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The Crisis of the United Nations

THIS IS A TIME of storm and smoke; of darkness, as Carl Sandberg found the time of Lincoln to be. Death is in the air. So is birth. Within the body of our wartime world we can feel the life of the future stirring. Beneath the sound of the guns, we can hear its first, protesting cries. In fury, all the forces of the past are raining their blows upon it. We bear it fearfully, seeking to shield and cherish it.

Yet we forget the astonishing strength of the will to live with which all forms of life come into being. We stand in shyness before the future that we carry within us. It demands, not shyness, but bold acceptance.

In its earliest hours this new life is being tested in defeat. We can sense its fragile framework, the United Nations, twist and tighten as the tension upon it increases. Listen! Above the storm we can hear the defeatists crying: abandon the future; surrender our world fronts, defend only our own past, on our own shores. We hear this cry, for an America First war. We forget that in other lands of the United Nations, other men are crying: make this a China First, a Britain First, a Russia First war. If, under the constant pressure of defeat, the shafting of the United Nations is broken, and we fight separate wars then, separately, the Axis will destroy us. On the fronts of organization and vision, and on the front of battle, the time has come to take the offensive, to move forward. We must now transform the United Nations from an impulse, a foetus, into a living, fighting force.

Today that force does not exist. We have signed a binding promise; we have sworn to fight together; yet today the United Nations are fighting two separate wars. There is the war fought by Russia, and the war fought by Britain and ourselves. Between these two wars there is almost no exchange of ideas.

There is another weakness in the United Nations which threatens our new life; while the demand for daring has given leadership in the Pacific to the Dutch, the determination of Allied strategy and the distribution of Allied strength are restricted to the British and ourselves.  For the peoples of the British Empire this means the perpetuation of their dependent status when the war is over; for the people of Russia it means the coalescing if a potentially hostile imperialism; for the peoples of Europe it means that the United Nations, the greatest rallying cry for a hundred years, is no more than the cover for Anglo-American domination; for the peoples of Aisa and the Near East, it means that the war is still a white man’s war.

Today the basis for a broad and representative direction of the war exists in Washington. China, Russia, India, the Dominions and the forces of the governments-in-exile have built up really able staffs.  Most of them are ready now to thing, in terms not of their own countries but of the United Nations as a whole. It is we who have never given them a change. We have never gone to them and said: “You need anti-aircraft guns for our common defense, we have them for you.” We have made them struggle for everything they got and so they have been forced to think in national terms.

It was the Christmas conference of the President and Churchill which first endeavored to overcome these boundary lines. As the result of that conference, Allied strategy is directed today by the combined Chiefs of Staff of Britain and America. This group issues directives to three international allocation boards; the Munitions Assignment Board, the combined Shipping Boards and the Joint War Materials Board. Yet these boards are not truly representative of the United Nations. It is altogether wrong to criticize them, since they are the first signs of life; yet it is necessary to understand their grave weaknesses.

 The Munitions Assignment Board, like the War Materials Board, has no real staff of its own. It depends for its decisions upon the recommendations of the Defense Aid Division of the War Department. It exists to weight the military considerations of the War Department against political considerations. Yet it is not equipped to relate military and economic factors or to fulfill a real political function.

It is weak because it is not representatives. The Chinese government, for instance, may ask for, and obtain, a requisition for 20,000 howitzers. On the basis of this order an offensive is planned at Chungking. Units are regrouped, strategy is revised, ammunition is manufactured and supply lines are laid. Then four months later, the Munitions Assignment Board decides that Java must have howitzers at any cost, or the Shipping Board finds that shipping considerations require that the howitzers can only be taken to the Near East. So the promise to China is broken. The point is not that the decision is an irrational one; it is that China’s representative must report to Chungking that once again China’s interests have been overridden in a meeting at which China was not given a chance to state her case, and for reasons that are never explained. Every day this is happening to our allies. Their morale demands that they participate in such vital decisions.

The Munitions Assignments Board is weakened also because the War Department on which it depends is national in bias. At a time when we were desperately short of weapons and when we were not in the war, it would have been difficult for the War Department  to have been anything else. Yet the training of our army officers prepares them essentially for an America First rather than a United Nations war. Their primary concern, quite naturally, is not: who, throughout the world, can make the best use of American weapons? but: how can American weapons be used to make our army the world’s best? To counteract this bias, the Lease-Lend Administration became in many instances the advocate of the foreign governments. Consequently a certain conflict arose between it and the War Department. Now the War Department has instructed foreign missions to make their requests directly to itself. There is a strong move to reduce the Lease-Lend Administration, for all the excellence of its staff, to no more than a bookkeeping agency.

It is the Chinese who probably suffer the most form the lack of representation. The members of the British Empire are spoken for on the Munitions Assignments Board by the British Joint Staff Mission. Yet it is only the Russian government which can be reasonably certain that its orders will be supplied. They are fixed by the terms of the Moscow protocol, and since they were determined by political rather than purely military factors, they are adequate. Even the protocol is not being fully met, and its rigidity, together with the insistence of the Russian representatives, often creates difficult situations. It may well be, for example, that the United Nations might be better served if fifty bombers destined for Archangel were diverted to Chungking. Yet at the moment there is no meeting ground on which both demands may be reconciled.

The organization of the United Nations is also in urgent need of a central production council. The Munitions Assignment Board now undertakes this function, but it cannot fulfill it because the army officers upon whom it depends do not possess the necessary training in economics. For instance, the Board, with some assistance, allocates our exports of electrical equipment and machine tools. But on what basis are its decisions arrived at? The United Nations urgently needed more aluminum. Who is to produce it? Canada has tremendous electric-power resources, some trained labor and but little bauxite. Australia has plenty of bauxite, plenty of skilled labor, but inadequate power facilities. India is in somewhat the same position. To whom are we to send the equipment and the tools for an aluminum plant? Or are we to keep the equipment and the tools for an aluminum plant? Or shall we keep the equipment and export the finished product in aluminum bards or in the form of planes? This is a decision which army officers cannot make. Their attempts to decide cost Australia the equipment for two aluminum plants—equipment which was requisitioned at different times by Britain and America on the assumption that Australia was a flat and bushy country with grazing sheep, thatched huts and a few squatters.

All of these birthpangs in bringing a conscious and orderly international organization into being have been suffered before by the British. One year ago Britain organized in New Delhi the structure of a really representative organization, the Eastern Group of Supply Council. On this council representatives of China, India, the Dominions and the Near Eastern nations meet. The Council determines the total requirements of the area east of Suez, and directs the distribution of materials and supplies within the area. It places orders and is responsible for deliveries. In each of the nations which it includes, local production councils receive its deliveries and arrange for the export of supplies under its directions. In New Zealand, where the war effort is more highly organized that in any other Allied nation except Russia, each community has a council, responsible to the Eastern Group as a whole.

From this beginning, the structure of a United Nations war effort may be formed—not as a gesture for it is too late for gestures, but as a working concern.

We should recognize this council as a part of a world organization. We should forma similar council for the West in which Russia can be persuaded to join and eventually to play a leading part. Then we should coördinate the Eastern and Western groups into a central United Nations Supply Council.  Under this council the three joint allocations boards would be brought together to form a single secretariat with three branches. This secretariat would be given a staff of its own, made up of army officers, of Lease-Lend officials and of the executives of other nations. For some time the decisions which this secretariat makes would have to be informal, minute-to-minute decisions, as they are today. Yet, as we pass from the defense to the offense, the frame of the world strategy, within which the Axis already wages war, will become defined.

This Central Supply Council would not answer to the combined Chiefs of Staff of Britain and America. It would be responsible to a new sovereignty, the United Nations. It would answer directly to an executive council of Britain, Russia, China, and ourselves; it would answer ultimately to a full council of the United Nations which, like the United States, would rise in stature until it became a world organization.

We cannot tell what form this new life that is being born will take. The future presents itself in endless contradictions, in still small ways that go unnoticed, in tasks that seem beyond our powers to fulfill. Yet we know that some bold counter-stroke is demanded of us now in order that it may be brought into being. We know that in Lincoln’s time, when revolution failed to unify Germany, counter-revolution under Bismarck followed, which brought about the unification. Today, if we fail to untie the world through our democratic revolution then it will be unified under the counter-revolution of fascism.

Beneath our blind and fumbling hands the future is taking shape. If we do not see it, welcome it, grasp it now, it may die fighting for the right to be born.

This article appeared in the March 14, 1942 issue of the magazine.