Flag of the United NationsCredit: photo by Makaristos

The United Nations (UN) has been involved in many conflicts over the past few decades and is often the topic of headlines and debates.   Many people are unclear about the purpose of the UN and which countries are members of the organization.  What is the United Nations and how did it all begin?

 The Birth of the United Nations

 Before the UN came to being, the countries of the world were “policed” by the League of Nations.  This organization was established in 1919 after World War I under the Treaty of Versailles.  The purpose of the League of Nations was “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”  However, the League of Nations was unable to prevent World War II and because of this, stopped all its activities.

 In 1941 United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Britain’s Winston Churchill to discuss what the world might look like after the World War II (WWII).  Though not yet engaged directly in the war, the United States was providing assistance to the allies.  The two leaders had high hopes for a better world and the main points they believed would make that better world were:

  • Their two countries would not seek any form of aggrandizement;
  • Territorial changes should only be made in accordance with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
  • They respected the rights of people to choose their own form of government and wished to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who had them forcibly removed;
  • All countries would engage in free trade with each other;
  • All countries would engage in bringing about the equality of improved labor standards, economic advancements and social security;
  • Once the Nazis were defeated, they wanted to establish a global peace and freedom which included the ability to travel the seas and oceans unhindered;
  • All nations must abandon the use of force

 Roosevelt and Churchill believed in order for this to happen, they would need to create a permanent system of general security; one with a wider reach until such disarmament took place.  The two men outlined their ideas in what is called the Atlantic Charter.

 When the United States entered WWII, Roosevelt coined the term “United Nations” to describe the countries fighting against the Axis.  The first official use of the term was on January 1, 1942 when 26 countries agreed to continue their joint war efforts and would not make peace separately with the Axis countries.  This pledge was considered the Declaration of the United Nations.   The United Sates, Great Britain, the USSR and China issued the Moscow Declaration in October of 1943 stating the need for an international organization to take over for the League of Nations.  More work needed to be done to get the organization up and running.

 Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta Conferences

 To start the process of putting together an organization as proposed, representatives of the United States, Great Britain, China and the USSR met at a private mansion, Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C. This would help determine who is in the United Nations. After lengthy discussions, the four completed their structural proposal on October 7, 1944 and submitted it to the governments of all of the countries in the United Nations and the peoples of all countries.  

 The proposal outlined the structure of the organization to include four principal bodies.  A General Assembly would be comprised of all the members.  A Security Council would have eleven members; five to be permanent and six to hold office for two years and be elected from the General Assembly members.  There would be an International Court of Justice and a Secretariat to make up the third and fourth body within the organization.  The proposal also included an Economic and Social Council to work under the authority of the General Assembly.

 The two main features of the proposal involved the Security Council.  While the General Assembly could review, study, and discuss issues in regard to the welfare of countries and international cooperation, they could only make recommendations to the Security Council that were not already being considered by the Council.  The Security Council was responsible for preventing future wars and anWhat Does the United Nations Do?Credit: photo by Paalsoy question regarding necessary action had to be referred to the Security Council.  Members of the UN were to have armed forces available for the use of the Security Council to carryout tasks of warfare prevention and suppressing acts of aggression.  The voting procedure in the Security Council was not included in the proposal.

 Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and their foreign ministers and chiefs of staff met at Yalta to discuss the issue of how the Security Council would operate within the United Nations; specifically the voting procedure.   February 11, 1945 they proclaimed this issue was resolved and called for a conference in San Francisco, California in the United States to prepare a charter for the new organization.

 The San Francisco Conference

 Though U.S. President Roosevelt had passed away before the San Francisco conference was held, the new leader, President Truman, agreed to carry out all previous arrangements.   In April of 1945, the four sponsoring countries along with forty-one nations which had declared war on the Axis and agreed to the United Nations Declaration, met to determine the charter for the new organization.  Though an original member of the UN, Poland did not attend the conference because her new government had not been announced in time.  A signature line was left blank for the country and Poland signed in October as an original member.

 Syria and Lebanon were invited to the conference at the suggestion of France.  The conference also invited the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Denmark and Argentina which brought the total to delegates of fifty nations gathered at the conference to determine the charter for the UN.

 Delegates and staff numbered the attendees at 3,500 for the conference.  It took two months to complete the task of developing a charter all countries agreed upon.  Every piece of the charter had to be passed by a two-thirds majority vote.  To make any progress, the charter was divided into four sections and committees were established to hammer out the details and prepare recommendations to larger committees and finally to the entire delegation.  The four sections of committee discussion were:

  1. The general purposes of the organization which included membership, principles, the secretariat and amendments;
  2. The powers and responsibilities of the General Assembly
  3. The powers and responsibilities of the Security CouncilFlags of UN members circa 1945Credit: photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
  4. A proposed Statute of the International Court of Justice

 After lengthy debate and conflict of opinions, the charter for the United Nations was finally signed on June 25, 1945.   China was given the honor of being the first signature due to its being the first victim of the aggression of an Axis power.  At the signing President Truman addressed the delegates declaring the charter would work only if the peoples of the world were determined to make it work.

 The Final Step to Recognize the UN as an International Organization

 Once the charter was signed, the nations had to ratify it.  The countries took the charters back to their countries for approval by their governing bodies.  At the conference it was decided the charter would take effect when China, Great Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union in addition to a majority of the signatory nations had ratified and notified the State Department of the United States of the ratification.  This requirement was fulfilled on October 24, 1945 and determined the original countries in the United Nations.

 In the past few decades the UN has come under great debate as to its power and purpose.  More countries have become members and the UN membership currently totals 192 nations.  In 1965 an amendment increased the elected members of the Security Council from six to ten. 




  1. Meisler, Stanley (1995). United Nations the First Fifty Years. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press.
  2. www.un.org
  3. www.historylearningsite.co.uk
  4. www.unhistory.org
  5. www.infoplease.com


 The copyright of the article “The History of the United Nations” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.