and British armies executed the D-Day invasion and drove through Europe into the heart of Germany, representatives of the four signatories to the Moscow Declaration met at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, DC, in order to have the plans for the UN prepared for the eventual Axis defeat. The US government even staged a public relations effort, taking the argument for the UN directly to the American people.

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Big Three leaders invited representatives of the world's nations to convene next in San Francisco, California, in April 1945 in order to draft the charter that would officially establish the UN. Though Roosevelt died only days before the San Francisco Conference convened, President Harry S. Truman, newly sworn-in, stated that the conference would take place as planned. After two months of work rewriting the proposed charter produced at Dumbarton Oaks, the fifty countries in attendance passed the United Nations Charter.

Author Biography

The “Peoples of the United Nations,” in whose name the United Nations Charter was written, were represented at the San Francisco Conference by 850 delegates from the original member nations. The delegation from the United States was made up of two secretaries of state, Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. and his predecessor, Cordell Hull, as well as representatives from both houses of Congress. Not all of the nations, however, could agree on who would be included. Many of the delegates opposed the Soviet insistence upon—and United States acquiescence to—the inclusion of two of its member republics, the Ukraine and Byelorussia (now Belarus), giving it essentially three votes. Further, the Soviets opposed Argentina's inclusion, as it had supported the Axis during the war, and the Polish government was not seated, as the formation of a new Polish government was a source of discord between the Soviets on one hand and the Americans and British on the other. However, in the end, fifty nations were able to pass the charter and create the UN.

Historical Document

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED

to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

AND FOR THESE ENDS

to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and

to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and

to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and

to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,

HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS

Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.

Document Analysis

The Preamble to the United Nations Charter is a brief visionary statement that specified the goals of the fifty nations that met at the San Francisco Conference. In total, it consists of eight statements of principle and a single concluding sentence that officially established the UN. The fact that it is a simple document does not detract from its profundity, as each of the statements was very timely to the delegates at San Francisco. The world was just emerging from its second cataclysmic conflict in thirty years. The failure of the earlier League of Nations, the world's descent into a second world war, and the realization of the horrendous atrocities committed by the Axis powers during the war formed the context for a statement of ideology and commitment to a peaceful future.

The first four statements begin with the words, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined,” before stating the shared resolve to create a peaceful future. The two world wars had brought horrors unlike anything seen in human history, with the widespread use of chemical weapons in World War I and the development and use of atomic weapons in World War II. To eliminate the possibility of a third such war, the delegates committed themselves to saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The other three statements commit the group to affirming and protecting human rights; ensuring justice and honoring treaties and international law; and promoting “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” This is followed by a set of four ideals to which the nations would commit themselves to further the aims enumerated in the first four statements. Tolerance and peace with other nations is enshrined. The role of the UN as a united body to protect peace and security is recognized. The use of armed force by nations as a tool of policy is discouraged. Finally, the UN's role in “the economic and social advancement of all peoples” is established. The document concludes with a brief statement that the nations “have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.” The lessons of the two world wars were learned well, and the hope was that the UN would be able to prevent the horrors that had characterized so much of the first half of the twentieth century.

Essential Themes

President Harry S. Truman attended the final session at the San Francisco Conference and then went about the work of gaining the ratification of the US Senate. US ratification was quick, taking a little over a month, and overwhelmingly supported, with a vote of eighty-nine in favor, two opposed, and five abstentions. Once the Allies, as well the vast majority of other signatory nations, had all approved the charter, the United Nations became a reality on October 24, 1945. Opening its first session less than four months later, the UN General Assembly agreed to establish its headquarters in New York City.

Over the ensuing years, the UN continued to produce visionary statements, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. However, its role in mitigating international conflict saw its first major test with the onset of the Korean War in 1950. The Soviets, whose permanent seat on the Security Council gave them veto power, were protesting the UN's refusal to allow delegates from Communist China. Seeking to act against the invasion of South Korea by North Korea—a vote that the Soviets would have opposed—the Security Council voted in the Soviets' absence, thus enabling the UN to provide aid to South Korea in its self-defense.

Just as the League of Nations was frequently hindered by its rule that certain votes needed to be unanimous, decisions on military issues in the UN Security Council have often been obstructed by the veto power that each member holds. As the United States and the Soviet Union seldom saw eye to eye, the UN's military role became increasingly difficult. However, votes in the General Assembly are easier, as no nation has a veto, allowing the UN to create offices and assist in matters of human rights, famine and disaster relief, economic development, and the environment.

The military and humanitarian roles played by the UN have become increasingly intertwined as the end of the Cold War made Security Council votes somewhat easier. Sending peacekeepers into situations where the human rights of ordinary people are threatened has become a hallmark of the modern UN.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Alger, Chadwick F. The United Nations System: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Print.
  • Hearden, Patrick J. Architects of Globalism: Building a New World Order during World War II. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2002. Print.
  • Hoopes, Townsend, & Douglas Brinkley. FDR and the Creation of the UN. New Haven: Yale UP, 1997. Print.
  • Krasno, Jean E., ed. The United Nations: Confronting the Challenges of a Global Society. Boulder: Rienner, 2004. Print.
  • Schlesinger, Stephen C. Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. Boulder: Westview, 2003. Print.
Categories: History Content