Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Author: Dan Plesch
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £20
The United Nations is often seen by lay people as an organisation that came into being only after the Second World War. This book provides a useful corrective.
The name was devised by Franklin Roosevelt in December 1941, immediately after the US entered the war. He and Churchill then applied it as the collective term for the states of the anti-Axis coalition, and the expression was extensively used in propaganda and news coverage, at least in the US.
A range of activities – outlined in this volume – were carried out in its name, including the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the less well-known UN War Crimes Commission (UNWCC).
This reviewer would not disagree that the UN is a valuable, indeed essential, feature of the modern world, or that the use of what is now called ‘soft power’ played an important part in the Second World War. However, Plesch pushes the argument about the role of the UN too far.
From December 1942 until April 1945 the ‘United Nations’ was little more than a marketing tool devised by the president to ‘sell’ the alliance with Britain and Russia to the American public. American newspapers may have carried headlines about ‘United Nations’ forces doing this or that, but despite the claims of Chapter 3 and 4 of this book, the UN as an actual organisation had virtually nothing to do with the military or diplomatic side of the war.
Even the ‘Declaration of the United Nations’ of January 1942 was simply a recycling of the American-British ‘Atlantic Charter’, albeit with the approval of Moscow and Chungking. Lend-Lease was indeed vital, and a combination of hard and soft power, but it was essentially a unilateral American policy.
FDR, a Wilsonian internationalist, may have had a vision, but it was not one shared by everyone, even in the US, and even in his own party (as became clear after his death). The British paid lip service to the UN concept as a means of preventing the US from withdrawing into isolation, and the Russians were even more sceptical.
The book ends with a “rhetorical flourish” from Churchill in 1944, which is used in an attempt to show that he, like Roosevelt, regarded the UN as “the only hope of the world”.
A more accurate expression of the sentiments of the great British statesman – whose world system was actually built around empire and good relations with the US – is a quotation from Titus Andronicus which he cynically cited at Yalta: “The eagle suffers little birds to sing/and is not careful what they mean thereby”.
Evan Mawdsley is the author of World War II: A New History (CUP, 2009)