The world’s most powerful bureaucracy: Inside the United Nations

The history of the United Nations as an international organization has its origins in World War II. Since then its aims and activities have expanded to make it the archetypal international body in the early 21st century.

The earliest concrete plan for a new world organization to replace the ineffective League of Nations began under the aegis of the US State Department in 1939.

On 12 June 1941, representatives of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, and of the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia, as well as General de Gaulle of France, met in London and signed the Declaration of St. James’s Palace.

This was the first of six conferences that led up to the founding of the United Nations and the Charter of the United Nations.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt first suggested using the name United Nations, to refer to the Allies of World War II, to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the latter’s three-week visit to the White House in December 1941.

Roosevelt suggested the name as an alternative to “Associated Powers”, a term the U.S. used in the First World War (the U.S. was never formally a member of the Allies of World War I but entered the war in 1917 as a self-styled “Associated Power”). Churchill accepted the idea and cited Lord Byron’s use of the phrase “United Nations” in the poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which referred to the Allies at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The basic constitutional makeup of the United Nations has changed little, though vastly increased membership has altered the functioning of some elements. The UN as a whole has generated a rich assortment of non-governmental organizations and special bodies over the years: some with a regional focus, some specific to the various peacekeeping missions, and others of global scope and importance. Other bodies (such as the International Labour Organization) formed prior to the establishment of the United Nations and only subsequently became associated with it.