Could the United Nations have defeated Adolf Hitler during the Second World War?
Actually, according to Dan Plesch, a British scholar at London University, it did. In a provocative new book, America, Hitler and the United Nations, he explores the United Nations’ roots as a World War II military alliance,and argues that it harnessed the soft power of multilateral cooperation to defeat the Axis powers and manage the post-war peace.
Certainly, the war on Hitler and his allies was largely fought by American, British and Soviet leaders, officers and soldiers. But Plesch argues that the United States and Britain’s promotion of a broader international front — the so-called United Nations — played a vital role in assuring victory that has “faded from cultural memory.”
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a series of multilateral innovations — from the establishment of a war crimes commission to an international relief agency — that helped bind an alliance of more than 30 countries and assure an isolationist American public that the aims of the war were consistent with American democratic values, and that the burdens for the conflict would be shared.
“For most people, the United Nations, now with its  member countries, is a large, untidy organization which often disappoints and is rarely heard of when it succeeds,” Sir Brian Urquhart, a former World War II-era British intelligence officer who devoted his subsequent career to the United Nations, writes in the book’s forward.
“Only a few remember that the United Nations came into being in 1942 just after Pearl Harbor…and described the alliance that was then fighting for its life against Hitler and the Axis allies,” he wrote.
Plesch has assembled a trove of government documents, memoirs, newspaper clippings and other historical records that show how deeply ingrained the phrase, “United Nations” had been into the public’s war-time consciousness. In fact, it had become synonymous with the Allied forces. “The United Nations,” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower boasted, “have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man.”
Plesch, a former arms control advocate, is an unabashed supporter of the United Nations, and his book serves as a critique of American conservatives’ go-it-alone tendency, which he believes have landed it in trouble in places like Iraq. (While the Iraq war did involve a military coalition it lacked an explicit U.N. imprimatur and was opposed by some of Washington’s key European allies).
He takes issue with other historical accounts that have questioned the United Nations’ progressive foundation, singling out the British historian Mark Mazower‘s claim that the United Nations was founded to preserve the last vestiges of a fading colonial era. For Plsech, the organization embodies Roosevelt’s own democratic and anti-imperial aspirations.
But he provides a compelling case that the U.N. military alliance played a central role in the nation’s consciousness, and set the stage for the “beginning of a multinational and sharing culture.”
Three years before the United Nations was officially founded in 1945, a Washington Post headline on Jan. 5, 1942, screamed “Anti-Axis Blocs Bidden to Join United Nations.” Later that year, the Allied powers issued a U.N. Declaration, and marked the observance of U.N. day on June 14. This featured a war-era U.N. flag designed by a New York industrialist, with a white background with four vertical red bars represented President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. It also included a U.N. literary competition, U.N. advocacy groups, U.N. stamps and even a U.N. recipe book.
Plesch’s story begins on Dec. 29, 1941, in a White House guestroom, where British Prime Minister Winston Churchill emerges stark naked ( a “pink cherub” as Roosevelt would later recall) from a bath tub as his American host wheels in to share his thoughts on a name for the new military alliance that will confront Hitler. “The United Nations,” Roosevelt says. “Good!” replied Churchill.
Roosevelt’s effort to present the war effort as part of a broader international mission — mustering support from over 30 nations from Brazil to China — helped to assuage the anxieties of the American public, which was skeptical about entering into an unsavory foreign alliance with the world’s old colonial powers. The United Nations served as a progressive notion that fit with American affection for democracy and burden-sharing.
Plesch also tracks how the concept of the United Nations grew into a set of organizations that organized efforts at international cooperation on multiple fronts. Two years before the United Nations’ birth, the United States established the U.N. Food and Agricultural Commission to address global poverty; the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to coordinate relief efforts, and a U.N. War Crimes Commission. The first U.N. conference was held in Hot Springs, Virginia, in 1943.
“The United Nations, first launched as a symbol but soon to acquire a corporate identity,” wrote Plesch. “It parried the traditional American distrust of exclusive alliances, particularly an alliance with the United Kingdom…ranging the free nations of the world behind the great powers.”
The United Nations’ wartime roots are most cleared evidenced by the privileged role granted to the big powers for managing international security after the war. The five wartime victors — Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), China, and France — possess veto power to block any measure under the consideration of the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. charter, meanwhile, continues to identify the Axis powers — Germany, Italy and Japan — as the United Nations’ enemies, even while those same governments have emerged as the U.N.’s largest supporters and financial backers.
The war involved many of the same kind of grubby compromises and alliances with unsavory governments that would be familiar to present day observers, who have expressed outrage that deposed Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi‘s government could secure a seat in the Human Rights Council, or a nuclear outlier like North Korea could get a seat on the U.N. disarmament commission.
Plesch, for example, cites a decision by Eisenhower to permit a cooperation agreement with a leader of the pro-Nazi Vichy government in France. And in perhaps the most far-reaching war-time innovation – the lend-lease program — American factories supplied massive amounts of material to the British and, more controversially, to Joseph Stalin‘s Red Army.
The program helped the Soviet’s repel a German invasion of Russia, hastening the collapse of the German war machine, but its has also been criticized by conservatives for bolstering the Soviets military strength as the two allied powers became Cold War rivals.
“Lend-lease became the foundation of United Nations collaboration,” Plesch writes. “Without lend-lease the outcome of battles, campaigns and the war itself would have been less favorable and could have been lost.”
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