President Truman addresses the United Nations

Episode 4 – Charter into Deeds

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series

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About the Episode

Before fighting came to an end in World War II, the Allied powers began to envision the peace that would follow. These early debates included discussions about the creation of a new, cooperative international organization for the purpose of maintaining global peace. Supported, and named, by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the new United Nations would replace the League of Nations, which failed to maintain the world order and prevent future conflicts following the end of World War I. Before FDR’s death in April 1945, delegates from fifty nations planned to convene in San Francisco for a conference to create the Charter for this new international organization. FDR’s sudden passing raised concerns if the new US President, Harry Truman, would follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. Truman’s second day in office, he removed all doubt when he announced the San Francisco conference should continue as planned, paving the way for the creation of the United Nations.

This week’s episode, written and narrated by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton, opens and closes with audio excerpts from Truman’s remarks made when signing the Charter of the United Nations. In these remarks, Truman illustrates the idealized peace that could follow through cooperative governance between nations. However, Truman notes the need for people the world over to adhere to this Charter crafted to maintain international peace, concluding his remarks with a dire warning of the inevitable loss of life that would follow should future generations fail to uphold this document of intergovernmental order.

The creation of the UN helped to elevate the power and influence of the United States on the world stage, and it also gave the US an international platform to lead discussion on the nature of human rights. Through the efforts of former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor used this document to advance the ideals put forward by her late husband by including references to the “Four Freedoms” outlined by FDR in 1941 - freedom of speech, freedom to worship as one wanted, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Eleanor intentionally incorporated this language into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it became the basis upon which countries the world over came to define - and defend - inalienable human rights.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • The League of Nations and World War I
  • The formation of the United Nations
  • United Nations Security Conference in San Francisco in June 1945
  • A dramatic reading of the UN Charter by Laurence Olivier
  • Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  • Divisions between the US and Soviet Union within the UN at the outset of the Cold War

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Featured Historian

Ed Lengel, PhD

Edward G. Lengel is Senior Director of Programs for The National WWII Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. He received his PhD from the University of Virginia, where he was a full professor and directed the Washington Papers Project for many years. He then served as Chief Historian of the White House Historical Association, and wrote the new history of Colonial Williamsburg as a “Revolutionary in Residence.” Also a professional author, speaker and battlefield tour guide, Lengel has written 14 books on American history, including To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918 and Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. Lengel is a co-recipient of the National Humanities Medal and has won two writing awards from the Army Historical Foundation. He has made frequent television and radio appearances on The History Channel, Fox News, SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and the World War I Centennial Commission’s weekly podcast.

View More from Dr. Ed Lengel

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"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.


Archival Audio - Harry S. Truman Signs the United Nations Charter 1945

The Charter of the United Nations, which you are now signing, is a solid structure upon which we can build for a better world. History will honor you for it. Between the victory in Europe, and the final victory in Japan, in this most destructive of all wars, you have won a victory against war itself.


It was the hope of such a Charter that helped sustain the courage of stricken peoples through the darkest days of the war. For it is a declaration of great faith by the nations of the earth, faith that war is not inevitable, faith that peace can be maintained. If we had had this Charter a few years ago, and above all the will to use it, millions now dead will be alive. If we should falter in the future in our will to use it, millions now living will surely die.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In the final months of World War II, the United States moved quickly to position itself as a diplomatic leader in guiding the formation of a global organization, founded with the express purpose of preventing future wars. As Truman came into office, he took up his predecessor’s cause, pushing for the creation of such an organization, one FDR called the “United Nations.”

Like FDR, Truman recognized the need for international cooperation, but this was not the first time a US President found himself advocating for international governance. The notion of a “United Nations” organization echoed the efforts of Woodrow Wilson, who had campaigned for the creation of the League of Nations at the end of World War I. Founded in 1920, the League of Nations sought to maintain global order in the aftermath of the “war to end all wars,” but failed. Only 25 years later, the world plunged into an even more devastating global conflict. And now, in 1945, a defeated German population once again chafed at defeat. German cities lay in ruin. Millions were dead, and millions more were left displaced. Hunger and need ruled the land, and the potential for discontent was high. Such discontent, if not addressed, could threaten (once again) to give rise to another authoritarian ruler, another Hitler.

Truman understood the necessity of the United Nations, but unlike the League of Nations that came before, he ensured the United States would act as a direct participant and leader. Working in coordination with countries across the globe, the US used its newfound, and growing, international influence to shape the creation of the UN. However, the power that came with this new responsibility further agitated relations between the US and USSR as both jockeyed for global dominance.

Archival Audio

“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Kristen Burton

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, this is episode 4: “Charter Into Deeds.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton.

This week, we explore the origins of a new international organization that would lead efforts to maintain peace once fighting came to an end.

Archival Audio - Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations read by Sir Laurence Olivier

(Orchestral music begins to play)

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom-

(dramatic orchestral music plays)


(sweeping orchestral music plays)

Dr. Kristen Burton

Well before the end of fighting, Allied leaders began to debate what peace might look like after victory. In 1943, interest in forming a new international organization began to grow when American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, and the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, discussed such an organization at the Quebec Conference in August. By November, FDR proposed the idea while meeting with Joseph Stalin in Tehran. FDR suggested the four Allied powers (US, UK, USSR, and China) would all hold special positions of power in enforcing global order.

Joining us to discuss Truman’s view of the United Nations is Dr. Ed Lengel, Senior Director of Programming for the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Harry Truman was a disciple and student of President Woodrow Wilson, the great Democratic president from the earlier part of the 20th century and the World War I era. And Woodrow Wilson, of course, was an idealist and somebody who hoped, in the latter part of World War I and the aftermath of that great conflict, to find a way to create a new global order that would at least minimize the possibility of massive armed conflict.

Even though Truman hadn’t been in at the beginning with Roosevelt and getting the concept of the United Nations started in 1942, Truman still was a believer in the concept. And part of it had to do with what he had inherited from Woodrow Wilson, from the League of Nations, which had never been ratified by the United States Senate. And so Truman saw this as an opportunity to make up for that failure to—to create a global order after the First World War. So Truman wasn’t—he wasn’t a crusader, he wasn’t somebody who was an architect of the United Nations, but he was definitely a believer.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Although the US took a leading role in the formation of the United Nations, Truman and his administration knew they required the assistance and support of their wartime allies. The San Francisco conference built upon years of negotiation and agreements between the Allied powers. Roosevelt had worked closely with Churchill and Stalin to craft visions of how a post-war world might look. With Roosevelt gone, and Truman stepping into his place in the negotiations, the importance of agreement and support from the other Allied powers became ever more important. However, Truman sought to ensure that the United States maintained its position of power as the San Francisco conference began.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Harry Truman was—in addition to being, deep down, an idealist, he certainly had his practical side. And he saw the United Nations as ultimately serving a purpose to keep the United States at the epicenter of the new world order that would emerge after the Second World War.

He saw it as a means of preventing the isolationist politicians from the Republican Party who were still around to drag the country back into an isolationist stance once again. He saw the United Nations as a means of ensuring American primacy—I wouldn’t say hegemony, but primacy in the global financial order as well.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Throughout the months of May and June, the delegates debated matters related to the International Court of Justice - which would give the UN the power to rule on and enforce international law - as well as matters of the new Security Council, and how the organization itself would run. The discussions culminated in the San Francisco meeting in late June of 1945.

Archival Audio - Newsreel clip from the UN Conference

San Francisco, California, a momentous conference begins. Here, leaders of the United Nations, representing all but a fraction of the Earth’s population, are laying the foundations of international security in the post-war world. United States Secretary of State Stettinius opens the first session and introduces President Truman who speaks from Washington.

(Gavel bangs 3 times)

The conference of the United Nations, an international organization, is now convened.

Ladies and gentlemen the President of the United States.

The world has experienced a revival of an old faith in the everlasting moral force of Justice. At no time in history has there been a more important conference or a more necessary meeting than this one in San Francisco. You members of this conference are to be the architects of a better world.

Dr. Kristen Burton

On June 25, the delegates met for the final full meeting at the San Francisco Opera House during which British ambassador to the US, Lord Halifax, presented the final draft of the Charter. When doing so, he stated, “This issue upon which we are about to vote is as important as any we shall ever vote in our lifetime."

When put to a vote, every delegate stood, marking their support of the Charter, approving it unanimously. The following day, the fifty nations represented at the conference signed the Charter. China, the first nation to experience aggression from an Axis power, became the first nation to sign in support of the Charter.

The US Senate approved the UN Charter on July 28. For the first time in history, the United States approved its membership and participation in an intergovernmental organization.

By October 24, 1945 the UN came into formal existence, after 29 countries ratified the Charter.

Even with striving to keep the US at the center of this new world order, America’s allies were of the utmost importance. However, Truman did not have the same intimate relationship with the Allied leaders as Roosevelt. Churchill and Stalin spent nearly the entirety of the war coordinating and working alongside FDR. Truman seemed to lack FDR’s gravitas, but, whether the Allies liked it or not, Truman was still the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

Dr. Ed Lengel

They were more important than many people recognize, and that includes Truman. I think Truman, to some degree, became a little bit intoxicated with American power in 1945, and that’s—that’s true in a number of different areas. That’s true in financial supremacy. It’s true in military supremacy. It’s also true in scientific and technological supremacy.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The San Francisco conference, coupled with the ratification of the UN Charter and establishment of the UN Headquarters in New York City placed the United States firmly ahead of all other powers, including the other Allies, as the leading superpower on the planet. Truman sought to keep the US in this leading role, and carefully sized up the other Allied powers, which would be the closest competitors to US domination.

Dr. Ed Lengel

I think in particular, Truman felt that the atomic bomb offered an opportunity for the United States, at least for the foreseeable future, to dictate to some degree the new world order, because he didn’t believe that the Soviets would be able to follow in the—in America’s footsteps in terms of creating nuclear weapons very quickly. He thought it would probably take at least a decade.

He recognized that the Soviets were very powerful as a powerful military force on the land. But he felt that the Soviets had suffered so much and that they had—they were so backward in many respects that it would be a long time before they were a significant rival. And of course, he didn’t anticipate the rapidity with which Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China would collapse.

Dr. Kristen Burton

Although the UN helped to launch the United States into an even stronger position on the world stage, the League of Nations that came before struggled to win both political and public support at home. Would the United Nations strike a different chord with the American public?

Dr. Ed Lengel

To answer that question we need to compare and contrast the national mood, say from the end of World War I to the end of World War II in the United States. When World War I ended, after a period of celebration and parades and victory in Western Europe, the prevailing mood in America was one of disgust. Americans were—felt that it had been a mistake pretty quickly, that the United States had intervened in World War I, and turned away from Europe, felt that we had been duped, we had been drawn into a conflict that really was none of our business. That was one of the main reasons that Woodrow Wilson failed to get the League of Nations ratified.

In 1945, the mood was somewhat different. And I think we have trouble nowadays looking beyond the aura of victory. You know, we see the—the photos and the films of the parades and the celebrations in Times Square of the people celebrating, and we think it was just a moment of triumphal victory, that everybody was happy, everybody was excited, and now we felt that we were the most powerful nation on earth.

In fact, the prevailing mood in the United States was one of fear and uncertainty about the future as well as mourning about the past. There was a great deal of concern about the GIs and how they would get back home and what they would be like when they got back home. Would they be—would they be scarred? Would they be tormented? How would they readjust to society?

So I think Americans were a little bit more positive toward the United Nations and the immediate aftermath of World War II than they had been toward the League of Nations a generation earlier. There was more fear. There was some hope that a new structure such as the United Nations would be able to—to prevent the world from collapsing once again as it had before, and that the United Nations might set up an apparatus and a framework for developing world peace.

Dr. Kristen Burton

In December 1945, Truman appointed former First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt to serve as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, and in April of the following year, she became the first elected chairperson for the preliminary United Nations Commission on Human Rights. From 1946 to 1948, Roosevelt worked steadily on what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that consisted of 30 articles defining the nature and protection of rights for people the world over.

The Preamble to the Declaration is succinct: “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.”

Roosevelt received overwhelming support for the Declaration, and the UN voted to adopt the document on December 10, 1948. Roosevelt described the declaration as her most important task, and its successful reception earned her the moniker of “First Lady of the World.”

Roosevelt continued to serve as a delegate to the UN General Assembly until 1952. Before stepping down from her position, however, she made an address to the UN in which she noted the divisions that continued to exist between nations. She expressed her fear of what may occur should such conflict continue to grow.

Archival Audio - Eleanor Roosevelt Addressing the United Nations General Assembly-1952

The task before us is greatly advanced by an assembly, which reflects as accurately as this one has, the problem of our swiftly changing world. The world profits by this annual reminder of those things which must be thought about and worked on during the months between our sessions. Hereto we face, day after day, a tragic reality of our time, the isolation of a small group of our members from the rest of us. I pray this will not always be.

Throughout this session I have watched the signs of a change in attitude. I’ve been disappointed, but I am not discouraged. All of us must keep on hoping and working for a change. Constantly asking ourselves if we are doing all we can to make clear our desire to live in peace and friendship with all our neighbors in the world community.

Dr. Kristen Burton

The signing and ratification of the Charter of the United Nations played a significant role in the enforcement of justice against the Axis Powers. The International Court of Justice gave the UN the power to organize war crimes trials against the military and political leaders of Germany and Japan. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights created new definitions of what rights people the world over inherently possessed, as well as the protections they would receive. Unlike the failed League of Nations, the UN appeared to be well poised to help win the peace and secure the world against future conflicts.

However, the growing divide between the US and the USSR proved divisive within the UN itself. As a permanent member, the Soviet Union held veto power over UN measures, and the USSR’s ambassador to the UN, V.M. Molotov, made great use of that power, so much so that he came to be known as “Mr. Veto.” Conflict between the two superpowers would only continue to grow, both within the UN and beyond.

Dr. Ed Lengel

Truman was worried about a number of different things, one of them that he was—he was worried about the state of the Democratic Party, a possible resurgence of the Republicans.

He was already looking forward to some degree to the reelection campaign in 1948 and what would happen there. But more broadly, he was concerned about the march of communism. And that was true in Asia in particular. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria and of the Korean Peninsula at the end of the war was something that Roosevelt had campaigned for and now Truman had to deal with.

He was deeply concerned about the state of Western Europe, about the suffering of the people of the Low Countries, of Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, and the political weakness of the Western Allies and the rise of the communist parties and—and other movements, similar movements in Western Europe.

He did—he tended to discount the Soviet Union for a time in terms of their military power, and he put a lot of reliance in the atomic weapons program and allowing that—in the atomic weapons program keeping the Soviets at bay. But as it became pretty clear, pretty quickly, that the Soviets had—had infiltrated the Manhattan Project, that Soviet espionage was fairly extensive in the United States and Western Europe, and as the Soviets appeared to catch up, there was a very real danger of a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviets, either in Western Europe or in Asia.

Archival Audio - Newsreel Clip of UN Conference, Truman speaking

In your hands rests our future. By your labors at this conference, we shall know if suffering humanity is to achieve a just and lasting peace. If we do not want to die together in war we must learn to live together in peace.


Dr. Kristen Burton

In our next episode, “Urgent Summons,” we’ll hear more from Dr. Ed Lengel from the Museum’s Institute for the Study of War and Democracy as we travel to the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, where Truman joined Stalin and Clement Atlee to discuss how best to defeat the Empire of Japan.

From The National WWII Museum, this is “To the Best of My Ability.” This episode was written by me, Dr. Kristen Burton. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives, the FDR Presidential Library, and the United Nations Audiovisual Library.

If you like this podcast, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, which helps others to find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.