This past week I traveled up to New York City to begin looking through the UN Archives for information on the wartime activities of the United Nations Information Organization. The UN Archives are housed in a nondescript building about a block and a half from the iconic UN Plaza. I entered through an innocuous side door that looked more like a service entrance than a gateway to knowledge. However, once inside I was greeted by the familiar sights and sounds of a library: small tables set up in a quiet reading room, other researchers hunched over stacks of documents, the archivists conducting their business in hushed tones. Unlike a library, however, there were few materials that I could get for myself. Rather, I had to request materials from the archivist on duty.
I had been in contact with one of the archivists prior to my arrival and he ensured that my first foray into the archival wilderness in search of information would be successful. He provided me with a detailed index of the UNIO files – which proved invaluable – and showed me how to make my requests and turned me loose.
Going in, I had been told that it was very likely that I would be the first person to look at and handle these documents since they were committed to the UN Archives over 60 years ago. Judging from how haphazardly documents had been arranged in seemingly arbitrary boxes, I quickly realized that this was likely the case. Many of the pages were faded and I had to be careful not to rip the flimsy onionskin paper.
Sifting through the contents of the UNIO files I came across the original draft of the resolution that formally created the UNIO offices in New York and London, along with a memorandum that amounted to a mission statement for the new organization. I was exhilarated at this find. Not only because they were particularly important documents that would help with my work, but also because I knew that I held in my hands documents whose existence had changed the history of the entire world.
The creation of the UNIO was the first step the Allied powers took towards turning back and defeating the Axis. It served stark warnings to the Axis powers that their crimes would not go unpunished. It helped galvanize the American people into action as the defenders of liberty. It encouraged those straining against the fascist yoke to not give up the fight, that help was on the way.
Reading through these founding documents, the vision of a world united behind a single banner fighting against oppression came into clear focus. The creation of the UNIO was not merely the first step on the long journey towards victory in World War II; it was the first step towards securing a lasting peace when the guns fell silent. I held history in my hands. And it is a history that preciously too few are aware of.
Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.