History of the United Nations: How Was It Founded?

The United Nations is an international organization established in 1945 that currently has 193 member countries. Its central mission is to maintain international peace and security.

Jun 27, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
united nations history how it was founded
A poster for the United Nations in 1943, issued by the United States Office of War Information, by Harry Mayerovitch via The Canadian Encyclopedia


The United Nations (UN) was created on October 25, 1945, based on the voluntary union of sovereign states. It aims to promote and strengthen international peace and security, as well as support the development of cooperation between states. The UN was initiated by the leading states of the Allied States—the United States of America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—which sought to avoid future conflicts. The UN Charter, signed on June 26, 1945, established the principles of international cooperation: sovereignty and equality of all members; settlement of international disputes by peaceful means; refusal to threaten or use force in international relations; and non-interference in matters that are essentially within the internal competence of any state.


The History of the United Nation’s Founding


The key motivation behind the founding of the United Nations was to establish a mechanism that would prevent the horrors of previous world wars and the Holocaust from happening again. Leading states recognized the need to establish a new international organization that would safeguard international peace and work to avoid future conflicts.


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On the Wire by Harvey Thomas Dunn, 1918, via Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History, Washington DC


Even after the end of World War I, the idea of creating such an institute was conceived at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, which set the peace terms to re-establish world order after the war. As a result, on January 10, 1920, the League of Nations was established as the first intergovernmental organization with the primary goal of preserving peace. Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States of America, played a significant role in creating the post-World War I international order and the League of Nations; its 14 points became the basis of the new post-war international system. However, the United States itself did not become a member of the League of Nations, given its declared isolationist international policy and domestic opposition, which significantly contributed to its failure.


Additionally, the effectiveness of the League of Nations depended significantly on the determination of member states, especially the victorious countries of World War I (France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan), which ensured the implementation of resolutions, economic sanctions, and the allocation of armed forces. The great powers often delayed the execution of these decisions as they were not aligned with their national interests. For example, the League of Nations failed to stop Japan from attacking China and Italy from invading Ethiopia.

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The start of World War II clearly illustrated that the initiative failed and highlighted the need for a reformed and more effective international organization.


To achieve this goal, the international community, led by the United States and Great Britain, launched several initiatives starting in 1941, ultimately leading to the formation of the United Nations Charter in 1945.


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The first session of the Council of the League of Nations with their coat-of-arms, 1920 via Time


Initially, the concept of international peace and security began to develop with the ideas expressed in London at the ancient St. James’ Palace in 1941. Even though the war was not yet over, leaders were already discussing the post-war future beyond the military victory. On June 12, 1941, the representatives of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, and the exiled governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Yugoslavia, as well as France, signed a declaration that stated:


“The only true basis for enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security, and that they intend to work together and with other free people, both in war and peace, to this end.”


The need for global cooperation was further highlighted in the Atlantic Charter, signed on August 14, 1941. The Charter was initiated by the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the prime minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. They secretly met on August 9, 1941, to discuss pending issues of World War II and outline a postwar international system. The declaration they created, known as the Atlantic Charter, included eight “common principles” of avoiding territorial expansion, liberating international trade, ensuring freedom of the seas, and other economic and welfare issues. The principles also outlined the importance of restoring self-government in all countries occupied during the war and granting the freedom to choose the desired form of government. The declaration also referred to the future “establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security,” paving the way for the establishment of the United Nations and its Charter.


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Declaration by United Nations Issued in Washington, DC, Pledges Struggle against “Hitlerism,” 1942, via National Museum Australia


These developments ultimately led to the creation of the “Declaration by the United Nations” on January 1, 1942. Twenty-six states, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China, pledged to commit to the common principles stipulated in the Atlantic Charter. The Declaration included the first official use of the term “United Nations,” elaborated by the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Twenty-one other states later joined the declaration.


During the Moscow Conference from October 18 to November 1, 1943, the idea of establishing an international organization to safeguard world peace was first mentioned in an official document named the Joint Four-Nation Declaration. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China signed it.


The declaration stipulated that it was necessary to establish the following:


“a general international organization based on the principle of sovereign equality of all peace-loving states and open to membership by all such states, large and small, for the maintenance of international peace and security.”


Following this announcement, these four nations appointed national committees of experts to work on the draft charter of the future international organization, which would describe and allocate the roles and responsibilities of the United Nations and its agencies.


Establishing the United Nations

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Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill on portico of Russian Embassy in Teheran, during conference, 1943, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


The United Nations Conference on International Organization, held in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, determined the key principles and functioning of the United Nations. Only those nations that had subscribed to the Declaration by the United Nations were invited to attend. Four years of preparatory work, various meetings, and conferences finally materialized in the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of an International Court of Justice, which both resulted in the creation of the United Nations and its bodies.


The key issue during the negotiations in San Francisco was the distinction between larger states on the one hand and smaller states on the other. Even though theories of international law dictated that all nations were equal, it was clear that some were more powerful and influential than others. Larger states believed that because they would be responsible for providing more military and material resources to achieve and maintain peace, they should have the right to veto. Smaller states, being as sovereign as others, demanded an equal say, especially during peacekeeping operations.


To address the issue, a General Assembly, one of the leading bodies of the UN, was formed. It granted each member state one vote. The charter also created the Security Council. It consisted of five permanent and six non-permanent members, all elected based on the rotatory principle. The five permanent members were China, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain; they all were granted the right to veto. All member countries of the United Nations were obliged to comply with the Security Council’s decisions, ultimately allowing the Council to determine the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.


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The San Francisco Conference, Crowd watching arrivals at the Fairmount Hotel, 1945, via The Museum of the City of San Francisco


The Economic and Security Council, as well as the Trusteeship Council, were established at the San Francisco conference to oversee colonial territories, negotiate economic and social issues, and discuss the incorporation of previous regional or bilateral treaties into the new Charter. The council consisted of 18 members.


Negotiations were successful, and on June 25, 1945, the Charter of the United Nations was adopted unanimously at the San Francisco Opera House. The United Nations started functioning only after October 24, 1945, after all the permanent members of the Security Council and the majority of signing parties had internally ratified the Charter. October 24 is officially observed as the Day of the United Nations.


The Main Goals of the United Nations & Its Structure

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“War and Peace” mural at the United Nations. The murals are placed outside the General Assembly Hall so that the delegates face War on their way into the building, and Peace as they leave, functioning as a visual framework for negotiations, via United Nations Gifts


The Charter of the United Nations outlined the following key purposes of the organization:


  1. to maintain peace and security internationally;
  2. to support the development of friendly relations among nations;
  3. to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems;
  4. to be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations during the attainment of these common goals.


The organization’s member states set up a complex organizational structure to successfully implement these goals. The organizational structure of the United Nations, which was outlined during the San Francisco Conference, remains the same to this day. The key purposes of the main bodies were modified slightly to address the new challenges of a rapidly developing world.


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President Biden’s remarks to the UN General Assembly by Mandel Ngan, 2021, via the New Yorker


General Assembly: The General Assembly is the principal policymaking body of the United Nations. All members of the organization vote on decisions the organization makes. Today, it has 193 members who make recommendations regarding international issues within its competence.


Security Council: As of today, the Council consists of 15 members. They are responsible for overseeing and taking necessary measures to maintain international peace and security. It also determines whether existing or potential crises pose a threat to international security and peace and call for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The five original permanent members of the Security Council are the same, but over time the organization expanded, as did the non-permanent membership of the Council. The General Assembly elects ten non-permanent members for two years. In 2023, the following non-permanent members of the Security Council include Albania (2023), Brazil (2023), Ecuador (2023), Gabon (2023), Ghana (2023), Japan (2024), Malta (2024), Mozambique (2024), Switzerland (2024), and the United Arab Emirates.


Economic and Social Council: The Economic and Social Council has 54 members elected by the General Assembly for three years. It is responsible for working on policies and recommendations regarding economic, social, and environmental issues.


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A poster for the United Nations in 1943, issued by the United States Office of War Information, by Harry Mayerovitch via The Canadian Encyclopedia


Trusteeship Council: The initial goal of the Trusteeship Council was to supervise the trust territories, which had been former mandates of the League of Nations or the territories of the defeated countries in World War II. Over time, these territories gained independence or joined neighboring independent countries, and the Council was suspended on November 1, 1994. Today, as its mission is complete, the Council meets only when needed, at the request of a majority of its members, the President, the General Assembly, or the Security Council.


International Court of Justice: The Court settles any legal disputes submitted by the states in accordance with international law.


Secretariat: The Secretariat is responsible for the day-to-day work of the United Nations’ organs. It delegates thousands of UN personnel around the world to implement UN policies and peacekeeping missions.


Even though the world is constantly changing and the United Nations adapts to these changes by introducing new missions and programs, its structure has remained almost the same since its inception.


The World After the United Nation’s Founding

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United Nations Security Council mural by Per Krohg, 1952, via Michael Moore-Jones


Although the primary motivation for the creation of the United Nations was to ensure world peace and prevent conflicts, these are the very issues for which the organization deserves criticism. It is believed that the shortcomings of its structure largely determine its ineffectiveness in certain cases. Granting the right of veto to the five permanent member states of the Security Council weakens the decision-making mechanism and, in some cases, even makes it impossible, especially if the country with the right of veto is itself an aggressor and threatens world peace.


The decision taken in San Francisco that the leading political principle of the General Assembly should be “one state, one vote” is not able to overcome the disparity between the member countries in political, economic, or military issues. In some cases, the UN cannot play an effective role in avoiding local, regional, or international conflicts, nor can it effectively prevent the spread of nuclear weapons or minimize poverty.


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United Nations military personnel, the Blue Helmets on the ground, via United Nations Peacekeeping


On the other hand, history has shown that the UN is capable of being an effective party during international or regional conflicts, especially by deploying its peacekeeping missions on-site. The number of peacekeeping missions carried out demonstrates this. Since the 1940s, UN missions have been active in Greece, Indonesia, and Palestine. The first effective peacekeeping mission was launched in the Middle East after the Suez Crisis in 1956. According to UN General Assembly Resolution N998, the United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) were deployed along the Egyptian-Israeli border. It aimed to protect the peace and the peace agreements reached between the conflicting parties. Later, peacekeeping operations were carried out in the Congo (1960–1964), Cyprus (1964), and Lebanon (1982), although the largest number of operations was organized during the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union fueled ethnic conflicts, particularly in Eastern Europe.


Upon its creation, the United Nations was referred to as the “great alliance,” which, as Franklin D. Roosevelt described it, would guarantee “a true peace based on the freedom of man.” The history of the UN shows that it was able to become a lasting organization capable of providing peace and justice for all nations in the international community.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.