The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is a university-chartered research center associated with the Department of History of The George Washington University

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The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
Teaching Eleanor Roosevelt Glossary

[picture: United Nations General Assembly]  Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the name “the United Nations” to the twenty-six nations that pledged in 1942 to fight together to defeat the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) during World War II. Planning for a permanent international organization to keep the peace began later and a preliminary plan was drawn up by the Great Powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and China) in Washington, D.C., at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference from August through October, 1944. Fifty nations negotiated and signed the United Nations Charter at a conference held in San Francisco from April 25 through June 26, 1945, and it went into effect on October 24, 1945, after a sufficient number of nations had ratified it. October 24 continues to be celebrated as “United Nations Day.” Although FDR did not live to see the birth of the UN (he died on April 12, 1945), he was its principal architect. President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to the first American delegation to the UN. She became chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission and guided the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its adoption by the UN General Assembly. She regarded this work as her greatest achievement.

The primary purposes of the United Nations are to keep the peace, encourage respect for human rights, create conditions under which justice and respect for international laws and treaties can be achieved, and promote social progress and better standards of living throughout the world. Its two principal representative bodies are the General Assembly, which includes all member nations, and the Security Council, which is made up of five permanent members (the United States, the Russian Federation, People's Republic of China, the United Kingdom, and France) and ten members elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms. The Security Council is responsible for international peace and security. It has the power to intervene in disputes between nations, including the power to impose economic sanctions and take military action. Each of the five permanent members has the power to veto any proposed action by the Security Council. The Economic and Social Council, made up of representatives of fifty-four nations, coordinates the economic and social work of the UN, including its work in human rights and economic development. The Trusteeship Council was set up to supervise the administration of trust territories, but all of the original territories under its jurisdiction have now achieved independence so its work is essentially done. The International Court of Justice is the chief judicial body of the UN and settles cases between nations that are submitted to it. In addition, there are important intergovernmental agencies related to the UN, among which are the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the World Bank.

The secretary general acts as the chief executive officer of the United Nations, taking his directions from the Security Council and the General Assembly. His main responsibility is preventative diplomacy and leading the UN’s efforts in such areas as human rights and economic development. He uses his good offices to mediate disputes, recommends actions to the Security Council and the General Assembly, and oversees the day-to-day operations of the organization, which are carried out by the international staff of the UN Secretariat. Since World War II, the UN has sought to keep the peace by acting as a mediator between warring nations or, sometimes, warring groups within nations, monitoring elections, and sending peacekeeping troops (on loan from some of the member nations). UN peacekeeping troops monitor agreements and separate hostile groups, but do not engage in combat except in self-defense. Among other activities, the specialized agencies of the UN work to eradicate disease, combat hunger, and aid refugees.

The headquarters of the United Nations is in New York City, but many of the specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, and some UN programs are based in other countries.

The United Nations has grown from fifty to one hundred and eighty-nine member nations, which in itself reflects the revolutionary changes that have taken place during the UN’s existence as more and more nations have won independence from colonial rule and ethnic groups have sought nationhood. The United Nations played a role in the birth of many of these nations.

The United Nations has often been controversial and its effectiveness questioned. Yet it weathered the crises of the Cold War, budgetary problems caused by nations (including the United States) that have refused at times to pay their full dues, internal waste and mismanagement, and rapid growth in membership. In the United States, the UN has sometimes generated fierce opposition from those who felt it threatened United States sovereignty, was a tool of the Communists, was a forum for anti-Americanism, or failed in other ways to serve American interests. Although no one knew its imperfections first hand better than Eleanor Roosevelt did, she still thought the UN was humankind’s best hope of lasting peace. The UN, she believed, would only be as effective as its member nations and the citizens of the world made it. It would take a long time and much patience and work to create a strong UN. First as an American delegate to the UN and chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights and then as an organizer for the American Association for the United Nations, ER spent much of the last part of her life striving to achieve the goal of an effective UN.

Sources Used

Divine, Robert A. Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America During World War II. New York: MacMillan, 1971.

Hoopes, Townsend and Douglas Brinkley. FDR and the Creation of the UN. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Lash, Joseph P. Eleanor: The Years Alone. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972.

Leonard, Barry, ed. Basic Facts about the United Nations. New York: United Nations Publications, 2001.