Stephen Schlesinger: Capturing the Birth of the UN on Film





[Stephen Schlesinger is an Adjunct Fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City. He is the former Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School University in New York City (1997-2006). Mr. Schlesinger received his BA from Harvard University and his JD from Harvard Law School.]

Why has the story of the UN's founding never made it into the cinematic arena? The story of the UN's creation is an extraordinarily dramatic tale that would surely rivet people if they could view how the great leaders of the 1940s -- Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, Stalin -- and their talented diplomats put it all together in the Spring of 1945 following the tragedies of two terrible world wars. Such a film should especially interest Americans, as it was our government that, above all others, pushed hardest for its establishment.

Today, the UN's decisions affect millions of people, its peacekeeping missions are protecting thousands of lives, its health and development agencies are savings huge populations, its sanctions are constricting rogue states (like North Korea and Iran). Yet, for all of its notoriety, few people know where the organization came from, how it was born, and why it grew into so influential a body.

Last fall, I was having drinks in New York with two documentary filmmakers, Romuald Sciorra, and Estelle Moser. We were discussing our favorite subject, the United Nations, and its latest doings. All three of us are longtime UN aficionados. I met both individuals a half-decade earlier through Harper's Magazine editor Louis Lapham, who had put us together because of the publication of my book, Act of Creation, about the 1945 San Francisco conference that created the UN. Later, I was interviewed for two of their films about the UN -- in 2005, At the Glass Building: Interviews with UN Secretaries-General, and in 2008, Planet UN, about the world body's pioneering work at the beginning of the 21st century in development, human rights and peace.

At one point my friends began musing about their possibly doing a documentary on my book. They said it would complete the series of films they had made about the UN. I was both flattered and intrigued. One reason I had written my study was to tell the unusual tale about the UN's origins, which I had found, to my surprise, was almost wholly unknown to many UN delegates, as well as people in general -- and specifically to remind Americans of the key role played by the US in founding the institution. I was also fascinated by the fact that the US had spied on all the other countries attending the San Francisco conference to learn what issues they would support or dispute. The idea of a film to spread the message of the UN's early beginnings to an even larger audience than I had gotten for my book seemed highly attractive.

Soon, we began to explore how we might start this project. We agreed that we should aim to do the movie for next year's 65th anniversary of the organization. Sciorra suggested that I should become one of the writers on the script, along with himself, since I was the expert on the subject. He and Moser considered how long the film should be, at first contemplating an hour in length but later expanding it to 90 minutes because of the unique series of dramas generated at the San Francisco meeting. The two also found interest at the Public Broadcasting System in broadcasting the documentary, which will be in October of 2011.

Then we had to figure out, what would our film cover? Basically we agreed that it would recount the almost operatic saga of how the UN came into being during the nine-week San Francisco event held in the spring of 1945. Most conferences are dull, technical and predictable. This one was anything but -- full of larger-than-life personalities, iconic diplomats, spies, melodramatic confrontations, serious breakups and electrifying speeches. Often it appeared the conference would fail only to be revived at the last moment. Five thousand people attended, two thousand of them journalists who wrote about every angle of the event.

The major intriguer behind the UN was Franklin Roosevelt. This was his legacy. He dispatched an extraordinary array of Americans to the meeting. The US delegates included Senator Arthur Vandenburg, the Republican expert on international affairs who months earlier had discarded isolationism in favor of multilateralism; Democratic Senator Tom Connally of Texas, the colorful head of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota and longtime presidential contender in the Republican Party. The legal adviser to the US mission was John Foster Dulles, who, eight years later, became President Eisenhower's secretary of state. There was Nelson Rockefeller, Roosevelt's assistant secretary for Latin American affairs, whose family bought the land for the UN headquarters and who went on to become governor of New York and Republican vice president of the US under Gerald Ford. Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic Party nominee for the presidency in the 1950s, headed communications for the US delegation. Alger Hiss, later accused of being a notorious Soviet spy, was temporary head of the UN during the conference. And one of the reporters at the event was a young journalist named John F. Kennedy, working for the Hearst news syndicate and, later, of course, became president of the US.

With this dazzling line-up, we are now working hard to capture the event, accessing a rich archive of newsreels, pictures, memoirs, biographies, State Department records, CIA and FBI documents and related materials to provide the complete details of the event. Though none of the original participants are alive today, we have many oral accounts by delegates and onlookers, which will give insiders' insights into the conclave. One of our biggest finds have been tapes of Stassen and Hiss reminiscing about their roles at the San Francisco conference, audio files that have never been broadcast before.

We will also interview outside experts. We intend to produce a film that illuminates for students, citizens and the world at large the remarkable epic of this organization's creation and the single-minded role that the US government played in bringing it to fruition.


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