Harold Stassen and the Birth of the United Nations
Franklin Roosevelt tapped just a handful of Republicans to help establish the U.N.'s initial charter, including the "boy governor" from Minnesota.
In San Francisco in the summer of 1945, representatives from 50 countries signed the charter of the United Nations, establishing a new, international body tasked with upholding the human rights of citizens the world over. This was in the wake of World War II, and the hope was that the U.N. might help resolve conflicts before they spun into the sort of devastating global wars that had twice afflicted humankind in the 20th century.
The idea that nations needed a forum in which to work out their differences existed long before the U.N. took center stage. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson led an attempt to establish a League of Nations with similar intentions. But, the treaty was shot down in the U.S. Senate by a contingent of Republicans who felt the organization would cede too much American independence to international powers. The League would be established, but in a weakened form and without U.S. participation.
During World War II, the Allied nations once again began discussing the necessity of a powerful, communal body to keep the peace. President Franklin Roosevelt championed the new effort, planning the San Francisco meeting and even giving the U.N. its name. Understanding that this was tricky business—the U.N. treaty would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate—Roosevelt took pains to avoid Wilson’s errors. He made sure the effort had Republican backing.
That is how Minnesota’s own former governor, Harold Stassen, came to be one of three Republicans among the eight U.S. delegates sent to that first conference in San Francisco to help write the U.N. charter.
In early 1945, Stassen (B.L. ’27, J.D. ’29) was still considered a bit of a wunderkind in Minnesota politics, though he was now pushing 40 and fast losing his hair. A tall, lumbering man, son of a farmer and former mayor of West St. Paul, Stassen had shone in all phases of college life at the University of Minnesota—including as one of the best marksmen the college rifle team ever produced, winning three national intercollegiate championships. Ambitious to a fault, he ran for Dakota County attorney soon after graduating from the U Law School at age 22, won, and quickly set his sights on higher office.
After disastrous presidential, gubernatorial, and legislative elections in 1932 and 1936, the Republican party of Minnesota was in desperate need of new blood, and with more than a little moxie, Stassen, just 31, put his name forward as a gubernatorial candidate in 1938. By dint of talent and hustle, he not only won the primary, he upset Democratic candidate Elmer Benson in the general election to become the youngest governor in the country and the youngest in the state’s history.
The political rise of the progressive young Republican continued. In 1940, he aligned himself with presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, became Willkie’s floor manager at the Republican convention, and gave the keynote speech for the party. He was reelected governor of Minnesota in 1942 and was an obvious future star of the party when war came. In early 1943, Stassen resigned his office and volunteered to serve in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned as administrative assistant to Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.
For a generation, Midwestern Republicans were, almost by definition, isolationists. Stassen, however, had been advocating for a U.N.-type organization since before Pearl Harbor. When Roosevelt began searching for Republicans to serve as delegates in the winter of 1945, he thought of Stassen and sent a dispatch to Halsey’s cabin on a ship in the Pacific. Would Halsey give Stassen leave to attend the upcoming conference in San Francisco, and would Stassen be interested in going? Yes and yes. Soon, Stassen was on his way to Washington for a preparatory conference with Roosevelt and other members of the delegation.
From their first moments, the charter discussions were fraught with drama. Roosevelt died within the first few days of the gathering. Then Hitler died and Germany surrendered. Delegations that had been trapped by war demands in Europe began to arrive in San Francisco to participate in the deliberations, until the number of attendees swelled to 3,500, including delegates, staff, and translators. Meanwhile, the war with Japan continued toward its fearsome conclusion.
The most contentious issues at the conference were also the most contentious in global politics. How would the remaining major powers—the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Great Britain, and France—use their veto powers within the newly created Security Council? Could smaller countries trust them when peace was menaced? And how would the U.N. safeguard the rights of people living in emerging nations who were or would soon be released from colonial rule?
This last issue became Stassen’s specialty. He led the U.S. delegation’s deliberations on the matter, with the assistance of his aide, future Nobel laureate and U.N. Ambassador Ralph Bunche.
Following weeks of dawn-to-midnight meetings, on June 25, the full assembly of delegates was presented with the charter to be voted on. The preamble read, “We the peoples of the United Nations [resolve] to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind and to reaffirm 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. . . .”
Lord Halifax of Great Britain asked the delegates for a show of hands and the vote was unanimous. The Charter of the United Nations was passed and the U.N. was born.
“Somehow in the atmosphere of that room, as you looked from face to face,” Stassen would say a few days later in a speech broadcast across the nation, “as you thought of the billion and a half of the world’s peoples that were represented, of all colors and of many races, tongues, and creeds; as you realized that most of them had stood together through extremely difficult years of bitter fighting and suffering in the war, there was a definite inner feeling that the conference had been a real success, that this United Nations charter might well become one of the truly great documents of all time.”
Just months after the conference, and subsequent to his release from the Navy, the ever-ambitious Stassen announced he would run for president. He did well in the early stages of the campaign, but his chief rivals, New York’s Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft of Ohio, had the backing of establishment Republicans and finished ahead of him in voting at the 1948 national convention. Harry Truman would ultimately win the election.
As is well known in Minnesota, this was the first of many attempts at the presidency by Stassen. And it was as close as he ever came to the office.
Tim Brady is the author of five books, including His Father's Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. He lives in St. Paul.