History of the United Nations

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A map of the world with countries displayed in colours corresponding to the dates the countries joined the United Nations. Countries not involved with the United Nations are shown in grey.
A map of the world showing when countries joined the United Nations

The history of the United Nations as an international organization has its origins in World War II. Since then its aims and activities have expanded to make it the archetypal international body in the early 21st century.

US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first suggested using the name United Nations to refer to the Allies of World War II.[1] Roosevelt suggested the term to Winston Churchill who cited Byron's use of the phrase "united nations" in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which referred to the Allies at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Franklin Roosevelt adopted the name and the first official use of the term occurred on 1 January 1942 with the Declaration by the United Nations.

During subsequent phases of World War II the Allies used the term United Nations to refer to their alliance.

A black and white motion picture of some men signing papers on a desk in the center of a huge decorated room.
The founding of the United Nations

1942 "Declaration of United Nations" by the WW2 Allies[edit]

The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization began under the aegis of the US State Department in 1939.[2] The text of the "Declaration by United Nations" was drafted by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins, while meeting at the White House on 29 December 1941. It incorporated Soviet suggestions, but left no role for France. Roosevelt first coined the term United Nations to describe the Allied countries. Roosevelt suggested the name as an alternative to the name "Associated Powers." Churchill immediately agreed, noting that the phase was used by Lord Byron in the poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Stanza 35).

early United Nations official's passport from World War Two - working for UNRRA, issued in 1944 for the Middle East.

The term "United Nations" was first officially used on 1–2 January 1942, when 26 governments signed the Declaration. One major change from the Atlantic Charter was the addition of a provision for religious freedom, which Stalin approved after Roosevelt insisted.[3][4] By early 1945 it had been signed by 21 more states.[5]

The Governments signatory hereto,
Having subscribed to a common program of purposes and principles embodied in the Joint Declaration of the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Great Britain dated August 14, 1941, known as the Atlantic Charter,
Being convinced that complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands, and that they are now engaged in a common struggle against savage and brutal forces seeking to subjugate the world,
(1) Each Government pledges itself to employ its full resources, military or economic, against those members of the Tripartite Pact and its adherents with which such government is at war.
(2) Each Government pledges itself to cooperate with the Governments signatory hereto and not to make a separate armistice or peace with the enemies.
The foregoing declaration may be adhered to by other nations which are, or which may be, rendering material assistance and contributions in the struggle for victory over Hitlerism.[6]

During the war, the United Nations became the official term for the Allies. To join countries had to sign the Declaration and declare war on the Axis.[7]


The idea for the future United Nations as an international organization emerged in declarations signed at the wartime Allied conferences: the Moscow Conference and the Tehran Conference in 1943.

From August to October 1944, representatives of the Republic of China, Britain, the US and the USSR met to elaborate plans at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C. Those and later talks produced proposals outlining the purposes of the United Nations organization, its membership and organs, as well as arrangements to maintain international peace and security and international economic and social cooperation. Governments and private citizens worldwide discussed and debated these proposals.[8]

At the Yalta Conference it was agreed that membership would be open to nations that had joined the Allies by 1 March 1945.[9] Brazil, Syria and a number of other countries qualified for membership by declarations of war on either Germany or Japan in the first three months of 1945 – in some cases retroactively.


The UN in 1945. In light blue, the founding members. In dark blue, protectorates and colonies of the founding members.

On April 25, 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco. In addition to governments, a number of non-government organizations, including Rotary International and Lions Clubs International received invitations to assist in the drafting of a charter. After working for two months, the fifty nations represented at the conference signed the Charter of the United Nations on 26 June. Poland, which was unable to send a representative to the conference due to political instability, signed the charter on 15 October 1945. The charter stated that before it would come into effect, it must be ratified by the Governments of the Republic of China, France, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. This occurred on 24 October 1945, and the United Nations was officially formed.[10]

The first meeting of the General Assembly was held in Westmister Central Hall, London, on 10 January 1946.[11] The Security Council met for the first time a week later in Church House, Westminster.[12] The League of Nations formally dissolved itself on 18 April 1946 and transferred its mission to the United Nations.


The United Nations has achieved considerable prominence in the social arena, fostering human rights, economic development, decolonization, health and education, for example, and interesting itself in refugees and trade.

The leaders of the UN had high hopes that it would act to prevent conflicts between nations and make future wars impossible. Those hopes have obviously not fully come to pass. From about 1947 until 1991 the division of the world into hostile camps during the Cold War made agreement on peacekeeping matters extremely difficult. Following the end of the Cold War, renewed calls arose for the UN to become the agency for achieving world peace and co-operation, as several dozen active military conflicts continued to rage across the globe. The breakup of the Soviet Union has also left the United States in a unique position of global dominance, creating a variety of new problems for the UN (See the United States and the United Nations).


Two skyscraper buildings on the bank of a river.
UN headquarters in New York City
Huge complex of skyscrapers and other large buildings interlaced with trees and gardens. The surrounding area as far as the horizon is filled with trees and large rivers. In the foreground a crane and small building site show that a new construction is underway.
UN building in Vienna

In December 1945, the US Senate and the US House of Representatives, by unanimous votes, requested that the UN make its headquarters in the United States. The UN accepted this suggestion and, after considering sites in the Black Hills, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, Navy Island and what would become the World Trade Center site, constructed the United Nations headquarters building in New York City in 1949 and 1950 beside the East River on land purchased with an $8.5 million donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The UN headquarters officially opened on January 9, 1951, although construction was not formally completed until October 9, 1952.[13]

Under special agreement with the United States, the UN enjoys certain diplomatic privileges and immunities, but generally the laws of New York City, New York State, and the United States apply.

While the principal headquarters of the UN remain in New York City, major agencies base themselves in Geneva, The Hague, Vienna, Nairobi and elsewhere.

Structure and associated organizations[edit]

The basic constitutional makeup of the United Nations has changed little, though vastly increased membership has altered the functioning of some elements. The UN as a whole has generated a rich assortment of non-governmental organizations and special bodies over the years: some with a regional focus, some specific to the various peacekeeping missions, and others of global scope and importance. Other bodies (such as the International Labour Organization) formed prior to the establishment of the United Nations and only subsequently became associated with it.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Baehr, Peter R., and Leon Gordenker. The United Nations in the 1990s (St. Martin's Press, 1992)
  • Bellamy, Alex J., and Paul D. Williams, eds. Providing Peacekeepers: The Politics, Challenges, and Future of United Nations Peacekeeping Contributions (Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • Bergesen, Helge Ole, and Leiv Lunde. Dinosaurs or Dynamos: the United Nations and the World Bank at the turn of the century (Routledge, 2013)
  • Bosco, David L. Five to rule them all: the UN Security Council and the making of the modern world (Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Clark, Ian, and Christian Reus-Smit. "Liberal internationalism, the practice of special responsibilities and evolving politics of the security council." International Politics (2013) 50#1 pp: 38-56.
  • Ferdinand, Peter. "Rising powers at the UN: an analysis of the voting behaviour of brics in the General Assembly." Third World Quarterly (2014) 35#3 pp: 376-391.
  • Hiscocks, Richard. The Security Council: A study in adolescence (Simon and Schuster, 1974)
  • Luck, Edward C. UN Security Council: practice and promise (Routledge, 2006)
  • Meisler, Stanley. United Nations: The First Fifty Years (1995)
  • Rusell, Ruth B. A History of the United Nations Charter: The Role of the United Staes, 1940-1945 (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1958.)
  • O'Sullivan, Christopher D. The United Nations: A Concise History (The Anvil Series, Krieger Publishing Company, 2005)
  • Phillips, Walter Ray. "United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization." Montana Law Review 24.1 (2014): 2.
  • Roberts, Adam, and Dominik Zaum. Selective security: war and the United Nations Security Council since 1945 (Routledge, 2013)
  • Saltford, John. The United Nations and the Indonesian takeover of West Papua, 1962-1969: the anatomy of betrayal (Routledge, 2013)
  • Vreeland, James Raymond, and Axel Dreher. The Political Economy of the United Nations Security Council: Money and Influence (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
  • Weiss, Thomas G. What's Wrong with the United Nations and how to Fix it (John Wiley & Sons, 2013)
  • Wuthnow, Joel. Chinese diplomacy and the UN Security Council: beyond the veto (Routledge, 2012)

Primary sources[edit]

  • Cordier, Andrew W., and Wilder Foote, eds. Public Papers of the Secretaries General of the United Nations (4 vol; Columbia University Press, 2013)


  1. ^ http://web.archive.org/web/20060927143158/http://www.wordorigins.org/wordoru.htm#united
  2. ^ Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. (1997) pp 1-55
  3. ^ David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (2013) pp 172-75
  4. ^ Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, An Intimate History (1948) pp 447-53
  5. ^ Edmund Jan Osmańczyk (2003). Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements: T to Z. Taylor & Francis. p. 2445. 
  6. ^ Text from "The Washington Conference 1941-1942"
  7. ^ Stephen C. Schlesinger, Act of creation: The founding of the United Nations: A story of superpowers, secret agents, wartime allies and enemies, and their quest for a peaceful world (2003)
  8. ^ http://www.un.org/en/aboutun/history/dumbarton_yalta.shtml
  9. ^ Robert C. Hilderbrand, Dumbarton Oaks: The Origins of the United Nations and the Search for Postwar Security (UNC Press, 2001)
  10. ^ http://www.un.org/aboutun/sanfrancisco/history.html The 60th Anniversary of the San Francisco Conference
  11. ^ "History of the United Nations 1941 - 1950". United Nations. Retrieved 12 March 2015. 
  12. ^ "What is the Security Council?". United Nations. Retrieved 12 March 2015. 
  13. ^ http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10813F7385E177B93C2A8178BD95F468585F9

External links[edit]