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Eleanor Roosevelt and the United Nations

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the continuities and changes in Cold War policies from 1945 to 1980

Suggested Sequencing

Use this narrative at the beginning of Chapter 13 to cover the creation of the United Nations and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a system of collective security among nations to create a lasting world peace. After Roosevelt died, President Harry Truman assumed responsibility for making Roosevelt’s idea a reality with the creation of a charter for the United Nations (U.N.) at the San Francisco Conference in the spring of 1945. Over the next few years, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt furthered her husband’s vision by leading the U.S. effort to encourage the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This would assert inviolable human rights in the wake of World War II and the struggle against tyranny.

Photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, pictured here in 1933, helped create the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later became the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

In August 1941, Franklin Roosevelt had met with Winston Churchill, and together they had issued the Atlantic Charter, which enumerated several common principles of free nations. The charter’s last point expressed support for “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” After the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, the United States entered the Pacific War against Imperial Japan and then entered the war in Europe against Nazi Germany a few days after. The outline of a United Nations took shape over the next few years as the Allies the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union discussed the idea at the Quebec Conference (August 1943) and the Teheran Conference (December 1943). The foreign ministers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and China also signed the Four-Power Declaration at the Moscow Conference that fall. The declaration asserted that the four great powers (later joined by France) would be the permanent members of a security council and enforce collective security against aggressor nations.

During a 1943 Christmas Eve address, Roosevelt summed up the reasons for working toward an international organization: “The doctrine that the strong shall dominate the weak is the doctrine of our enemies we reject it.” At the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, DC, from August to October 1944, delegations from the Big Four hammered out the general form of the United Nations. It would consist of a General Assembly, a Security Council, and an international court. Unresolved issues included the Soviets’ demand for an absolute veto in the Security Council and for representation of all 16 Soviet republics in the General Assembly. These sources of contention grew worse as World War II entered its final phase and tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States and its Western European allies increased.

In early 1945, the Allies pressed in against Germany from all sides. The Russians attacked along the Eastern Front, and the Americans, British, French, and Canadians moved in from the Western Front. In his Annual Message to Congress on January 6, President Roosevelt stated, “After the last war, we gave up the hope of achieving a better peace because we had not the courage to fulfill our responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world. We must not let that happen again.” With the end of the war in Europe in sight, Roosevelt met with Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta. They agreed to demand the unconditional surrender of Germany, Russia promised to enter the war against Japan, and the Russians also pledged to hold free elections for a coalition government in Poland. The powers also agreed to attend a conference in San Francisco starting on April 25 to create the United Nations organization. Roosevelt reluctantly agreed to support the admission of the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia (now Belarus) in the new organization to ensure Soviet participation, even if it meant adding two extra votes controlled by the Soviet Union.

Smiling, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin sit on a bench in a courtyard. Men in various uniforms stand behind them.

“The Big Three” – Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin (left to right) – met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to begin discussions about the United Nations.

Before the conference began, President Roosevelt died on April 12 and was succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman. Truman had to be brought up to speed quickly on foreign affairs because Roosevelt had rarely confided in him. Truman confirmed the San Francisco Conference would still be held. On April 16, he told Congress: “Without such an organization, the rights of men on earth cannot be protected. Machinery for the just settlement of international differences must be found. Without such machinery, the entire world will have to remain an armed camp.” He had learned from the failures of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations and included important members of Congress and the Republican Party in the U.S. delegation.

Tensions between the United States and the U.S.S.R. clouded the anticipated success of the impending meeting. The Russians went back on their agreement to support free elections in Poland and instead installed the communist Lublin regime. The U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, warned the new president of the expansionist ambitions of the totalitarian regime. Truman decided to get tough with the Soviets and confronted their foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, in a meeting in which Molotov demanded that communist Poland be admitted to the United Nations. After a heated exchange, Molotov said, “I have never been talked to like that in my life.” Truman retorted, “Carry out your agreements and you won’t get talked to like that.” Molotov then proceeded to the San Francisco Conference.

Delegates from 46 invited countries (which had all declared war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) assembled in San Francisco for the opening of the Conference on April 25. Newly liberated Denmark, profascist Argentina, and the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Byelorussia also attended. Over the next two months, the representatives negotiated day and night to create a charter for the United Nations. Disagreements, most related to national sovereignty and self-interest, divided the nations in several different ways. For example, European colonial powers such as Britain, the Netherlands, and France opposed any interference with their colonies and resisted a proposed trusteeship to transition them to independence. Smaller countries were generally opposed to the unequal power exercised by the great powers in the Security Council.

The United States and Latin American countries wanted to preserve American control over the western hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine and Good Neighbor policy. Many countries had bilateral agreements and did not want the international organization to supersede them. The United States rejected being bound by international law as a violation of its own sovereign laws. Many exemptions were granted to achieve the creation of the United Nations. The nations acceded to the demands of the Soviets to seat its two republics and communist Poland, because the Red Army exercised uncontested military strength in Eastern Europe.

The participants unanimously signed the United Nations Charter on June 26. President Truman heralded the achievement as a continuation of the wartime alliances. He asserted, “We have tested the principle of cooperation in this war and we have found that it works.” Unlike the case when the Treaty of Versailles established the League of Nations, the U.S. Senate ratified the U.N. charter in July by a vote of 89-2. Eleanor Roosevelt praised the charter in her syndicated “My Day” newspaper column. Admitting that she had been disappointed by the failures of international cooperation in the past, she wrote, “But I want to try for a peaceful world”.

A collage of faces of different ethnicities around a globe. Inside the globe is a scene of men standing behind a circular desk. Behind them are multiple different flags. The poster reads

This poster includes people from around the world and states the preamble of the United Nations Charter, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . . “

When Truman asked Eleanor Roosevelt to serve as a delegate to the United Nations’ General Assembly, she did not feel up to the task. “How could I be a delegate to help organize the United Nations when I have no background or experience in international meetings?” she asked the president. Truman was convinced she had plenty of political experience and persuaded her to accept.

In early January 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt sailed for London to attend the first meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. She was asked to serve on a small commission to make recommendations on the structure and function of a permanent Human Rights Commission. The Commission was also charged with creating a universal declaration of rights consistent with the preamble to the U.N. Charter, which pledged “to reaffirm our 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.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was elected chair of the commission, which met from April 29 to May 20, 1946, in New York. By June, its members had created a Commission on Human Rights, with the five great powers as permanent members and 13 rotating members with three-year terms. Roosevelt reported of the work of the commission: “Many of us thought the lack of standards for human rights the world over was one of the greatest causes of friction among nations.”

The Commission on Human Rights set about preparing an international bill of rights and held its first session in January 1947. Eleanor Roosevelt was quickly chosen to chair the commission, and representatives from 16 countries were selected to draw up the document.

The meetings were acrimonious, and philosophical divisions became immediately apparent. Participants argued over the nature of God and the nature of humans from different cultural perspectives, about whether rights were individual or collective, and about whether social and economic rights should be guaranteed by government. The most apparent divisions were between the philosophical traditions of East and West, and between the ideas of the Soviet Communist bloc and the free nations. Roosevelt weighed in on the chilly morning of February 5. She stated, “It seems to me that in much that is before us, the rights of the individual are extremely important. It is not exactly that you set the individual apart from his society, but you recognize that within any society the individual must have rights that are guarded.” The Communists, however, rejected the idea of individual rights in favor of collective rights provided by the state.

The next day, the youngest delegate and secretary of the commission, Lebanon’s Charles Malik, contested the Soviet view and asserted that the danger in the postwar world was “not that the state is strong enough . . . but that social claims are in danger of snuffing out any real personal liberty.” Roosevelt went on record as saying that she agreed “wholeheartedly” with Malik.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a strong supporter of practical social and economic rights and equality. She had written shortly after World War II: “Freedom without bread . . . has little meaning. My husband always said that freedom from want and freedom from aggression were twin freedoms, which had to go hand in hand.” She said she wanted to keep the spirit of the New Deal alive. The Communist representatives wanted to focus exclusively on these social rights rather than individual rights, whereas Roosevelt and the other delegates sought a balance.

Roosevelt was then chosen along with Malik, P.C. Chang from China, and John Humphrey from Canada to form a subcommittee to draft the international declaration of human rights. The subcommittee asked Humphrey to create a working draft of the declaration and then edited it.

Eleanor Roosevelt holds a poster of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish.

In a 1947 photo, Eleanor Roosevelt holds a copy of the Spanish-language Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms.

On November 29, Eleanor Roosevelt set off for Geneva, Switzerland, to present the declaration of universal human rights to the Human Rights Commission. The commission unanimously endorsed the declaration by a vote of 13-0, with the Soviet Union and its puppet states abstaining. In December 1948, the General Assembly met in Paris and passed the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights without a single dissenting vote. As Roosevelt admitted in her December 10 speech, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not legally binding on states, but she urged all countries to accept it “as a standard of conduct for all.”

Review Questions

1. The idea for the formation of the United Nations began with the

  1. League of Nations
  2. Atlantic Charter
  3. Yalta Conference
  4. Four Power Declaration

2. The major agreement that came out of the Four-Power Declaration after the Moscow Conference of 1943 led to the

  1. creation of the United Nations
  2. establishment of a security council with five permanent members
  3. United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  4. dissolution of the League of Nations

3. In what proved to be his final Annual Message to Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “After the last war, we gave up the hope of achieving a better peace because we had not the courage to fulfill our responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world. We must not let that happen again.” In this quote, Roosevelt was referring to the failure of

  1. the policy of appeasement
  2. America and its European allies in allowing dictatorships to arise in Europe
  3. the Washington Naval Conference agreements
  4. the United States to join the League of Nations

4. The first meeting of the United Nations that included all allied nations from World War II occurred in

  1. London, England
  2. Geneva, Switzerland
  3. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, USA
  4. San Francisco, California, USA

5. As a delegate to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt worked for which of the following issues?

  1. International human rights
  2. The independence of colonies around the world
  3. Collective security against the Soviet Union
  4. The eradication of diseases such as polio

6. In regard to American policy, a major difference between the founding of the League of Nations and that of the United Nations was that

  1. the United States had no relationship with the League of Nations
  2. the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to ratify the United Nations charter
  3. the American people did not want the United States to join the United Nations
  4. Americans accepted that U.N. policy would influence American foreign policy

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the United States’ purpose in helping create the United Nations.
  2. Describe the creation of the United Nations and the issues that divided the opening conferences.

AP Practice Questions

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law . . .

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom . . .

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge”

Preamble to the “U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights” December 10, 1948

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. An immediate cause of the sentiments expressed in the excerpt was the

  1. failure of the League of Nations
  2. 1918 revolution in Russia
  3. lack of human rights in many countries during World War II
  4. impact of the Great Depression on minority groups

2. The ideals expressed in the excerpted document were most likely influenced by the

  1. Articles of Confederation
  2. Communist Manifesto
  3. Age of Enlightenment
  4. Covenant of the League of Nations

3. Which of the following groups would most likely agree with the sentiments expressed in the excerpt?

  1. Signers of the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention
  2. Signers of the Declaration of Independence
  3. Members of the Sons of Liberty
  4. Jacksonian Democrats

Primary Sources

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 1948.

Suggested Resources

Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Dobbs, Michael. Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War. New York: Knopf, 2012.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Glendon, Mary Ann. A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: Random House, 2001.

Hoopes, Townshend, and Douglas Brinkley. FDR and the Creation of the United Nations. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Schlesinger, Stephen C. 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. New York: Westview, 2003.

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