70th Anniversary of United Nations Draws Secretary General to City
By Ted Andersen and Hossein Kamali
From counter-culture to gay rights to high tech, San Francisco has given rise to a number of watershed moments that have shaped history. But what many people often overlook who now transit through the BART station at United Nations Plaza is that the most important modern world organization was born right there.
On the same day that a historic Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, packed City Hall’s steps with rainbow-colored revelers, a crowd of several hundred filled the rotunda to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, along with Mayor Ed Lee, Governor Jerry Brown and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, were on hand to recognize the importance of that moment in history and how it continues to shape the globe.
Ban spoke of the formation of the UN in San Francisco as an idealistic beacon of cooperation during a time of war and emphasized that many people still do not understand what a tremendous undertaking occurred in San Francisco during the spring of 1945.
“The victory in San Francisco was never assured,” he said. “Today we take the idea of the United Nations for granted.”
Born one year before the UN came into existence, Ban said it did not take long for the young organization to change his course in life for good. He told his own story of enduring war as a child and witnessing sacks of grain, textbooks and medical relief pouring in from various UN agencies such as UNICEF and UNESCO. This, he said, left an indelible impression on him.
“When the Korean War ravaged my country, I lost my home, my village, my school. Everything was destroyed. But help came bearing the United Nations flag,” he said. “The United Nations showed us we were not alone.”
Ban emphasized the importance of education as a founding principle of the UN. Pakistani education activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai attended the event and was lauded by the Secretary General, who celebrated her as a “torchbearer” for the next generation of educated women moving forward with values aligned with the UN.
Pointing into the audience, Ban also introduced his host mother, a Bay Area woman who left an impression on him during his first trip to the Bay Area in 1962, after he won a Red Cross-sponsored speech contest. At that time he stayed with host mother Mary Elizabeth Patterson, now 98, in Novato. Ban recognized his memorable time spent with Patterson, still referring to her as his “American mother.” Afterward, she told Mid-Market News she knew he was destined to be a statesman.
“He was an old 18-year-old in that he had many ideas about what his future was going to be like and what his goals were. He wanted to be a diplomat even at 18, so he told us this and also told us how he planned to achieve it,” Patterson said. “Of course, you’ve got to support your kids when they have good ideas.”
Touting San Francisco’s forward-looking nature, Mayor Lee honored the Secretary General by presenting him with the key to the city. Lee also took a minute to recognize the landmark Supreme Court case that outlawed same-sex marriage bans throughout the country and how San Francisco played its own role in the greater struggle for nationwide LGBT rights.
“The story of San Francisco is one of rapid growth, spurts of growth,” Lee said. “Here in San Francisco, we celebrate diversity, we don’t just tolerate it.”
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who introduced Ban, related a personal story about her time as a member of United Nations Youth when she was a teenager. Pelosi said she was profoundly affected when attending a dinner hosted by the United Nations Association of America where then-Senator John F. Kennedy spoke about the interconnectedness of the world. When Kennedy later became President and spoke to the UN General Assembly about international cooperation on both social and scientific levels, her interest for the organization only increased.
“Seven decades after its founding, the United Nations and the ideals of the charter that guides it continue to inspire, continue to challenge its member nations to answer our responsibility to fellow human beings,” she said. “The truth of President Kennedy’s words speaks across the generations.”
Both Pelosi and Ban mentioned the United Nations Association of America in their speeches, a non-profit organization designed to promote the UN and educate people about international affairs. Pablo Castro, the San Francisco chapter president of the organization, said he believes people are becoming more sensitive to world problems and the work of the UN and will continue to do so with more education.
“I think about those people who have negative things to say about the UN and I find that it’s because of ignorance. When you consider that the United Nations has taken care of 60 million refugees and displacements, when they are vaccinating 60 percent of the children in the world, when they are taking care of Ebola, AIDS, malaria and all the other diseases, and working with human rights, I mean how can you criticize an organization like that?” he said. “Of course we have some challenges. But the things we do are mostly positive and I think that’s the way we should teach this to children and young people and even the older people.”
A Brief History of the UN
It was during the closing days of WWII that the historic United Nations Conference on International Organization convened from April through June in 1945. The invitation to the San Francisco Conference was initiated in February 1945 at the Yalta Conference in Crimea by the allied leaders Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and President Roosevelt. Roosevelt, chief architect of the United Nations, died only two weeks before the conference’s opening. Upon his death, Vice President Henry Truman, sworn in as the 33rd U.S. President, immediately announced that the International Conference would be held as planned. To this end, a U.S. delegation led by John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State arrived in San Francisco for the preparation of the conference.
The people of San Francisco were excited to welcome the world event. The streets were cleaned and facilities set up for the conference at the War Memorial Building. Following the visit of the U.S. delegation, Truman arrived at the Fairmont in San Francisco on April 25 for the official opening.
“At no time in history has there been a more important conference, nor a more necessary meeting than this one in San Francisco, which you are opening today,” President Truman said at the opening session. “If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn how to live together in peace.”
The full text and pictures of the UN Charter ceremony are displayed in the main lobby at the War Memorial Building and a pillar that stands in UN Plaza lists the founding members of the United Nations and dates of their admittance. The 50 founding nations, representing over 80 percent of the world population, pledged to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.
After nearly two months of extensive negotiations, the representatives drew up the UN Charter, the basic structure of the organization as a collective security system. The Charter was drafted in the Garden Room of the Fairmont Hotel. On June 25, 1945 Truman arrived in San Francisco for the closing of the conference and congratulated the delegates for “creating a solid structure upon which we can build a better world.”
The Charter was formally adopted and signed by all representatives of the 50 nations on June 26, 1945 at the War Memorial Building, and the UN came into existence on October 24 of the same year.
The Preamble to the United Nations Charter: “To reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”