A month before he was inaugurated, President Donald J. Trump tweeted his opinion that the United Nations is “just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time.” Throughout his time as president, his words and actions have reflected this lack of faith in the United Nations, most notably when he withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) early this summer in June—making the United States the first nation to voluntarily leave the council.
One of the common threads in the current administration’s comments about international forums, such as the United Nations and NATO, is the assertion that these organizations are at odds with the United States and its interests. Among the reasons U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley listed for the United States’ withdrawal from the UNHRC, one was that the Council is “against us at times.”
In light of these events and these words, some of our younger History Detectives may have questions about the United Nations and its purpose. Our current exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms explores the context in which the United Nations was founded, the institution’s core principles and goals, and the crucial role the U.S. had in creating it.
The Four Freedoms and an International Vision
On New Year’s Day 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his staff were gathered in the Oval Office working on the president’s upcoming address to Congress. The president and his writers faced a difficult task. Although the United States did not have any soldiers at war, the president had already started to provide military aid to England. Roosevelt hoped that his address to Congress would not only justify the support the United States had already given to England, but also that it would prepare the nation for total involvement in a war, which Roosevelt thought was imminent.
Many Americans were against the U.S. entering the war. Some were hesitant to enter into another global war after the loss of life in World War I, and some questioned why the United States should get involved in a foreign entanglement on a distant continent. Others shared the German Nazi party’s anti-Semitism, or hatred of Jewish people, and desire for people of so-called Aryan descent to be united under a common flag. Close to one million Americans organized to express their anti-war beliefs by forming a group called “America First” in 1939. America First’s leaders were tied to the German Nazi party and often made anti-Semitic comments and speeches. The organization disbanded after the United States was directly attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It must be noted that President Trump has adopted the phrase “America First” but denies that his usage relates to the isolationist and bigoted spirit of the WWII era. Regardless of the president’s intentions, the phrase recalls a dark and painful movement in this country’s history You can learn more about America First and the arguments for and against U.S. involvement in World War II in Units A and B of our online curriculum from our past exhibition WWII & NYC.
“America First” could not have been further from FDR’s worldview. In the horrors of the First World War, FDR saw a call for the United States to become even further involved in global events. FDR imagined the best future for the United States was a future where there were no threats of a global war at all. For this to be the case, every country was going to have to work together to secure international peace.
In the aftermath of World War I, Roosevelt had worked tirelessly to try to create an international body dedicated to peacekeeping. In 1920 alone, he made 800 speeches in support of the United States joining the League of Nations, President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed organization for promoting global peace. Despite his best efforts, the United States did not ultimately join the League of Nations.
As tensions escalated going into the Second World War, Roosevelt felt it was a grave error that the United States had not joined the League of Nations—and one the U.S. should not make again. On that New Year’s Day in 1941, Roosevelt was planning for not only the war itself, but also life after the war. The gears were already in motion within his administration to build a stronger version of the League of Nations once this war was over.
It is no wonder, then, that the end of FDR’s annual address to Congress (now known as the State of the Union) came to him all at once, a vision of freedoms that would guarantee peace across the world:
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
The global nature of Roosevelt’s mission was staggering, even to his advisers. One adviser questioned Roosevelt’s use of the words “anywhere in the world.” “That covers a lot of territory,” the adviser said. “I don’t know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java.” Roosevelt would not give up the phrasing and replied, “I’m afraid they’ll have to be some day… the world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”
Imagining the Four Freedoms: Norman Rockwell and the United Nations
Roosevelt’s adviser was not the only one who struggled to imagine a future of global peace—his words fell flat for most of the American public as well. But they struck a chord with some, including artist Norman Rockwell, who said that he struggled so much with the meaning of Roosevelt’s words that it kept him up at night. He made sense of the Four Freedoms by imagining what they would look like in the context of the American communities he was familiar with. Rockwell painted a quartet of images of the Four Freedoms in action for the Saturday Evening Post. They went onto become icons of American freedom, and millions of Americans bought poster versions to raise money for war bonds. Rockwell’s images helped Roosevelt accomplish his first goal of garnering support at home.
Rockwell helped Roosevelt attain his goal of preparing the nation for war and conveying a sense of moral obligation in that preparation. His other goal—of securing a future of peace through international cooperation—took form in the creation of the United Nations. As a matter of fact, it was Roosevelt himself who came up with the name “United Nations” when he used it for the first time in the 1942 document, the Declaration by the United Nations. The document declared the intentions of 26 countries to come together and fight for peace and human rights during the war but also laid the groundwork for Roosevelt’s’ larger goal. The declaration signified that all 26 of the countries would make peace together at the end of the war as a collective, which would set a precedent for cooperation in peacemaking efforts.
Unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t live to see the United Nations grow into the organization that it is today. He died a month before Germany surrendered so he never got to oversee the formation of the United Nations that took place in San Francisco after the war had ended.
Although Roosevelt was not there to actively shape the formation of the United Nations, his ideas still influenced the creation of the United Nations in two very important ways. For one, the United Nations was signed into creation in the presence of Rockwell’s’ Four Freedoms in San Francisco. The questions that Roosevelt grappled with about the role of the United States in the future of international diplomacy became recurring themes in Rockwell’s work, as you can see in paintings such as The Golden Rule.
The second and most significant way that the Four Freedoms vision was worked into the formation of the United Nations was through the work of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned about how we fight for the Four Freedoms at times of peace. “When the war is over,” she wrote, “the four freedoms will not have been won, we shall simply have dominated their more aggressive enemies. At all times, day by day, we have to continue fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want—for these are things that must be gained in peace as well as in war.”
The Four Freedoms, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the UN Commission on Human Rights
The opportunity came for Eleanor Roosevelt to fully ingrain a global vision for the Four Freedoms into the United Nations in 1946. The General Assembly of the United Nations voted to create the UN Commission on Human Rights, a forum where human rights defenders from each country could work together to ensure fundamental human rights and freedoms are protected. Roosevelt was elected chair, which meant it was up to her to lead the commission and to write its declaration. Roosevelt mediated and presided over more than 3,000 hours of debates in order to realize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For those Americans who had lived through the war, the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would have been instantly recognizable.
The Declaration reads:
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.
FDR and ER’s vision for an American future dedicated to defending human rights globally not only drove the creation of the United Nations—it also became the very fabric of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2006, the UN Commission on Human Rights became the United Nations Human Rights Council, which the United States left in June 2018.
The United Nations and American Foreign Policy Legacy
In October 2012, Four Freedoms Park opened here in New York City. The park faces the United Nations, a fact that former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon celebrated in his remarks at the park’s opening ceremony. “No single person was more instrumental in the founding of the United Nations than Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” the security general said. “He had the vision. He helped develop the plans. He even gave us our name. He did not live long enough to see the United Nations come to pass. Yet his words guide us every day as we work to advance peace and security, promote development, and uphold human rights around the world.”
Those who visit the park and look out at the UN—like those who visit Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms here at the New-York Historical Society—can plainly see the history of the United Nations is intertwined with the history of the United States. With its foundations in the Four Freedoms, the United Nations is a part of the legacy of an American hope for international peace.
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe
Family Programs Education, DiMenna Children’s History Museum
Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, FDR and the Creation of the U.N. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
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. Hachette, 2003.
James J. Kimble and Stephanie Haboush Plunkett. Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms Catalogue. New York: Abbeville Press: 2017.