The First Fifty Years
By Stanley Meisler
Atlantic Monthly Press
386 pp., $24
Visions: Fifty Years of the United Nations
Edited by Jan Ralph
Smallwood and Stuart, Inc. 256 pp., $50
A Global Affair:
An Inside Look at the United Nations
Edited by Amy Janello and Brennon Jones
Jones & Janello
304 pp., $35
If cliches are truth made banal by repetition, Adlai Stevenson created the classic cliche/truth about the United Nations: If the UN didn't exist, we'd have to create it.
In fact, for many centuries pre-UN, leaders had tried to create a headquarters to referee and regulate mankind's activities beyond the village, kingdom, and empire.
First Charlemagne, then the Holy Roman Empire plotted to assemble Europe's principalities.
When Napoleon was defeated for seeking to accomplish an even larger version by conquest and alliance, his triumphant opponents sought to create their own all-European equilibrium at the Congress of Vienna.
And so on to the stillborn League of Nations, fashioned by the powers that defeated Germany's kaiser in World War I, and the still-thriving if uneasy UN, designed by the powers that defeated Hitler and his Axis allies in the rematch, World War II.
History and biography, well written, are still more fascinating than historical fiction and docudrama. They are because truth is, well, more real and sometimes stranger than fiction.
But to come alive and be something of a page turner, history usually needs colorful leaders (both heroes and villains) and, if not a Cecil B. DeMille cast of thousands, at least a colorful nationality or two with real earthling daily lives and tensions.
All of which explains why popularly compelling histories of the UN (or its predecessors) have been virtually nonexistent. No caesars, Richard IIIs, or Lincolns bestride international organizations - yet. And the UN culture is not immersed in the daily lives of any one nationality, but represents instead attenuated threads of scores of ethnic histories.
Hidden heroes come alive
Amazingly, longtime foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler has overcome this double handicap to write a strikingly readable, accurate history of the UN's first half century. He's made the organization's relatively un-lionized heroes - such as Ralph Bunche, Dag Hammarskjold, and Brian Urquhart, inventors of global peacekeeping - come alive.
Bunche, for example, is introduced epigrammatically as a leader who "never rose to the higher ranks of American officialdom because he was black, and never rose to the highest position in the United Nations because he was American. Yet there is little doubt that he deserves acclaim as one of the great civil servants of the twentieth century...."
Meisler crisply escorts readers behind the scenes to witness the personal collisions, nobility, and foibles of major actors and bit players in many of the major crises of the nuclear age, global decolonization, and the cold war. And he traces in vivid personal terms the UN's fledgling attempts to spread care for children, preservation of the planetary environment, and protection of human rights worldwide.
These are warts-and-all annals. Bureaucratic bumbling and clashing national ambitions are not overlooked.
But Meisler (who first tasted the excitement of watching the major nations trying to construct a more peaceful world when he was a sophomore in high school viewing a Security Council session) catches the constructive spirit that underpins even the most blather-ridden speeches, debates, and negotiations.
Academic historians sometimes complain that ink-stained wretches should stick to reporting the first rough draft of history. Journalist Meisler is no rough-draft dodger. He's been there, seen that.
But there is evidence in his description of each crisis, each character of careful scholarly research. Yet no archival dust settles on his prose. His narrative moves with you-are-there immediacy. The leading actors are sharply analyzed but not Monday-morning psychoanalyzed.
Reviewers who have experienced the same events as an author often nit-pick at minor differences in perspective or detail. I read with extra care Meisler's account of the eight years in which I happened to cover the UN and the succeeding decades in which I talked with many of the players on its stage, and found no nits of any consequence to pick. This history made vivid against all the odds mentioned above is also fair and accurate.
For UN watchers and other world-affairs buffs, two new picture/text books are available:
"A Global Affair: An Inside Look at the United Nations" contains eyewitness remembrances by many journalists and officials who watched the world organization grow.
These are generously bolstered by photos ranging from candid black-and-whites of world leaders to stunning color shots related to UN humanitarian efforts. Kathleen Teltsch's first-rate reporting anchors the written memoirs.
"Visions: Fifty Years of the United Nations," funded in part by the Hearst Foundation, is more a coffee-table concept, leaning heavily on fine photography of UN activities and beneficiaries as a publishing rationale.