Far cry from President Truman’s vision: today’s speech to UN General Assembly

The U.S. President’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly today sought to draw support from the example of a predecessor, Harry S Truman, who encouraged the founding in 1945 of the United Nations Organization. But on close comparison – that is, analysis more searching than that in a just-published, facile Time account – today’s speech is a far cry from the global vision of Truman era.

“The United Nations represents the idea of a universal morality, superior to the interests of individual nations. Its foundation does not rest upon power or privilege; it rests upon faith. They rest upon the faith of men in human values – upon the belief that men in every land hold the same high ideals and strive toward the same goals for peace and justice.”

So said Truman in 1950 to the General Assembly in New York, delivering the traditional head-of-state speech on behalf of his country.

In the aftermath of World War II – a war that he had brought to a close following the death-in-office of President Franklin D. Roosevelt – Truman pushed for establishment of an international organization that would bring collective security to a world that, then as now, was troubled. His United States hosted the diplomatic conference at which the Charter of the United Nations was adopted on June 26, 1945. That Charter lays out a plan for international regulation of the use of military force – a plan established by, to quote the Charter’s very first words:

“We the peoples of the United Nations determine to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…”

U.S. President Harry S Truman addresses 1945 San Francisco Conference to draft the Charter of the United Nations. (credit)

In April 1945, fewer than two weeks after VJ Day, Truman had opened that San Francisco Conference with a speech that placed collective security over the whims of any single country. To quote President Truman:

“The essence of our problem here is to provide sensible machinery for the settlement of disputes among nations. Without this, peace cannot exist. We can no longer permit any nation, or group of nations, to attempt to settle their arguments with bombs and bayonets.”

Five years later, his 1950 address to the General Assembly acknowledged:

“Governments may sometimes falter in their support of the United Nations, but the peoples of the world do not falter.”

By way of example, Truman in 1950 cited the “widespread,” “overwhelming,” and collective efforts of the United Nations to repel the then-recent invasion of South Korea. “In uniting to crush the aggressors in Korea” – note that Truman spoke of crushing aggressors, and not of destroying an entire country – he maintained that countries had “proved that the charter is a living instrument backed by the material and moral strength of members, large and small.”

In the U.S. head of state’s General Assembly speech today, the world heard a very different address, by a very different holder of the office of the U.S. President. Today’s speech referred to Truman and Truman-era policies like the Marshall Plan as purveyors of “three beautiful pillars,” of “sovereignty, security and prosperity.”

It must, however, be noted that no reference to sovereignty or prosperity may be found in the two pivotal Truman speeches. Not one of the three quoted words appears in the speech by which Secretary of State George Marshall announced his eponymous plan, either. Security does receive mention in Truman’s April 1945 speech, but in a global, collective, and cooperative, and not an individual nation-state, sense, as here:

“With firm faith in our hearts, to sustain us along the hard road to victory, we will find our way to a secure peace, for the ultimate benefit of all humanity.”

Truman’s envisagement of “peace, for the ultimate benefit of all humanity” exists worlds away from the enshrinement in today’s speech of individual state sovereignty.

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