The conference that changed the world


THE United Nations emblem is instantly recognizable. The striking design features a world map drawn from the perspective of the North Pole, five concentric circles crossed with radiating spokes, and a wreath of olive branches. Somewhere on the left-hand side of the UN map sits a tiny dot. This dot represents the Philippines. To the original designers of the emblem, incorporating the Philippines into the central map motif seemed rather pointless. The dot is barely discernible. But Carlos Peña Romulo, the Filipino statesman and diplomat, is said to have insisted on its inclusion. “I want that dot!” Romulo demanded.

It was the spring of 1945 and much of the world had been ravaged by war and lay in ruins. The United States had emerged as the indisputable leader of the free world and the Philippines had not yet gained independence. Romulo was gripped by patriotic fervor. He was resident commissioner of the Philippine Commonwealth in Washington, DC, and had just been appointed head of the Philippine delegation to the most important conference of the year.

The United Nations Charter Conference sought to bring nations together to sign a document, a charter, which would form an international organization whose aims were to foster and preserve peace, security, law and human rights. The “United Nations,” as the organization came to be called, was the brainchild of US President Franklin Roosevelt. Fifty-one countries accepted Roosevelt’s invitation. As heads of state gathered in San Francisco, the war was at last drawing to a close. Deep in his underground Berlin bunker, Hitler had committed suicide by chewing on cyanide capsules. Roosevelt did not live to be part of the momentous occasion, dying suddenly on April 12, just a couple of weeks before the start of the conference. In tribute, a memorial service attended by conference delegates was held in an ancient grove of soaring redwood trees in Muir Woods, a forest just outside the city.

The Philippine delegation sent by President Sergio Osmeña was composed of eight key members, including future Philippine President Carlos P. Garcia and the renowned political scientist Maximo M. Kalaw. Photographs show them looking handsome and stylish in beautifully cut, double-breasted Americano suits. They were joined by four technical advisers and received administrative support from half a dozen secretaries, the latter being the only women members of the delegation. In the general sessions, they were seated beside Saudi Arabia, behind the United Kingdom, and in front of Peru.

Every word, phrase and punctuation mark of the Charter was debated and scrutinized before an agreement for inclusion could be reached. Discussions often lasted into the night, with meetings adjourning at midnight or after. To their credit, the Philippine delegates seized the opportunity to ensure that the Charter protected and gave just treatment to colonized people aspiring to independence. “Peoples all over the world had been given new hope of freedom by this war, and this hope should not be disappointed,” the delegation asserted. Romulo delivered a number of speeches and radio broadcasts, reading from typewritten scripts on onionskin paper, replete with penciled-in pause marks that anticipated audience applause.

The Conference lasted two months and was not all work. San Francisco was in a jubilant mood and enthusiastically welcomed its illustrious guests with lavish hospitality. Sessions were held at the War Memorial Opera House, where a basement bar and dining hall served cocktails and meals, sometimes startlingly sumptuous and exotic. On Wednesdays, for instance, the Conference chef produced a lunch of shish kebab, cracked wheat and rice pilaf, and other Armenian dishes. The Conference shopping bureau arranged the purchase of souvenir gifts for delegates, which could include “typical American household equipment” such as washing machines and refrigerators. Dignitaries were accommodated in the very best hotels and private, chauffeured cars were issued. The Philippine contingent stayed at the luxurious St. Francis and had the use of a Cadillac. The Russians, billeted at the same hotel, opted to stay elsewhere, believing the place was bugged. While heads of delegations hosted private cocktail parties and receptions, often frequented by Hollywood movie stars and celebrities, the city’s mayor organized banquets, sightseers were taken by blimp and coast guard boat, and there were out-of-town tours to California’s fruit orchards, vineyards, and commercial food processing plants.

Doubtless, America was showing-off to the world’s citizens, half-famished and beleaguered by war. But there can be no mistaking the bright optimism and ebullience that infused the Conference.

The UN Charter was signed on June 26, 1945. Representatives of most of humanity had succeeded in bringing into existence an institution that worked for peace. The Philippines was one of four non-independent states and the only Southeast Asian country to sign the Charter.

The San Francisco conference changed the world. A 21st century parallel might be the United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris held late last year. That conference produced an historic international treaty, signed by almost 200 countries, to reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to below 2 degrees. Each signatory country agreed to do something. To do nothing, they understood, would mean global suicide.


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