Home > San Francisco Bahá'í History > California – Host to the Nations

By Marzieh Gail

The Baha’i World, Volume X, pp.679-683.

It rained a little that first afternoon and the air was full of omens. For weeks, San Francisco had been getting ready; signs read, “Let’s clean up-company coming”; hotels put up scaffolding and had their outer walls steamed; flags of many nations lined the streets, that of the United States everywhere at half mast for the late President, Persia’s Lion and Sun at home with the rest.

 Hundreds of people had concerned themselves with the Conference. They had organized fleets of cars and buses, piloted by young women, for delegates and personnel; they had marshalled telephone operators knowing foreign languages, and stenographers, and information experts; at the Opera House they had collected Campfire Girls and Boy Scouts and nurses and chefs and waitresses. Avenues were roped off, and patrolled by security police in white steel helmets. Public address systems were set up. Pink and lavender rhododendrons were massed in the park opposite the St. Francis Hotel. School children got out their autograph albums and lurked in the crowded lobbies like hunters in a duck blind; for weeks their school work was to focus on the Conference. Handsome metal lapel buttons appeared-pale blue for the Conference officials, crimson for the press-bearing gold lettering and an outline of the planet, wreathed in laurel. Not only the authorities, but all San Francisco was host: saleswomen; society matrons; postmen; bootblacks; mothers holding up their babies to see the delegates go up the Opera House steps. 

Perhaps it was the first fulfillment of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had said of the Californians long ago: “I hope that advocates of peace may daily increase among them until the whole population shall stand for that beneficent outcome …. May the first flag of international peace be upraised in this State”

And every night during the nine weeks of the Conference, the big cross on Mt. Davidson was illuminated, the beams rippling out under starlight and through the salt fog from the Pacific. 

The San Francisco Opera House, where the plenary sessions of the United Nations Conference on International Organization were held during the nine weeks period from April 25th to June 26th, 1954
The San Francisco Opera House, where the plenary sessions of the United Nations Conference on International Organization were held during the nine weeks period from April 25th to June 26th, 1954

The Opera House throbbed, that day, with enormous energy and exhilaration, heightened by the intermittent lightning of flash bulbs in the semi-darkness, and the whirring of newsreel cameras. Delegates filed in through lanes of guards in the crowded foyer. Hundreds of observers, the lucky ones who had managed to procure tickets, jammed the balconies. In the beginning, the State Department had selected forty-two organizations to be represented at the Conference by consultants; the Department then granted admission to representatives of a number of other national organizations and publications, among them the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States and Canada and the “Baha’i World.” As for the press, its list of representatives at one time totaled 2,3 00. The public admissions office was soon to close down, snowed under 60,000 requests for tickets. 

It was one of the most complex audiences ever come together under one roof. Negro writers, school girls, millionaires, women marines, college presidents, movie actors, wounded servicemen; and then the delegates themselves, men from all over the globe, leaders in their respective countries: vice presidents, prime ministers, ministers of foreign affairs, ambassadors. And everyone there in the Opera House expectant, tense, waiting -not for a concert to begin, nor an opera but for peace to begin. 

Music from somewhere wove through it, melancholy, not loud because of the recent death; then they were playing. “The world is waiting for the sunrise.” The lights went up, from the wings seventeen men and women of the United States armed forces marched on stage to form a guard of honor, America’s Secretary of State entered with other officials, there was a tense pause, he banged the gavel four times, and perhaps it was destiny knocking. 

A crowded minute of meditation, and then, by radio, the voice of the President of the United States, bringing America’s message to the United Nations. The voice was typically American; it symbolized America’s contribution to international life; it was not martial, or authoritarian, or operatic; it was neighborly. The audience leaned forward as if the President were there. Bulbs kept on flashing, cameras whirring, as he spoke. “In your hands rests our future,” the voice was saying. “Justice remains the greatest power on earth. To that tremendous power alone will we submit … with Divine guidance, friendly cooperation and hard work we shall find an answer …. We beseech Almighty God to guide us in building a permanent monument to those who gave their lives that this moment might come.” 

And so it began, with high hopes and a high sense of mission. Belgium said: “Millions of men and women have their eyes fixed on us. This is an opportunity which perhaps will never return. It is our duty not to deceive all those who hope.” And Peru: “As progress is a continuous struggle we must exert ourselves so that progress may unfold within a friendly pattern.” And the Philippines: “Let us make this floor the last battlefield …. We are. here to determine whether the human race is going to exist …. Technicalities can be ironed out-of more lasting importance is the spiritual structure.” And Nicaragua: “The supreme effort is an effort of the spirit.” 

The days and weeks went by. The Conference weathered crisis upon crisis, and often the man in the street wondered whether it would not disintegrate with nothing accomplished. Meanwhile the twelve committees of experts labored day and night; slowly the work went forward, and as a Liberian official commented, it was as if the delegates were moved by a power higher than themselves. 

Often the public sessions were long and slow and dull; there was almost a factory quality in the Opera House those days as section after section of the Charter was assembled. The audience drifted in and, discouraged by the long talks in foreign languages or by technical discussions that were equally foreign, drifted out. It was hot and the air smelled of burning paint from the hot Klieg lights and the cameramen and technicians wore their shirtsleeves. 

The Conference procedure, however, was an art form. An expert on this phase of the work was present at all times; he carried a paper-covered book entitled “A Guide to the Practice of International Conferences,” and reportedly had difficulties because of the lack of precedents. To Baha’is, the dignity and courtesy of the participants were memorable, and helped explain the emphasis placed by Baha’u’llah on courtesy in all our dealings. Certainly large-scale group activity of a complex nature cannot proceed without the discipline of supreme courtesy. In manner, tone, expression, the delegates were usually exemplary; even in disagreement they were moderate, and there was a liberal use of courtesy titles-“Mr. Chairman, Sir, the honorable delegate, my esteemed colleague … ” And they were working under new and unnatural conditions; for instance the Chinese had to coin fifty new words during the Conference, the Arabs had trouble translating “national sovereignty” and the French “peace-loving nations,” the Steering Committee spent two hours debating whether to title the first chapters “Purposes and Principles” or “Principles and Purposes.” 

As the Charter formed there were many references to the United States Constitution and the fact was emphasized that within four years of its adoption, ten vital amendments were made. The delegates began to feel that at least in the Charter they had an effective beginning and that their work would be “progressively modified.” 

Of the American hemisphere, Peru said: “In the Spanish language a great Argentinian said, ‘America for Humanity.'” And among many references to justice, Canada: “Justice is the common concern of mankind.” And a reference to force, by Mexico: “Force must be an exclusive instrument of the community of nations.” Mexico also said that this is “a time when destiny calls us to the fullness of international life.” And of human nature, Syria: “We don’t expect to change human nature-all we need do is draw out of it the best that is in it.” And of the Covenant of the League, often referred to, South Africa: “It was a great and noble effort, much in advance of anything that had been done or even attempted before … in its day it registered a great and real advance. . . . Alas, the Covenant was only a milestone; this new Charter may also prove to be only a milestone. . . . The framers of the last peace lived in a political world, they thought a political solution would suffice …. ” And of women, Brazil: “This is the first time in international affairs that women have had a full and entire collaboration.” China said: “The work here is only setting up the machinery. How it can work depends on governments and peoples, not merely on this very dignified and sacred Charter.” And Ecuador: “In years to come the world will not ask how long we were in San Francisco, but with what wisdom and imagination we built there for the future.” 

Toward the end there was an upsurge of enthusiasm and Panama said: “This Organization is going to be the government of the world!” And the Netherlands, cautious: “This new system legalizes the mastery of might …. We hope; we trust that the future will justify our hopes.” And New Zealand, commenting on the fact that at this time, it was a choice between this organization or no organization at all: “I am sure in every impulse of my heart that the better course was followed; for the world could never understand the intricacies of voting principles, but only that once again mankind had come together, and failed. Debate was free; it ran the gamut …. ” El Salvador said: “We came here to build something-whether a palace or a hut; a structure -however humble a structure. We are all going to give it our support in spite of the fact that it goes very short of the expectations of many of us.” 

There was an affirmation from India that should not go unnoted: “Ultimately the essential purpose will be gained … some are suggesting that reference to Providence should not be introduced into the Charter. How can any of us for a moment consider that it is not the Hand of Providence that has brought us together? I am one of those who believe that it is Providence that is shaping our ends …. Providence is behind all delegates and all conferences. His will is above the wills of all powers, great or small.” They ratified the San Francisco Charter at the ninth plenary session after nine long weeks of struggle. The mood that evening was informal and relieved. The House was jammed again, and there was still the high sense of mission of the first day, although hope and fear had given way now to realization. The big powers had laid a basis for cooperation among themselves, and had assumed a primary responsibility for keeping the peace; regional arrangements had been geared to the global organization; there was the General Assembly, a center for the mobilization of world opinion; the Economic and Social Council had received important fact-finding and consultative functions; one purpose of the organization was to be the promotion of human rights “without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” The Trusteeship Council for Dependent Territories was bound to recognize the paramount interests of the governed; there was the International Court of Law continuing the international organ for justice set up under the League of Nations; best of all, perhaps, there was the Preamble, worded, as the Philippines representative said, “so that we may hope to find an answer in the hearts of humanity.” 

When they were about to vote, the Chairman emphasized the historic value of the act by saying; “In view of the world importance of this vote, it would be appropriate to depart from the usual method of raising one hand- if you felt with me I would ask the leaders of the delegations to rise and remain standing during the vote on an issue likely to be as important an issue as any of us in our life are ever likely to vote about.” People in the galleries leaped to their feet, to look down at the delegates in the orchestra, but subsided again at the cries of “Sit down!” from their fellows. There was silence, filled with flash bulbs and the spinning of the cameras and then, at the vortex of enormous applause, every one of the fifty delegation heads had risen. 

Hour after hour the next day, they signed the United Nations Charter. What the world saw was the blue drapes, the circle of flags on their white standards, the two great books open on the table, the correct young men wordlessly assisting the delegates and staffs. But all this was only an oasis, like a movie set, in the midst of chaos-men in shirtsleeves swarming up and down scaffolding, rows of half-empty Coca-Cola bottles on the newsreel men’s platform, news photographers and members of the press lounging here and there, a voice coming over a loud speaker, and permeating everything, the hbt paint smell from the Klieg lights. One following another, the delegations came in; the chairman and others signed, the pen flashing gold in the bright sunshine of the spotlight; flanked by his staff, the Chairman smiled, spoke a few words for the newsreels, led the way out. At last the quiet voice over the public address system announced: “Guatemala will be the next and final nation to sign.” When the third Guatemalan representative had affixed his signature, vigorously pumping the pen up and down, the Charter was accomplished. 

The San Francisco Conference was of significance to Baha’is in that, among other things, it emphasized the role of the United States in international peace, a function so often ascribed to her by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and that it proved, once again, that statesmen cannot change the human heart; for the lifegiving spirit that so many of the delegates invoked is not in man’s gift. History will assign the Conference its proper place; all we can say is this, that in the spring of 1945, over a billion members of the human race met through their delegates in San Francisco, and signed their names to a document, perhaps immortal, which began: 

“We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights . . . and to promote social progress …. And for these ends to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and to unite our strength … and to insure . . . that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest . . . and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples … do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.” 

What the men and women of San Francisco needed most, was something beyond themselves. They needed a universal Power to refer to, beyond the powers that be; a single Point that each could turn to. It will take more than good will to bring world peace. As some of the delegates said, only the spirit can achieve it. That spirit is in our Faith. Perhaps we do not explain it very well, but it is fashioned of the tears of the Master and the chains of Bahá’u’Iláh; of the bullets in the heart of the Báb; of the light from the candles burning in the wounds of Hájí Sulayman Khán as he walked to his death; of the smoke from the bonfire they made with the limbs of Quddús. 

Golden Gate Park stretches westward along the Pacific, not many blocks from where the Conference met. There is a little lake here where ‘Abdu’l-Baha sometimes liked to walk. A path winds round it, slipping through sunlight and shade; it is back from the road, sheltered by slopes of pale hydrangeas. The path comes to a marble, pillared structure, like a small temple, set in dark trees; this was once the doorway of a San Francisco mansion, and later brought as a relic of the fire, to the edge of this lake. It is very quiet here, under the laurels and eucalyptus; wild rabbits feed in the clover, the lake streams away in the wind from the ocean, the sun drifts down, gold and dreamlike. It is quiet and the presence of the Master seems very close, perhaps because He walked and prayed here during His brief moments of rest, and His beauty was mirrored here. The memory of the words He spoke in San Francisco is very loud in the stillness: 

“The age has dawned when human fellowship will become a reality. “The century has come when all religions shall be unified. 

“The dispensation is at hand when all nations shall enjoy the blessings of International Peace …. 

“The cycle has arrived when racial prejudice will be abandoned . . .. “The epoch has begun wherein all nativities will be conjoined in one great human family. 

“For all mankind shall dwell in peace and security beneath the shelter of the … one living God.”