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The Disunited Nations : As it hits 50, the U.N. struggles with problems old and new : UNITED NATIONS: The First Fifty Years, By Stanley Meisler (Atlantic Monthly Press: $24; 386 pp.) : CALLING THE SHOTS: How Washington Dominates Today's U.N., By Phyllis Bennis (Olive Branch Press, Interlink Publishing Group: $16.95 paperback; $39.95 hardcover; 256 pp.) : A GLOBAL AFFAIR: An Inside Look at the United Nations, Edited by Amy Janello and Brennon Jones; with an introduction by Brian Urquahart (Jones & Janello, New York: $35; 304 pp.)

February 11, 1996|Blanche Wiesen Cook | Blanche Wiesen Cook is Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and author of "Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1" (Viking)

World War II ended with promises of peace, stability and development. Democracy had triumphed over fascism; the world's people expected an end to colonial greed and global violence; Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower hoped we had witnessed "the last civil war to tear humanity apart."

Even before war's end, the United Nations was created to ensure the future. Unlike the moribund League of Nations--too weak to enforce or alter the punitive, unworkable Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I--the United Nations would be respected, inclusive. Democracy was on its agenda from the start. The new "parliament of the world" would establish a "permanent system of general security" and universal conditions of social justice. A big idea: big enough to end the scourge of war, forever.

Largely an American vision with bipartisan support, the U.N. was given its name by FDR, who also imbued it with the legacy of his incomparable enthusiasm. Almost immediately swamped by Cold War enmity, the U.N. faced astonishing controversies, devastating crises. Nevertheless, for 50 years, it grew in strength and vision, and for millions of people throughout this planet, it has ensured access to health care, literacy, dignity. Today, however, the U.N. faces a difficult future--without the support it once had from the U.S., the best of its contributions are ignored, trivialized or mocked. Last week, moreover, the U.N.'s top financial official said the organization was veering toward bankruptcy.

While U.N. agencies save lives every day, and the U.N. sponsors such hopeful activities as world summits on women, development and the environment, various American politicians have declared war on its very existence. When did this contempt for the U.N. begin? Why did the U.S. walk out of UNESCO 10 years ago and then fail to return despite many changes and UNESCO's demonstrably splendid work? And why did President Clinton not even refer to the U.N. in last month's State of the Union address?

Different in perspective and content, these three books issued to coincide with the U.N.'s 50th anniversary were produced by people who care deeply about the U.N. Stanley Meisler's narrative history of its first 50 years explains the issues from the First World's point of view. A former foreign correspondent for The Los Angeles Times who now works in its Washington bureau, Meisler recounts an exciting story of the U.N.'s origins and agonies. Using an engaging biographical technique, he focuses on the U.N.'s key players. His chapters on Norway's Trygvie Lee, America's first ranking African American diplomat, Ralph Bunche (who pioneered the U.N.'s peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East), Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold, the former Nazi Kurt Waldheim and Burma's U Thant's efforts to achieve peace in Vietnam are positively stirring.

During the 1960s, Meisler shows, the U.N. was increasingly marginalized by Vietnam and the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. But the real trouble began with decolonization and the explosion of new member states, each with its own needs and vision and vote. The U.S. considered all independence movements to be pro-Soviet and never accepted the notion of "unaligned" nations during the protracted agony of the East-West schism. And then there was that peculiar Soviet-American romance with nuclear bombs and missiles.

Meisler vividly recalls the sad and tragic days that illustrated the U.N.'s weakness as the world wobbled at the edge of the nuclear abyss during the Cuban missile crisis. The real war against multilateralism began, however, when Gerald Ford appointed Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.N. ambassador after reading his article, "The U.S. in Opposition." Moynihan, who had counseled Nixon "to treat the issue of race with 'benign neglect,' " now wanted the U.S. to stand up to that U.N. bloc of developing nations that had formed the Group of 77 in 1968, and demanded new economic policies to redress the balance of trade, power, influence. According to Meisler, the stage was now set "for one of the great battle royals of the U.N.--Ambassador Moynihan Vs the Third World." Although Meisler is generally fair-minded, his contempt for "the irascible, unreasonable, smug Third World" informs his presentation of the Third World's efforts to achieve either a new world information order or equitable economic arrangements.

According to Meisler, the U.N. sank to its lowest levels during the 1970s and 1980s, when: "Paralysis, Third World cant, the hypocritical anti-American ranting of ambassadors from little tyrannies, corruption and waste" caused politicians to wonder "whether there ought to be a United Nations after all."

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