Roosevelt's Final Legacy -- The UN

05/15/2015 08:32 am ET | Updated May 15, 2016

The United Nations, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary, was the idee fixe of an American president, Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt originally envisaged the organization as a unique peace-making body that would harness the collective power of member-states to stop aggressors around the planet.

Roosevelt first embraced the idea of a global security body in 1918 while he was serving as Assistant Secretary of Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had introduced the concept of a League of Nations at the peace conference at Versailles that ended World War 1. Wilson believed that the security of the United States would be best protected by a formal confederation of states that would all agree to work together on all war and peace matters.

Roosevelt became an ardent supporter of Wilson's League. Indeed, as the Democratic Party's Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920, Roosevelt campaigned around the country on behalf of the organization. However, the US Senate rejected the League and the Democratic ticket lost the presidential race. The concept of a world-wide security assembly died and America retreated into isolationism. Still the dream did not vanish in Roosevelt's mind.

Following his election as president, Roosevelt carefully concealed his internationalist perspective, but continued to hold to it. Then, as a European war threatened in the late 1930s, Roosevelt began to consider introducing a new version of the League. By the decade's end, he had secretly instructed the State Department to draft a charter for a revamped world security body.

Simultaneously he began a crusade to arouse the American public to the need for a global U.S. role. Now in his third term, he delivered a State of the Union speech in January 1941 heralding "the Four Freedoms" -- the freedom of speech, freedom from want, freedom of religion and freedom from fear -- asserting that these values were not just for his own land but for the entire globe. That August, he and Winston Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter, acknowledging the need for an international system of security.

The following January, he broadened his campaign to include the 26 countries that joined the war-time alliance against the Axis powers and even devised a name for the group, "the United Nations." In 1944, he persuaded Great Britain, the USSR, and China to co-sponsor a summit at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington to draft a preliminary UN charter. Later, in February 1945, he made an exhausting trip to Yalta to convince Stalin and Churchill to set a date and place for a UN conference to officially ratify the UN -- in San Francisco starting on April 25, 1945. In perilous health, he risked his life for this long-distance quest.

Even in a weakened state, Roosevelt took precautions to satisfy the Senate and designed the UN in such a way that it obviated the most glaring deficiencies of the old League. He gave a veto to only five nations on the Security Council (the US, USSR, China, France and Great Britain), the states best situated to carry out UN enforcement actions, and, as well, made the Council's decisions binding on all member-states. He disposed of the looser rules of the League, which, by contrast, had granted the veto to all states, and permitted voluntary compliance to its decisions. Roosevelt's approach guaranteed that the U.S. Senate this time around would ratify the pact.

Shortly before the San Francisco conclave began, Roosevelt addressed Congress, saying: "This ought to spell the end of the system of unilateral action, the exclusive alliances, the balances of power, and all the other expedients that have been tried for centuries - and always failed." He mused with intimates that he'd like to be the first UN Secretary-General. In his final weeks, he informed a journalist that "all his hopes of success in life and immortality in history" rested on the successful outcome of the UN meeting. Thirteen days before the San Francisco gathering, Roosevelt collapsed and died.

Under the stewardship of his successor, Vice-President Harry Truman, the conference approved a Charter. Ever since, the glass house on New York's East River has loomed large on the global landscape in conflict-prevention, treaty-devising, nation-building, democracy-creating, mending social issues, and serving as a world forum. Though it has often not always worked as well as FDR contemplated -- its weaknesses exposed today in places like Syria and Libya -- its staying power for seven decades remains remarkable, a tribute to Roosevelt's vision.