IT is hard to remember, even if you are old enough to remember, that the United Nations was born not as a universal organization but as an alliance. Fifty years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inspired the creation of the UN, had just died, Germany had surrendered the previous month, and the war with Japan was still raging.
UN membership was originally open only to countries that had fought against the Axis powers - 50 of them. The UN soon found itself having to grapple with some of the dislocations left behind by World War II - the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iran, British troops from Greece, and British and French troops from Lebanon.
The UN also sought to resolve disputes resulting from decolonization. In 1948, when I went to Indonesia to cover for The Christian Science Monitor the UN-sponsored negotiations arising from the nationalist rebellion against the Dutch, it was the 14th time the organization had become involved in such a controversy.
But now, numbering 185 members, the UN finds itself a universal organization, being defined not by its quiet successes in conflict resolution and human rights, but by its most dramatic failures. The League of Nations, created by President Wilson and abandoned by the United States, became defined by its inability to halt Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia, a precursor to Fascist and Nazi conquest of Europe. Today, the UN is defined by its fumbling in Bosnia and Somalia.
It is a sad joke that the United Nations, which has trouble mounting the most modest military operation, is darkly regarded by American militias as threatening a takeover of America.
Most Americans (67 percent, according to a Times/ Mirror poll) think favorably of the UN, rating it better than Congress. But that doesn't stop the UN bashers in Congress and elsewhere.
Great defenders of the UN are hard to find. When he appeared in New Hampshire with Newt Gingrich, President Clinton said, ''As ragged as the UN is, it's better than nothing.'' In San Francisco the other day, the president said, with faint praise, that ''going it alone doesn't work'' and the UN represents ''50 years of progress in coalition-building.''
At 50, the UN gets mixed reviews. If it weren't there, it would have to be invented. So we will have to content ourselves with two cheers for the United Nations.