Dumbarton Oaks Microsite

Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition

Why reprint the proceedings of a conference that took place a quarter century ago, which delved into meetings that were convoked in 1944 and into developments in the intervening fifty years? And why make available on the web the catalogue of the exhibition that coincided with the 1994 event? A little explanation seems in order. As has always proven true in human affairs,  much that was once common knowledge has passed out of living memory and needs now to be rehearsed formally. Recollections change as generations do. The Second World War, a global conflict that began on September 1, 1939, concluded in two stages. The Allied countries formally accepted the unconditional surrender by the armed forces first of Nazi Germany, on May 8, 1945 (Victory in Europe or V-E Day), and then of Imperial Japan, on September 2, 1945 (Victory over Japan or V-J Day).

The term United Nations, coined in the closing days of 1941 and the opening ones of 1942, initially described states committed to victory over Hitlerism and the Axis countries. Eventually the expression developed to designate an international organization, conceived when globalism was ascendant, that would guarantee peace and prosperity to the world. Such an organization mattered hugely after countless millions of lives—both military and civilian—had been lost in six years of total war, genocide, famine, and disease. The creation of the United Nations as a permanent organization held paramount importance to Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), the thirty-second president of the United States (1933–1945).

Long before the war’s end in 1945, delegates from countries around the death-weary world met to think and talk through a framework that could deliver a permanent peace. After all the years of combat and killing, these statesmen were tasked with constituting a new United Nations Organization. They converged at a research institute administered by Harvard University in Washington, DC. Although since the late 1960s the scope has been broadened to include other fields, for its first three decades the institution was dedicated solely to the study of Byzantium.

Former residence of United States diplomat Robert Woods Bliss (1875–1962) and his wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss (1879–1969), the site had been given the name Dumbarton Oaks by the couple after they acquired it in 1920. In 1940 they deeded it to Harvard to support an eclectic array of people and programs in the humanities and arts as a civilizing and secluded counterweight to the busy barbarism and Babbittry of the world outside. Permission to host the meetings came from Harvard University President James B. Conant in Cambridge, but the Blisses themselves supported the decision as well.

The historic mansion and its lovely garden, a breezy island in the haze and humidity of the nation’s capital, lent themselves wonderfully to the alternation between large-group and breakout sessions required by a constitutional convention. The small group that arrogated most of the power in the hard negotiations comprised the Big Four: the United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin fought for their interests by way of proxies. Their policymakers conducted what was in effect a dry run for later meetings to follow elsewhere.

The gatherings, which started on August 21, 1944, and ended on October 7, 1944, were styled the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations. These assemblies led to the release of the so-called Dumbarton Oaks Plan, with an accompanying communiqué, at noon on October 9, 1944. The plan amounted more to proposals than anything else: it was a draft for later discussion, not a text to be voted up or down.

In one sense, the sweep of the participation was momentous. In another, it is easy to reel off the many exclusions. In the group photographs, women can be detected only outside the principal groups, as they hover to the sides or in the rear, not full-fledged participants but part-time assistants. The people of color are almost exclusively African-American servants and entertainers, not participants.

In due course, the cavalcade moved to a different venue. The United Nations Conference on International Organization began in San Francisco on April 25, 1945. Fifty nations signed the Charter of the United Nations on June 26, 1945.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Conversations was commemorated at Dumbarton Oaks May 5–7, 1994, in a conference organized by Harvard University faculty members. The commemoration took place a mere two and a half years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late December 1991. A quarter century later, the world has evolved in ways that would have been unimaginable to many attendees of either the original Conversations or the conference. This reprint may assist readers who wish to familiarize themselves with the conditions that motivated the meetings in 1944, and the successes and failings of the subsequent organization between 1944 and 1994. Such interested parties may consider the changes that have taken place in the world since then.

A still greater hope is that those who peruse these materials will commit themselves, as they feel best equipped, to maintain collective security and pursue international prosperity without sacrificing peace or other conditions necessary to the preservation of the earth. As obvious as it may sound, we human beings benefit from the exercise of our reason upon knowledge of the past to inform us as we construct a vision of the future.

—Jan Ziolkowski, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin, Harvard University, and Director of Dumbarton Oaks, September 2019