War for peace

Keith Kyle

  • A History of the United Nations. Vol. 1: The Years of Western Domination by Evan Luard
    Macmillan, 404 pp, £25.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 333 24389 7

When the American, Soviet and British representatives recently presented themselves together before the Secretary-General of the United Nations to object to that organisation’s extravagance, it must have seemed like very old times indeed. The guise of colluding overlords was the one in which the Great Powers who were about to become the victors of World War Two confronted the ‘hoi polloi’ at San Francisco. Stalin had confided in Churchill at Yalta that he was worried that the spirit of wartime solidarity would not outlast the first decade of peace. In this history of the UN’s pursuit of world security during that decade, Evan Luard recalls that it did not outlast the first year. According to Churchill’s account, the Soviet leader particularly distrusted the deciding of issues by votes, recalling with bitterness how the Soviet Union was punished for its aggression against Finland by expulsion from a dying League of Nations. He was much comforted by Churchill’s meticulous explanation of the working of the veto in the Security Council, the example cited being that of Britain’s ability to prevent in this way any attempt by Egypt to dislodge her from the Suez Canal.

The United Nations was dreamed up while the war was still to be won, on one overriding assumption: that in time of peace the ‘four Policemen’, the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and what Churchill termed ‘America’s faggot-vote, China’ would continue to place the achievement of consensus among themselves before any other consideration. At Churchill’s insistence, a place at this top table of permanent members of the Security Council was also left vacant for France. British leaders were perfectly willing to make their contribution to consensus alongside the totalitarian dictatorship to which they were allied: this was, after all, the period of the ‘victims of Yalta’, when Ukrainians, Cossacks and ex-Russian Whites were ruthlessly handed over to Stalin’s men for murder or the Gulag treatment, and it was the period of mass expulsions of populations in East and Central Europe. Yet there were limits to the amount of Russian cynicism – over, for example, the formation and behaviour of the new regime in Poland – that the West was able to accommodate.

Still, at San Francisco in 1945 the ‘Greats’ with some difficulty held together enough to keep the rest at bay. The United Nations was the product, and even bears the name, of a military alliance victorious in war. For a country to be a founder member it had to be ‘peace-loving’, and to be that it had to have been at war by a given date (1 March 1945) and against stipulated enemies (Germany and Japan), for which reason there was a great rush of Middle Eastern and South American states to achieve a death-bed belligerency. Argentina just made it before Germany’s surrender but she missed the exact deadline, as a result of which her membership became one of the points of maximum strain in Great Power unity at San Francisco. The military junta in Buenos Aires had so conducted itself that in 1944 the country had been accused by the American President and Secretary of State of providing a new home for Nazi Fascism just as it was collapsing in Europe. By April 1945, however, the Americans, who not long before had attempted to force a reluctant Britain into economic sanctions against the Argentinians, had swung right round to a posture of hemispheric solidarity. Argentina, after all, was a Latin American state, had been accepted by the other American states into the Act of Chapultepec, and had, however shabbily, however belatedly, gone through the motions of declaring war. The United States became the champion of Argentine membership, while Molotov, ideologically self-righteous, and quoting at length from Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, cited her manifold disqualifications. But the line of collusive solidarity held. Argentina was voted in as soon as White Russia and the Ukraine had been confirmed as suitable peace-loving states with autonomous foreign policies.

The Latin American bloc provided two-fifths of the votes in the early General Assemblies, thus ensuring for the time being a permanent American majority in that body while supplying an anti-colonial chorus to harass and torment Britain and other imperial powers. At San Francisco the Latins were far more effective at getting the Charter amended than were other spokesmen of the minor powers, such as Herbert Evatt of Australia, who tried to increase the role of the General Assembly, where every country, however weak or strong, had only one vote. It was pressure from the Latin American bloc that had inserted not only the provision for regional security pacts (like Chapultepec and, subsequently, Nato) but also the famous Article 51 (‘Nothing in this present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs ... until the Security Council has taken measures ... ’), though the actual wording of the latter, Luard shows, was supplied by Britain, which was appropriate enough in view of its value to Britain as a prop during the Falklands conflict.

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[*] United Nations Peace-Keeping: Documents and Commentary, 1946-1969, Vol. IV: Europe, by Rosalyn Higgins Oxford, 419 pp., £40, 19 November 1981, 0 19 218322 2.

[†] Common Security: A Programme for Disarmament, introduced by David Owen. Pan, 223 pp., £1.95, 11 June 1982, 0 330 26846 5.