All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1965

Is the UN Really Necessary?

American public opinion has been deluded long enough about the nature and possibilities of the United Nations.


The United Nations has been and is the recipient of an enor­mous amount of propaganda bally­hoo, official and unofficial. Its sup­posed virtues and merits are trumpeted from the housetops; criticism of its numerous failures and structural defects is hushed and muted. Universities, churches, civic organizations are pressed into service in the UN cause. As a result, there has been created among the American people a widespread image of a universal organization serving the purposes of peace and justice and entitled to maximum individual and na­tional support

The truth, as a very concise survey of the indisputable facts of the UN record shows, is quite different. There have been a number of small wars and still more threats of war since the UN was established almost twenty years ago. Its influence on these wars and threats of war has been negligible, if not nonexistent. If only because of the tremendous risk of self-annihilation involved in a major conflict in the nuclear age, there is no reason to suppose that any big war would have taken place if the United Nations had not been brought into existence. Should some future would-be world conqueror decide to take the risk of unleashing such a conflict, the disapproval or censure of the United Nations, proved impotent in so many cases, would be the least of his worries. Those who still live in a dream world of euphoria about the United Nations and its achievements would be well advised to read the chapter, “Paul Bunyan and the United Nations,” in the recently pub­lished tart, realistic book on in­ternational affairs by retired American diplomat, John Paton Davies)

To quote some of the more pungent paragraphs:

“The UN… is an arena of conspiracy, petty intrigue, and bombast. Some conflicts of na­tional interest may be resolved in the UN, but many are inflamed and spread from local or regional disputes to worldwide proportions.

“The level of irresponsibility in the UN will continue to rise with Dr. Jagan’s Guiana, Red China and more freshly cut-adrift colonies in prospect for member­ship… The more, perhaps, the merrier, but not, perforce, the wiser.

“Many of the new statesmen frequenting the UN, prominent among whom were Alex Quaison Sackey, Raul Roa, Sukardjo Wirjopronato, Dondogyo Tsevegmid, and Vengalil Krishan, Krishna Menon, were enthusiastic practi­tioners of busybody diplomacy… “It is sometimes contended that the UN plays an indispensable role as a seminary in which im­mature nations can be tutored to stay out of mischief and fit them­selves for our kind of interna­tional society. This view glosses over the competitive tutelage by the Communists, the presence of mature delinquents in the UN and the depth of antipathy to our kind of society in the immature nature. In any event the artificial environment of the UN is a poor cram course for international real­ities.”

Look at the Record

Perhaps the best means of test­ing the efficacy of the UN’s sup­posed role as a keeper of the peace is to run over the more serious international crises and conflicts that have occurred since it was organized and recall what it did, or, far more often, failed to do, in each.

1948-49. The Soviet blockade of all routes of rail, road, and water access to West Berlin, de­signed to force the Allied powers to quit the city by creating con­ditions of mass starvation. The blockade was countered and fi­nally broken by the American‑British airlift, supported by the enthusiastic cooperation of the population of West Berlin, which gladly put up with temporary hardship rather than fall under communist tyranny and slavery. If there was any official protest from the UN against this inhu­man effort to starve a large city into submission the fact has es­caped the historical record.

June, 1950. A North Korean army, completely outfitted and sup­plied with modern weapons by the Soviet Union, crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea, massacring all known anticommu­nists as it advanced. This time, due to the accidental circumstance that the Soviet representative was boycotting sessions of the Security Council and was unable to cast his veto, the Security Council was able to authorize resistance, of which about 98 per cent of the burden in lives and treasure fell on South Korea and the United States. Small units from Great Britain, France, Turkey, Greece, and a minority of UN members fought creditably in Korea. But, by and large, it was a UN war and a U.S.-South Korean fight.

And against the help supplied by a few UN member states must be set the backseat driving and interference with strategic neces­sities which would not have oc­curred if the United States had been fighting the war indepen­dently. One need only recall the failure to bomb the bridges over the Yalu River over which Chinese forces poured after the North Korean army had been thoroughly shattered, the rejection of Chiang Kai-shek’s offer to send Chinese nationalist troops to Korea, the rejection of General MacArthur’s proposals to blockade the coast of mainland China and bomb selec­tive targets in China after the Chinese intervention was an ac­complished fact. Most of the UN member states, notably India, seemed more afraid of victory in Korea than of having the Ameri­can effort there end in frustrated stalemate.

1956. Hungary and Suez. Al­most simultaneously, the Soviet government, by massive military intervention, overthrew the legiti­mate government of Hungary; and Israel, from one direction, and Great Britain and France, from another, invaded the territory of Egypt. The Israeli attack followed a series of incursions into Israel by guerrillas organized on Egyp­tian soil and the Anglo-French military move was in reaction to Egyptian dictator Nasser’s nation­alization of the Suez Canal, in which most of the stock was held by French and British citizens.

On Hungary, by far the more flagrant and unprovoked of the two breaches of the peace, the UN did absolutely nothing, apart from serving as a forum for some criti­cal speeches. In the case of Suez, a United Nations security force was sent to patrol certain sensi­tive areas along the Israel-Egyp­tian frontier. But the fighting ceased because the British and French withdrew under the com­bination of diplomatic and econ­omic pressure from the United States and threats from Moscow.

1958. Red Chinese bombard­ment of the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu held by the Chinese Nationalists. UN action, nil. The Nationalists maintained—and still maintain—possession of Quemoy and Matsu mainly be­cause the American Secretary of State at that time, John Foster Dulles, refused to be bluffed and intimidated by Red Chinese shells and an accompanying barrage of fainthearted articles by fright­ened commentators in the United States into putting pressure on Chiang Kai-shek to evacuate. Quemoy and Matsu, written off as “indefensible” by advocates of ap­peasement who suddenly turned into armchair military strategists, easily withstood the effects of the bombardment, which tapered off into a token operation.

1960. The Congo. The prema­ture Belgian abandonment of po­litical responsibility for this vast rich area of Central Africa—in­habited by illiterate primitive na­tive tribes quite uncontrollable by the few half-educated native poli­ticians in the cities—created a chaotic vacuum in which first Soviet, later Chinese, communism sought to create conditions for a take-over. So complete was the breakdown of elementary condi­tions of normal life, following the wholesale mutiny of the ragtag and bobtail armed forces, that even the first left wing “Presi­dent” of the Congo “Republic,” Patrice Lumumba, called for UN aid in restoring law and order and making it possible for public service to operate. For almost four years a UN military force, re­cruited from Sweden, Ireland, India, and some African states, was operating in the Congo; and the UN assumed wide advisory functions in civilian administra­tion and economic life.

The whole venture ended in polit­ical, moral, and financial bank­ruptcy, mainly because the polit­ical directions which were voted by the UN General Assembly re­flected the ultranationalist views of African and Asian member states, not the realities of the chaotic Congo. It would take too long to reconstruct the whole murky story of Congo farcical politics, tribal feuds, intrigues, and bewildering shifts of leading government figures.

But the UN got involved in senseless feuds with the two most constructive forces in the Congo:

(1)  Moise Tshombe’s orderly bi­racial administration in Katanga, which protected Europeans and made it possible for the copper mines and other industrial enter­prises to function smoothly; and

(2)  the Belgian technical special­ists who were willing to continue serving in the Congo if they could receive elementary assurances of personal security, who were thor­oughly acquainted with the coun­try and its ways, and who were desperately needed if essential health and transportation services were to be kept in operation and the Congo was to be saved from a lapse into its original barbarism. The result was that, although some UN experts rendered valu­able service, the balance-sheet of UN intervention was far from pos­itive. When the last UN forces left the Congo the situation was little, if at all, more orderly than it had been when they took over.

The grossest misuse of the UN force was to attack and overthrow Tshombe’s administration in Ka­tanga. It was indeed a sorry day in December, 1962, when simul­taneously the UN forces battered their way into Elizabethville, cap­ital of Katanga, and the United States advanced a large loan to the brash anti-Western dictator of Ghana, Nkrumah, who had been making all the mischief in his power in the Congo, following the abdication of Belgian power. There was a final touch of irony when Tshombe, vilified and denounced by all the propaganda resources at the disposal of the UN and also of the United States, took over the central administration of the rickety Congo government and was accepted in Washington as the man most likely to create some semblance of unity, peace, and orderly conditions in his dis­traught country. So—although, in contrast to the usual record of in­action in the face of threats to peace, there was UN action in the Congo—the course and result of this action give little ground for hope that this conglomerate or­ganization of nations with widely differing forms of government, economic and social systems, and degrees and standards of educa­tion can successfully guide such a difficult and complex enterprise as the reconstruction of the Congo.

1958-62. The off-and-on Soviet threat to the independence and security of West Berlin. This was a continuing and potentially very serious threat to freedom and to international peace. In November, 1958, Soviet dictator Nikita Khru­shchev, perhaps intoxicated by So­viet successes in space explora­tion, gave a six months time limit for the withdrawal from West Berlin of the small American, British, and French forces which are the guaranty of the inde­pendence of West Berlin, an island in the surrounding sea of the So­viet Zone. This time limit was subsequently canceled, then reim­posed, and put off again. What the UN did, even in words, about this real and constant threat to peace in Berlin was precisely nothing.

1962. There was an even more dramatic confrontation, with pos­sibilities of nuclear conflict, in Cuba in the autumn of 1962. Khru­shchev smuggled a considerable number of Soviet intermediate range missiles, capable of dev­astating American cities, into Cuba. The United States govern­ment imposed a naval blockade and was prepared to resort to stronger measures to get the mis­siles—which Khrushchev prob­ably intended to use for blackmail­ing purposes on the Berlin issue—removed from Cuba. After a tense few days the Soviet dictator backed down and consented to re­move the missiles. And this also marked—at least for the next two years, until Khrushchev’s fall from power—the end of the So­viet-provoked Berlin crisis. The firmness which the United States showed on the issue of Soviet mis­siles in Cuba finally convinced Khrushchev that he could not force the Western powers out of West Berlin without risking a major war.

It is interesting and significant to note that in the ultimate show­down over the Cuban missile threat the UN made no contribution to a settlement. The American peo­ple had to rely on the purpose, strength, and firmness of their own government. It is also worth remembering that the UN never uttered a peep of censure or pro­test against the erection of the notorious wall which cut the city of Berlin in two, separated from each other members of thousands of families, and was repeatedly the scene of acts of revolting cruelty when armed guards shot down East Germans making a des­perate attempt to escape to the liberty of the West.

Another violation of peace in the autumn of 1962 was the Red Chinese invasion of India. That country had been one of the most persistent advocates of neutrality, of nonalignment between East and West. In season and out of season India had urged the admission of Red China to the UN. But when Red China made this rather un­grateful return for India‘s good offices, India had to look for help to the United States and Great Britain, not to the UN.

Other acts of violence and ag­gression on which the UN has not uttered even the mildest protest or condemnation are India’s for­cible seizure of Goa in 1961, the Indonesian annexation of West New Guinea, preceded by landing of troops in the area, and the cur­rent guerrilla war which the In­donesian dictator Sukarno is wag­ing against Malaysia.

A False Image

American public opinion has been deluded long enough about the nature and possibilities of the United Nations.American public opinion has been deluded long enough about the nature and possibilities of the United Nations. A false image has been created of an organization with an independent personality of its own, which it is the duty of the United States to support and strengthen as an effective shield of international peace. But it is nothing of the kind. Over 100 Soviet vetoes prove that the UN, even if it desired, could take no effective action against any ag­gression, direct or indirect, which the Soviet Union might favor. Moreover, the present UN, now swelled to more than double its original membership, largely be­cause of the proliferation of new independent African and Asian states, many of them minuscule in population and resources (Africa is absurdly overrepre­sented because of the fragmenta­tion of the French colonial empire into a dozen minor principalities) is more and more dominated by a spirit of have-not neutralism.

About the only resolutions for which a majority is certain in the UN Assembly are intemperate de­nunciations of “colonialism” (so long as this is not of Soviet or Chinese origin), appeals for all-out disarmament, with no provi­sion for necessary safeguards, and expressions of the belief that the rest of the world owes the “under-developed” areas a living. The UN Charter envisages the Security Council, composed of five permanent and six nonpermanent members, as the strong executive right arm of the organization. But a paralyzed right arm is of little value. And what common purpose can be expected from a Security Council now made up of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Na­tionalist China, Bolivia, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Morocco, and the Gold Coast, the last one of the little splinters of the French colonial empire? Obviously, none at all. And conflict and diversity of viewpoints explain why the Se­curity Council has accomplished virtually nothing during the last two decades. The United Nations does not live up to its name. As an association of profoundly divided nation states its deliberations and resolutions often suggest the Bib­lical Tower of Babel.

The Present Alignment

In the UN as now composed it would be impossible to count on even an adverse vote of censure, much less on any positive effec­tive action against aggression di­rected from Moscow or Peiping. On the other hand, there is serious danger that undue respect for UN resolutions on such issues as the conduct of the South African gov­ernment and the settlement of the status of Southern Rhodesia could draw the United States into actions which are contrary to its best interests.

The attempt to place the au­thority of the United Nations be­hind acceptable statements of principle has been unsuccessful because of the basic incompati­bility between communist and free society ideals. A UN pro­posed convention on freedom of the press and information came out so badly that the United States felt obliged to withdraw its support. The point was that communist-ruled states regard freedom of the press and all other freedoms as privileges, to be granted or withheld at the discre­tion of an absolute state, while the framers of the United States Constitution upheld the principle of man’s natural, God-given rights, which no government may lawfully deny or abridge.

There is every likelihood that on such issues as crusading anti-colonialism, share-the-wealth proj­ects, and unsound disarmament schemes the United States may find itself in the embarrassing position of being outvoted in the UN Assembly. In view of this pos­sibility, in view of the proved in­capacity of the United Nations to serve as an effective deterrent to wars and threats of war, advocacy of “strengthening” the organiza­tion makes little sense.

Small wars and internal distur­bances have occurred in many areas, in Cyprus, in Yemen, in Vietnam, along the Chinese-Indian border, in Algeria, and the Congo, to mention only a few. And the United Nations has displayed no ability to stop these. Nor has it been a factor in warding off the occasional threats of bigger con­flicts. It is a fifth wheel in inter­national relations. America’s best security against blundering into war or having war forced on it by an insatiable aggressor re­mains just what it has been in the past: the power of its armed forces, the stability and validity of its alliances, the firmness, skill, and intelligence of its diplomacy. The United Nations can accom­plish nothing that old-fashioned diplomacy cannot do better, if only because of the absence of the play of Klieg lights on the latter proceedings.

The UN has received such a propaganda build-up that it would probably not be practical politics to recommend outright American withdrawal, except in response to some gross affront to the Ameri­can moral sense, such as the ad­mission of Red China to membership. If such a contingency should loom, it would be wise and ap­propriate for the United States government to make it clear that there is one UN seat Red China can have any time: ours.

Barring any such challenge, the most suitable policy would be that of disengagement, of realist­ically downgrading the importance of an organization where there is such a divorce of power -and re­sponsibility, where Upper Volta votes in the Assembly on equal terms with the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain.


  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.