Nothing was of greater priority for President Harry S. Truman than avoiding a third world war.
As a young artillery officer in France, Truman had witnessed first-hand the devastation of World War I. Following the war, he came to believe that the United States, by failing to join the League of Nations in 1919, had so weakened that international body that it was ineffective in resolving the disputes that led to the Second World War. In particular, Truman faulted the League for allowing Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese military regimes to act aggressively and in violation of international agreements.
Truman believed that the United Nations, established in 1945 at the end of World War II, would be an essential organization for preserving world peace. He hoped the U.N. would bring about the resolution of regional conflicts that in the past had led to international confrontations and world war.
Today the United Nations maintains 14 peace-keeping operations throughout the world, including missions maintaining peace and civil order in East Timor, the Congo, Somalia, Kashmir and Haiti. One hundred and twelve thousand civilians and soldiers are involved in these peacekeeping operations, and they come from 114 member nations.
While the peacekeepers are of many nationalities, by far the largest contributors of peacekeeping personnel are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. U.N. member nations pay for the peacekeeping operations in an assessment based on the size of their nation’s economy. The United States, with the world’s largest economy, pays 27 percent of the cost of the peacekeeping operations worldwide.
Since the creation of United Nations peacekeeping operations in 1948, more than 3,000 soldiers and civilians have died in efforts to maintain peace in nations across the globe. Those fatalities include U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who died in a plane crash while attempting to broker a peace accord between warring factions in the newly Independent Congo in 1961.
Since its creation, the United Nations has faced numerous challenges. The world has witnessed nasty confrontations and experienced horrific genocides in the Congo, Cambodia and Rwanda. Millions more have died in China, North Korea and other nations because of misguided social and economic policies. However, wars across the borders involving attacks by major nation-states have been avoided. Furthermore, regional conflicts in the Middle East, Korea, and Vietnam were contained, in part because of U.N. involvement.
The world is not a perfect place. However, no one can reasonably dispute that the world has been a safer place in the nearly seven decades since World War II than it was in the first half of the 20th century. The eight years of World War II (1937 to 1945) resulted in nearly 60 million deaths and millions of refugees and displaced persons. We have witnessed no world wars since 1945 and, it seems reasonable to give some of the credit to the peacekeeping operations of the United Nations.
Page 2 of 2 - When he visited the Truman Library on Dec. 11, 2006, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke of the role the United Nations has played in striving to secure and maintain peace. The secretary-general noted that peace requires nations to take responsibility for each others’ security, provide a fair opportunity for all of the world’s people to benefit from prosperity, and respect human rights and the rule of law. He also noted that nations needed to accept accountability to each other and non-governmental organizations in abiding by international standards of conduct.
“We can only do these things by working together through a multilateral system,” Annan stated, “and by making the best possible use of the unique instrument bequeathed to us by Harry Truman and his contemporaries, namely the United Nations.”
Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.