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 United Nations  75th  Anniversary

Rear view of the delegates as they assemble for a group photograph on the North Vista, 21 August 1944. Photo: Stettinius Papers [2723], Special Collections Department, University of Virginia.The United Nations is eerily old, and endlessly unvenerable. To be seventy-five is a serious thing; an occasion for parties and reminiscences and Festschriften. It is to have survived, unlike the League of Nations (1920-1946), or the Warsaw Treaty Organization (1955-1991) or even the Delian League (478-404). But the United Nations is uncelebrated, for the most part, in 2020, as in 1955, or 1970, or 1995. It is endlessly in transition, as it was in October 1945.

Even the events of October 24, 1945 took the unromantic form of one Fedor T. Orekhov, “first secretary of the Soviet Embassy,” shuffling over to the Hill Building of the US State Department, bearing the “instruments of ratification” of the Byelorussian SSR, the Ukrainian SSR, and the USSR, which in turn elicited the signature – it “took around two minutes” -- of the protocol that established the “United Nations World Security Organization,” or “UNO,” or the UN. The events were preceded and followed by dispiriting news: there was a headline in the New York Times, on October 17, 1945, that read “Thirty Prominent Persons Ask Scrapping of UNO;” to be followed, on October 27, 1945, by “Proposal to Scrap UNO is Denounced.”

This existential modesty may be one of the UN’s enduring strengths; a source of resilience over the momentous changes of its long lifetime. The UN has been a background or a landscape, against which the spectacle of war and politics is played out. “In our personal relations and in our international relations let us display the mutual respect that fosters peace:” this was the US President of the time, Richard M. Nixon, at the UN on October 24, 1970, amidst the tragedy of war in Cambodia. Or on October 24, 1995, the foreign minister of Bhutan, Dawa Tsering: “without the United Nations, Bhutan would have no voice. Bhutan today exists on the razor's edge. Our culture is at risk. We could disappear. The speech is serious.”

So the speech of the United Nations is serious, and so is the existence of the United Nations as a location, or a scene, of international exchange. It may even be time, after seventy-five years, to take the institution itself seriously as an object of historical inquiry. Like every individual (or every network of individuals) who has lasted so long, it has had a lifetime of failures and successes, of sicknesses and recovery. It has a lifetime of photographs and publications and films and invoices and memoranda. It deserves a history, and even an ordinary history, a history from below;  not a chronicle of achievements, as of an institution that is endlessly ephemeral, or endlessly at risk, but the story of a substantial, continuing part of modern life.
Happy Birthday.


Emma Rothschild