Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 19: Building a Workable Peace (1946)

The San Francisco Conference did not meet in a vacuum. The preliminary Big Four conference at Dumbarton Oaks, the amendments put forward by other governments, the widespread public discussion, and the many proposals of various unofficial groups in this and other countries all contributed to the framing of the Charter.

Just what did the delegates create? We may look at the problems they confronted very much as the framers of out own Constitution viewed those of establishing a national government for the United States. Our forefathers had to create (1) an adequately representative legislature, (2) a powerful executive, (3) a respected court system, and (4) an effective national administrative organization.

The delegates at San Francisco faced the same four broad tasks in setting up the framework of a government for the family of nations. And just as the framers of our Constitution had the Articles of Confederation as a guide for their own work, the San Francisco conferees had the Covenant of the League of Nations on which to build.

Both these previous constitutional efforts had displayed weaknesses when put to the test of actual operation. The main job before the delegates at San Francisco in 1945 as at Philadelphia in 1787 was to improve on the earlier documents, to eliminate their working defects. In tracing what was done at San Francisco we may, therefore, usefully compare the new Charter with the League Covenant. We shall then be better able to judge what advances we have made through the Charter-and what remains for us to do.


The six chief organs

Briefly, the machinery created at San Francisco consists first of a sort of world legislature-without lawmaking power over the nations—called a General Assembly. It is the broadest representative body of the United Nations. All the 50 charter members are represented in it and each has one vote-as will any nation admitted in the future. Membership is thus based on the “sovereign equality” of all states.

Second is an executive organ called the Security Council. This is not an upper legislative chamber having powers parallel to the General Assembly-as the Senate has to the House of Representatives in Washington. It is the arm of the United Nations which is charged with acting on behalf of the community of nations. Five great powers, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China, and France, have permanent seats on it and special voting privileges. Six nonpermanent member nations are elected by the General Assembly for overlapping two-year terms. They are not eligible for immediate reelection when their terms end. The Security Council functions continuously, whereas the General Assembly meets annually.

Attached to the Security Council is a Military Staff Committee composed of the Big Five chiefs of staff. It is intended to direct the use of armed forces on behalf of the United Nations against an aggressor. There was no counterpart of this body in the League of Nations.

The third organ of the United Nations is an International Court of Justice. It is modeled after the World Court that functioned at The Hague after World War I, with the changes necessary to make the new court an integral organ of the United Nations. Similarly, the fourth branch, the Secretariat, or administrative service of the United Nations, is planned to be much like that which served the League of Nation.

Two new organs of international cooperation were established at San Francisco. These are the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council. The former has 18 member nations, serving for three-year overlapping terms. Its purpose is to promote economic and social welfare and protect human rights. The Trusteeship Council, overseeing certain dependent areas of the world, is the successor to the Mandates Commission of the League of Nations. Its members will be the Big Five, any other nations administering trust territories, plus an equal number of nontrustee nations.

How can a state become a member?

The Charter provides that all states represented at the San Francisco Conference or which had previously signed the declaration of the United Nations of January 1, 1942 are original members of the organization. Membership is open to “all other peace-loving states which accept the obligations” of the Charter and which are considered by the other members “able and willing to carry out these obligations.”

Election to membership is by the General Assembly “upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Seven of the eleven members of the Security Council, including the five permanent members, must recommend election, and the General Assembly must vote for the new member by a two-thirds majority.

It is noteworthy that a unanimous vote is not required for election. This is one of a number of points in the Charter at which the principle of qualified-majority voting is introduced. Although the Charter is not the first international treaty to break away from the principle of unanimity, it does so more widely and fully than any previous one, including the Covenant of the League of Nations.

Can a member resign or be expelled?

Not less important than admission to membership is the question of resignation or expulsion of a state. Here the Charter departs from the League Covenant in several ways. First, the Covenant provided that any state could withdraw from the League upon giving two years’ notice and fulfilling all its obligations under the Covenant up to the time of its withdrawal. Under the Charter, there is no provision for resignation. However, the United States government takes the position that each instance of a member’s wanting to withdraw would have to be considered on its own conditions.

May a state be expelled for failure to carry out its obligations? Here the Covenant and the Charter differ again. The League Council, except for the defaulting member, could vote unanimously to expel a member state for violating “any covenant of the League.” The most notable, and debatable, example of expulsion was, perhaps, that of Russia in 1939. It was charged with aggression against Finland in the Winter War.

Under the Charter a member state may be either suspended or expelled from the United Nations by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. Voting on suspension or expulsion follows the same rules as those for admission.

A state may be suspended if “preventive or enforcement action” has been taken against it by the Security Council. Its rights and privileges under the Charter may be restored by the Security Council-presumably when and if it gets back in line. If, however, a state has “persistently violated the principles” of the Charter, it may be expelled. This action would, in all likelihood, be taken only after a state had committed a number of acts of aggression against other members in defiance of a recommended peaceful settlement of some dispute.

May a state have more than one vote?

Does the principle of “one state, one vote” apply equally all around or are there ways in which a state may acquire more than one vote?

The question has particularly important implications for this country. When the League of Nations Covenant was being debated in the Senate in 1919–20, one of the most frequent charges brought against it was that Great Britain had actually not one vote but six-its own and those of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India. It was asserted by the League’s opponents that these votes would, in fact, be cast as the British government desired—or demanded. Although events disproved the charge, the idea of a bloc of British votes, controlled by the home government, has persisted.

The question has become an active one again, and not only as to Great Britain. One of the agreements reached at Yalta by the Big Three was to allow separate votes in the General Assembly to two constituent republics under the Soviet Union—Ukraine and White Russia. On paper it looks as though both Great Britain and Russia, especially the latter, were going to “control” more than one vote apiece. To some, this issue will appear as a dangerous situation. It looks to them as if the United States could be outvoted by two others of the Great Powers. Thus, they say, we shall be in an inferior position in which our interests in the United Nations Organization can be jeopardized. As a counterbalance, some people have suggested that each of our 48 states should be given separate representation in the General Assembly!

If we look at the question from the point of view of practical politics, we need not be overconcerned about the possible results of the British or the Russian arrangements. The dominions and the British government frequently disagreed in both the Assembly and the Council of the League of Nations. There was, in fact, never a case in which the British government controlled the votes of the dominions.

In the intervening years, and especially during this war, several of the dominions have drawn closer to this country. Canada and Australia, for instance, recognize their common interests with us in postwar international defense and economic policies. These trends are almost certain to continue. There is no likelihood that the British government and the dominions will form a bloc against us, in the General Assembly or otherwise. The evidence of San Francisco itself—where some of the dominions led in opposition to certain British policies—was to the contrary.

The Russian situation is not dissimilar. The Soviet national constitution grants more autonomy to its separate republics than most federal constitutions. Some observers have already noted differing trends of foreign policy between Moscow and the Ukrainian and White Russian republics. Whether this development will go as far as it has between the British government and the dominions, cannot, of course, be determined in advance.

In any event, these votes represent at present only 3 in 50-more later as new states are admitted. If cast on the same side, they can never affect any decision in the General Assembly unless at least 14 other states vote the same way. It is sometimes pointed out, also, that both the Russian constituent republics are larger in population and resources than all except a dozen or so other member states. On the other hand, in decisive issues the United States can generally count on the support of most of the 20 Latin American republics.

Next section: What Are the Functions of the General Assembly?