Wales Uniting Nations: Building a Better World after World War 2

24 October every year is United Nations Day, with activities worldwide appearing on Twitter using the hashtags #UNDay #UNDay2023. This feature spotlights some of the connections between Wales and the story of the UN.

On 8 May 2020, Wales and the world marked #VE75, the 75th Anniversary of VE Day – the end of World War Two in Europe. Over 15,000 Welsh men and women lost their lives in WW2, out of an estimated 75 million globally; and the horrors of the Holocaust and of Hiroshima have defined generations to this day. But out of the ashes of WW2 emerged the United Nations, and many of the institutions of global cooperation that, in the 75 years since, have prevented another world war to date – despite nuclear proliferation, the Cold War and many conflicts that could have escalated even further without the machinery of human cooperation. Beyond the Bunting and Lindy Hop dances, Remembrance on VE Day should give pause to appreciate perhaps the greatest gift of the WW2 generation: the United Nations.

However, a little known aspect – one of Wales’ ‘hidden histories’ – is just how involved Welsh men and women became in shaping the ‘new world order’ after World War Two. Whilst WCIA hope to uncover more over 2020-23 as we mark UN75 – the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, here we share just a few of their stories.

Building on the League of Nations

During the interwar years between WW1 and WW2, Wales’ peace building movement had become woven into the fabric of Welsh society; over 800 communities had local branches of the Welsh League of Nations Union, with many thousands of campaigners Wales-wide actively advocating for internationalism through annual Daffodil Days, the 1935 ‘Peace Ballot’, and culminating in the opening in 1938 of Wales’ Temple of Peace and Health by founder Lord David Davies alongside WW1-bereaved mothers. The Temple had been intended as a headquarters ‘befitting to international cooperation’ – and yet, within months of its opening, the world’s deadliest war had consumed a generation and swept aside all international order. Had the efforts of Wales’ post-WW1 peacemakers all been in vain?

David Davies at the opening of Wales’ Temple of Peace, Nov 1938.

Lord David Davies, founder of the Temple of Peace, League of Nations Union and of the world’s first Department of International Politics (at Aberystwyth University) tragically did not live to see the post-WW2 peace he had spent his whole life working for; he passed in June 1944, months before his son and heir Michael Davies was also killed in action leading the liberation of Eindhoven, Holland. Lord Davies had spent his last years writing propitiously on possibilities for a post-war international order, a ‘United Nations’ machinery with an ‘international police force’, an ‘equity tribunal’ (international court, furthering human rights) and supporters’ associations mobilising the peoples of every land.

However, the widespread internationalism garnered Wales-wide over 20 years by the Welsh League of Nations Union, had fostered a whole ‘new generation of Welsh internationalists’ who would shape the post-WW2 landscape of peace building and global cooperation. A perhaps disproportionate cohort were among the founders and leaders of many of the international agencies that came into being following WW2, as people sought to build a better world – and to learn the lessons of the failed post-WW1 peace process that had created the conditions for World War 2 in the first place.

“Those who want peace, it is said, prepare for war. Those who are already at war, prepare for peace. So, before the second world war was even halfway through, debate began about the new organisation which was to be established at its end.”

Evan Luard, History of the United Nations

The First United Nations

Jan 1 1942: Signing in Washington of the Atlantic Charter, the ‘Declaration of United Nations’ (Wikipedia Commons)

Proposals for a United Nations had been floated from 1941 among the WW2 Allied Powers – UK, USA, Soviet Union and China – with the name itself promoted by President Roosevelt of the US on 1 Jan 1942.

The task of pulling together a Secretariat for a fledgling United Nations was delegated to Gladwyn Jebb of the Foreign Office – who became the UN’s First Secretary General – supported by Welsh Economist David Owen, Assistant to the Lord Privy Seal (Sir Stafford Cripps).

David Owen, founder of UN Secretariat and UN Development Programme

“I was Jebb’s deputy,” Sir David recounted. “He turned to me and announced: I’ll handle the high diplomacy; you take on the rest. Find an office and a secretary and get this thing started.” ‘This thing’ was a world organization formed by 51 war time allies without a staff or money – and only a promise that it could make London its temporary home.

David rushed back to London to borrow a typewriter from the Foreign Office and a secretary from the War Office. “Together in a taxi we leaded for Church House in Westminster, and knocked on the door. The old custodian peered at us across barricade of sandbags and demanded to know who we were.

“‘We are the United Nations,’ I remember answering. And that was the beginning.”

David financed the early days of United Nations operations with a £30 loan from his London bank account. “We lived on that £30 for almost two weeks in 1945.”

New York Times Obituary of David Owen, June 1970

David Owen went on to found the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

1st UN General Assembly Welcome Programme from Temple of Peace Archives

The First UN General Assembly (UNGA)

The first United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was held in the Methodist Central Hall, London from 10 January 1946, bringing together representatives of 51 nations.

A ‘British Welcome’ staged at the Royal Albert Hall had a distinctly Welsh flavour. The programme was fronted by the Choir of Wales’ Temple of Peace, performing 6 songs in total – including ‘Nos Galon’ and ‘Men of Harlech’.

1945 Leaflet for the Temple of Peace Choir
Megan Lloyd George, Wales 1st female Member of Parliament

The keynote address was delivered by Lady Megan Lloyd George, daughter of the WW1 Prime Minister and Wales’ first female Member of Parliament, for Anglesey (and later Carmarthen).

The event closed with 51 nations singing “These Things Shall Be” by composer John Hughes.

The first UNGA lasted 5 weeks in total, and at its conclusion on February 14 1946 had established the UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council, UN Economic and Social Council, the International Court of Justice, and elected Trygve Lie, Foreign Secretary of Norway, as the UN’s first elected Secretary General.

Creating a ‘World Education Organisation’: the origins of UNESCO

Gwilym Davies, League of Nations / UNA Wales’ 1st President, and one of the founders of UNESCO

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”

Jacob Jones, Chairman of WEAC, 1929 – now the opening lines of the UNESCO Constitution, and quoted by (and often attributed to) UK Prime Minister Sir Clement Attlee at the founding of UNESCO in 1946.

Gwilym Davies, Honorary Director of the Welsh League of Nations Union from 1922 (and UNA Wales’ 1st President, from 1945) had long advocated Welsh efforts in the field of world education. 32 leading Welsh educationalists, alongside teachers Wales-wide, had set up the ‘Wales Education Advisory Committee’ (WEAC) from 1922 to develop ‘the world’s first global citizenship curriculum’ – supported by the Davies sisters of Gregynog Hall, and leading thinkers of the day such as Gilbert Murray, who headed the UK League of Nations movement.

From 1930, the Central Welsh Board (CWB – now the WJEC) became the first Education Authority in the world to integrate the principles of the League of Nations into teaching in schools – a move which projected Wales to international recognition, and led to ‘the Welsh model’ being held up and adopted by educationalists worldwide eager to instil a culture of engaged and informed internationalism among their societies. WLNU established a Women’s Advisory Committee, chaired by Annie Hughes Griffiths – who had led the 1923 Welsh Women’s Peace Petition to America – to involve Welsh women in promoting peace education Wales and world-wide.

Annie Hughes Griffiths

In January 1941, Prof Murray chaired a conference at Oxford to which he invited Gwilym Davies to present a paper, drawing on the interwar experiences of the WEAC, advocating the idea of establishing a post-war international organisation for education. This paper was to have a profound impact on shaping the thinking of the British – and Allied – governments, and in 1943 the London International Assembly and newly established CEWC (Council for Education in World Citizenship) delegated two tasks to Wales:

  1. To conduct a survey / study of global intellectual cooperation between the wars
  2. To draft a model constitution for an international organisation for education

Gwilym Davies’ proposals informed discussions across the Atlantic among the movements that led directly to the creation of UNESCO – the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

The first UNESCO conference was held in Paris in November-December 1946. Attending proceedings, Gwilym Davies reported back to Wales:

Ben Bowen Thomas, Chair of UNESCO

“(UNESCO)… was unlike any other conference I have attended, with writers, thinkers, educationalists and scientists present from 24 countries. They are the true creators of public opinion.”

Gwilym Davies

Gwilym Davies was nominated to the Board of UNESCO; his Vice-President within the newly established CEWC Cymru (Council for Education in World Citizenship, founded Jan 1944) was Ben Bowen Thomas from Treorchy in the Rhondda. Later Sir Ben, he became active with UNESCO from 1946-1962, and Chairman of UNESCO’s Executive Board in Paris from 1958.

‘We, the Peoples’: the United Nations Association

Between the wars, the Welsh League of Nations Union (WLNU) had been one of Wales’ biggest membership organisations, with over 30,000 peace campaigners active in 1,000 communities. Although membership had fallen – and activities suspended with the onset of WW2 – a network of groups and advocates remained. WLNU Annual Reports produced between 1939 and 1946 offer an insight into work undertaken in the background of war. 

The WLNU reconvened following WW2 for their final Annual Conference at the Temple of Peace on October 27 1945. They proposed to ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’ in immediately becoming the United Nations Association (Wales), or UNA Welsh National Council.

UN Charter Commemorative Stamp – Wikimedia Commons

UNA Wales’ first Executive Committee met in Shrewsbury on Feb 1 1946, and produced their first Annual Report covering the whole 1943-1946 transition period. The first UNA Wales Conference and AGM was held at the Guildhall, Wrexham on May 31 1948. In August 1946, Gwilym Davies assisted in organisation of the first World Federation of United Nations Associations in Luxembourg, establishing 5 commissions and a UN grassroots movement: “We, the Peoples…” – echoing the opening words of the United Nations Charter.

UNA Wales produced their first post-war ‘Bulletin’ (above) in 1949 – emerging from 4 years of continued rationing and paper shortages – which casts light on the challenges of re-establishing a campaigning network, and of the activities of local branches.

Sept 1945 Cover of UNA’s ‘Headway’ magazine

UNA Wales became Wales’ leading network of community groups campaigning on internationalism, human rights, security and global development through the 1950s and 1960s; and continued as a national body until the decision was taken in 2014, alongside CEWC Cymru, to pool resources and merge into WCIA – the Welsh Centre for International Affairs. UNA Cardiff and UNA Menai branches continue to organise local activities in 2020, and many branches have a rich history of local activism.  

International Youth Volunteering and post-WW2 Reconstruction

Robert Davies and friends digging a soakaway in Austria, 1960.

The demands of post-WW2 reconstruction both in Britain and across Europe, and the desire to mobilise young people in healing the wounds of war by fostering understanding through relationships with other communities and cultures, led UNA UK and UNA Wales to link with the ‘World Forum of Youth’ out of which gradually emerged the UNA International Youth Service (IYS) movement.

By the mid-1950s, substantial parts of Europe’s population remained displaced, refugees often within their own countries. Through IYS, youth volunteers from Wales and all over the UK participated in work camps supporting the construction of housing and community facilities, from Austria to Greece. One of those volunteers in the 1950-60s was Robert Davies from Port Talbot, who lived through the Cardiff Blitz during WW2 while his parents worked in the steelworks.

Robert’s experience of participating in an international workcamp in Austria inspired him to become a lifelong champion of youth volunteering between Wales and the world. He sett up VCS (the Cardiff Volunteer Service bureau) in 1965, and then UNA Exchange in 1973 – which continues to operate today from the Temple of Peace, as an integral part of the WCIA’s work, aiming to inspire a new generation of internationalists with the challenges of global cooperation today.

UNA Exchange International Volunteers enjoying a 2015 youth workcamp at the Temple of Peace, renovating Wales’ National Garden of Peace.

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