The history told about the defeat of Nazism and the founding of the United Nations in the 1940s has become distorted. A false view of the past is being used today to shape how we think about our future. The military power of the victorious wartime allies is offered as a model for running the world, while the UN's supposed utopianism is seen as ineffective and irrelevant.
This is a travesty of the facts. We are taught that the UN began with the signing of the charter in 1945. In fact that agreement was the culmination of a military and political effort that began in 1941. Understanding the UN's wartime origins provides a much-needed reminder that the UN is not some liberal accessory but a realistic necessity.
The historical records show how Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt created the UN to win the war both militarily and politically, and to create the foundations for a lasting peace. Their first expression of Anglo-American policy was in the Atlantic charter of 1941; this included freedom from want, social security, labor rights and disarmament as well as self-determination, free trade and freedom of religion. On January 1 1942 Roosevelt and Churchill led 26 nations, including the Soviet Union and China, in a "declaration by United Nations" based on the charter. On June 14 1942 a "United Nations flag day" was held with a great parade at Buckingham Palace attended by Churchill, the royal family and the exiled leaders of occupied Europe. Local events were held all over Britain.
In the records of the war years, countless references demonstrate the UN's origin as a strategic engine of victory in the second world war. The Nazi surrender document states: "This act of military surrender is without prejudice to, and will be superseded by, any general instrument of surrender imposed by, or on behalf of, the United Nations on Germany ... " President Truman broadcast on May 8 that "General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations."
The United Nations was a real entity during the war, not a spin-doctored slogan offering a gullible public the promise of world peace after the conflict. The allies fought the war as the United Nations and created organizations in its name and on its foundation.
Even the unit shoulder patch of Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force included a light-blue band officially described as representing the peace offered to the enslaved peoples of Europe by the United Nations.
United Nations political bodies were also created during the war. In 1943 the UN War Crimes Commission and the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration were created. The conferences that planned the postwar world that we know as Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods were officially UN conferences. In April 1945 the UN Conference on International Organization opened in San Francisco and went on to agree the charter we have today, which states that the "original members" of the UN include those that signed the 1942 declaration.
George W Bush and Tony Blair seek to persuade their citizens that other nations are just too intransigent to deal with in their campaign to make the world free and safe. They would have us believe that Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac are tougher customers than Joseph Stalin and Charles de Gaulle.
Roosevelt and Churchill did not respond to fascism with a doctrine of pre-emptive war and totalitarian neoliberalism. Quite the opposite: just three weeks after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor they set about creating an agenda that, in modern terms, is leftwing social democracy. In doing so, they knew that hard bargaining and unpleasant compromise might be necessary. They understood that cooperation was essential to survival. Today that lesson has almost been forgotten in America and Britain.
Why has this history been lost? I have no clear answer, but can offer some suggestions. Everyone knew the UN had been created out of the ashes of the war; there was no need to labor the point. More importantly, the creation of images of competing evil empires in the cold war meant that neither right nor left wanted to remember that they fought the axis together. Nowadays journalists preparing anniversary coverage may come across the occasional reference to the UN and omit it as an oddity or a mistake.
As the 60th anniversaries of the end of the second world war and the UN charter strip away the spurious moral authority that the present US-UK alliance tries to claim from the wartime experience, we would all do well to remember Churchill's remark to his doctor during the battle of Arnhem: "United Nations is the only hope of the world".
Dan Plesch is the author of The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace For more information go to www.danplesch.net
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.