San Francisco and the UN
by Gail MacGowan
SF City Guides
June is United Nations Month. On June 26, 1945 – the UN was officially born when delegates from fifty nations gathered at San Francisco’s War Memorial Veterans Building to sign the United Nations Charter.
US President Franklin Roosevelt had insistently pushed his fellow war leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to create an organization to replace the League of Nations. Roosevelt’s passionate advocacy was acknowledged when, at their February 1945 meeting in Yalta, the three leaders agreed to hold the UN Conference in the US.
But why San Francisco?
For that we can thank Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. During the Yalta Conference, he awakened in the middle of the night from a dream about San Francisco that left him with an inspiring vision: “I saw the golden sunshine, and as I lay there on the shores of the Black Sea in the Crimea, I could almost feel the fresh and invigorating air from the Pacific.”* By the end of the Yalta Conference, he had convinced Roosevelt, who saw that the West Coast locale could dramatize the Pacific war effort. In March 1945, with war still raging in Europe and in the Pacific, the US, UK, USSR, and China issued the invitation for the “United Nations” allied against Germany and Japan to meet in San Francisco on April 25 to forge a permanent world body.
Roosevelt saw the creation of the UN as his crowning legacy and planned to travel to San Francisco for the conference. Alas, on April 12, two weeks before the meetings began, Roosevelt collapsed and died, thrusting Harry Truman into the presidency. Truman immediately issued orders for the San Francisco conference to go forward, but faced with a host of other burdens, he himself elected not to attend negotiations. Truman did not travel to SF until June 25, when on the night before the ceremonial signing he hosted a banquet at the Fairmont Hotel for all 280 conference delegates.
To delegates arriving from cities shattered by war, glittering, vigorous San Francisco was a promise of the new world ahead. The “City That Knows How” pulled out all the stops to entertain its guests. Despite wartime shortages, rationing rules were relaxed. Each day lavish feasts celebrating ethnic foods of visiting nations were catered by Omar Khayam Restaurant. Cigarettes, bourbon, scotch, champagne, brandies—not seen since the war began—were found for the enjoyment of the delegates.
The War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building were the sites of the official meetings, but many of the behind-the-scenes talks took place atop Nob Hill. The US delegation was headquartered at the Fairmont Hotel, with Secretary of State Stettinius housed in a penthouse suite. The Mark Hopkins Hotel across the street hosted both the Chinese and UK delegations. The other hotels housing delegations were the St. Francis (which with 21 countries, including the USSR, boasted the most delegations), the Sir Francis Drake, and the Whitcomb (near Civic Center).
* Information, including Stettinius quote, from Act of Creation–The Founding of the United Nations by Steven C. Schlesinger (2003).
Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.
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