The front page of a January 1943 edition of the Olean Times-Herald
American critics of the United Nations often zero in on its lack of serious military capacity, citing peacekeeping failures in Bosnia and more recently in central and west Africa as examples of ineffective do-goodery gone wrong. Imagine their surprise, then, to learn that the UN was born amid nude scenes in a White House bathroom and that its primary purpose was as a war-fighting machine.
Conventional historical timelines date the UN’s foundation from the San Francisco conference of April to October 1945, when the victors of the second world war effectively institutionalised a new global order. But as Daisy Suckley, the close confidant of Franklin Roosevelt, noted in her private diary, the idea first took definitive shape when the US president went to bed on 28 December, 1941.
The date is significant. Three weeks before, on 7 December, the Japanese had launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war on the US. After nearly two years of awkward ambivalence as the world burned, America was, at last, unequivocally “in”. A delighted Winston Churchill rushed to Washington and, taking up residence in the White House, spent days debating with Roosevelt how the new anti-Axis alliance would work and, crucially, what to call it.
“FDR got into his bed, his mind working and working,” Suckley recorded. “Suddenly he got it – United Nations! The next morning, the minute he had finished his breakfast, he got onto his chair and was wheeled up the hall to WSC’s [Churchill’s] room. He knocked on the door, no answer, so he opened the door and went in … He called to WSC and in the door leading to the bathroom appeared WSC, ‘a pink cherub’ (FDR said), drying himself with a towel and without a stitch on! FDR pointed at him and exploded: ‘The United Nations!’ ‘Good!’ said WSC.”
- The UN was envisaged as a war-fighting machine | Simon Tisdall (guardian.co.uk)