Building A World Without War

San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center

· culture,diplomacy,architecture,history,San Francisco

"The United Nations owe a debt of gratitude to its historic birthplace, the city of San Francisco."

The interior of the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, the site of the signing of the United Nations charter. This and cover photo courtesy of the United Nations.

Mementos of the convention that birthed the United Nations in 1945 are etched into the fabric of San Francisco; in the walls of its cathedral and the plazas of its civic center; and the buildings which served as the home for the delegates that traveled here, lured by the golden sunshine and the lure of the Pacific, perhaps disappointed to instead be greeted by San Francisco’s notorious summer fog.

But one artifact in particular, hanging on the walls of one of San Francisco's most beautiful buildings, gifted by a man who later died under mysterious circumstances, will forever mark the occasion.

Journalists capture the moment of the signing of the UN charter. Photo courtesy of the United Nations.

In August, 1944, mere days before Allied forces liberated Paris, a group gathered in Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, to plan for the eventual replacement of the League of Nations. A sticking point, voting, was determined in Yalta by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.

Then, they traveled to San Francisco.

Legend has it that the idea to take the conference to San Francisco came from a vision. Edward Stettinius, President Roosevelt's Secretary of State, recalled later that he had awakened in Yalta, and smelled the Pacific Ocean. “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,” he wrote in his diary. The city, after all, was the perfect distance from Asia, Latin America, and Europe alike, and had recently served as a launching area for soldiers fighting the war in the Pacific.

Eight hundred and fifty delegates traveled to the city by the bay in the summer of 1945, accompanied by several thousand members of their respective entourages, and 2,500 members of “press, radio and newsreel representatives and observers,” in what was believed at the time to be the largest international gathering ever to occur until that time.

The War Memorial, and its sister building, the Veterans Memorial, comprise the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, and are part of a complex of civic center buildings that serve as the legislative and artistic hubs of downtown San Francisco. Plazas large and small, grassy and concrete, street-level and balcony, offer gatherings spaces for protests, farmers markets, parade staging areas, or just a quiet place to read before ballet class begins. The largest, aptly named UN plaza, serves as a transit hub from Civic Center to the far reaches of the city and the Bay Area at large.

The buildings, which house the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco ballet, glow through every window of its Beaux Arts frame, through every column and arch, in a manner reminiscent of watchmen bearing lanterns. It glows like its neighbor, City Hall, reflecting the sunset off its gold dome, as though the man who designed them both, Arthur Brown, Jr., he also of Coit Tower, wanted the buildings to serve as a beacon for anyone who might need it. And in the summer in San Francisco, in a nation so recently imprisoned by war, such a beacon would indeed be needed. As Mark Twain once wrote, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Truer words have perhaps never been written, as anyone who ever left their heart there can attest.

Murals at the Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill note the city's role in the founding of the United Nations. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

The United Nations' relationship with the city of its birth didn't end at the signing of its charter. President Truman offered the Presidio to the United Nations as a site for its global headquarters. Members of the United Nations permanent site subcommittee issued a formal statement in November 1946, that they were "most especially impressed by the San Francisco Presidio, a federal military reservation, as a home for the international organization."

It further declared, "The United Nations owe a debt of gratitude to its historic birthplace, the city of San Francisco."

The Washington Post enthusiastically supported the possible site location, writing, in pure Washingtonian fashion, that they were "gratified" the UN was considering the Post's "specific suggestion" of locating in San Francisco.

"San Francisco has everything to commend it," the Post wrote in what one could presume was an editorial. "Sentimentally, it has a claim no other city can offer of the UN birthplace, and it has never ceased to value the honor. It has unsurpassed scenic attractions, an enviable climate for work and concentration, and no hub-bub." It noted that developments in air travel would make the Brits' complaints about distance obsolete in a few years' time, and pointed at the challenge of "unsatisfactory, widely separate meeting points in New York."

Regardless of these excellent points extolling the very real virtues of San Francisco, the headquarters was instead built in New York City.

However, San Francisco continues to celebrate its history.

On the tenth anniversary, President Eisenhower welcomed "the world's statesmen on behalf of the people of the United States," to San Francisco, saying, "I think it is well that the whole country reviews the UN's record of accomplishment and failure, and fix in our own minds again what are our hopes and our expectations for such a body." President Johnson hosted a similar event on the 20th anniversary.

In 1970, on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the UN, delegates from 119 of the 126 members flew to San Francisco to mark the occasion. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time, "It was the first such observance not attended by a President of the United States. A White House spokesman said that President Nixon, in Southern California, could not attend because of previous engagements."

It further reported, "President Truman sent a message recalling that his first act as President was to order that the founding session would meet as scheduled, despite the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt less than two weeks earlier."

Seventy-fifth celebrations have been impacted due to the coronavirus, as both buildings are closed, and California is suffering from the highest rates of the pandemic nationwide, as well as struggling with devastating wildfires that are impacting air quality and safety issues throughout the Bay Area.

Inside the temporarily shuttered buildings, however, plaques note the occasion of the signing of the charter. And one particularly notable artifact hangs on the west wall of the Herbst Theatre lobby in the War Memorial Veterans Building.

"The Signing of the United Nations Charter," informally known as the Christy Mural, hangs in the Herbst Theatre lobby in the War Memorial Veterans Building. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

A painting by Howard Chandler Christy, the “Signing of the United Nations Charter," depicts members of the U.S. delegation, including President Harry S. Truman; Secretary Stettinius; Commander Harold E. Stassen of the U.S. Naval Reserve; Virginia Gildersleeve, Dean of Barnard College in Columbia University; Representative Charles A. Eaton; Representative Sol Bloom; Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg; and Senator Tom Connolly.

Christy, named by Time Magazine in 1938 as the "most commercially successful artist in the U.S., was a prolific painter of portraits, including multiple U.S. presidents, Mussolini, Amelia Earhart, William Randolph Hearst, and more.

His painting, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, is installed in the east stairwell of the U.S. Capitol, and indeed, Christy was originally commissioned for three paintings of the UN signing, to be displayed in New York City, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. However, Christy died after completing the first painting, and UN officials chose San Francisco, and the site of the signing of its charter, to be the home of the singular work. It was installed in the lobby of the Herbst Theatre in August 1956.

It was presented to the War Memorial Board of Trustees by then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, who would later die in a plane crash that not only triggered a succession crisis at the UN, but decades of conspiracy theories, most recently detailed by the Lux prize-winning documentary, Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Notably, President Truman, the day after the crash, famously told journalists, "(Hammarskjöld) was at the point of getting something done when they killed him." But offered nothing to back up his claim.

Seventy-five years after the UN charter was signed in San Francisco, the city and the world are vastly different places. But like all vast things that once collide are always intertwined, the summer when thousands descended on the War Memorial in the hopes of building a world without war, is forever etched into this city, and the people who make it their headquarters.

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