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As the UN Turns 70, a Look at its Architect: Edward Stettinius

This month, the world marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations - an institution founded with the enthusiastic support of a Virginia man now known as the architect of the UN. 

As a student at the University of Virginia, Edward Stettinius fell short on the academic front - too busy, it seems, to complete the coursework needed for a degree. 

“He was president of the student government.  He was the head of the honor board.  He established a student employee organization that placed UVA students at Charlottesville business, and he led missionary work up in the Blue Ridge.”

That’s Jeff Legro, the University’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and a professor of politics. I spoke with him in an office with large windows overlooking the school’s historic administration building.

“The room we’re sitting in was actually a room he lived in as a student. This is the former Betty Booker’s Boarding House.”

And despite his lack of a college degree, Stettinius would leave Betty Booker’s Boarding House to play an important role in business and government.

“John Pratt, another UVA alum who was at GM, read about how he had established this employment bureau in the alumni magazine, and he was impressed by that, so he hired him, and within ten years Stettinius had become a vice president at General Motors."

From there, he went on to lead U.S. Steel and to support President Franklin Roosevelt who brought Stettinius to Washington, where he convinced Congress to aid the allies before America joined the Second World War.

“Even though he had no diplomatic experience, he had very good relations with Congress and was very good at PR. Lend-Lease was, of course, very controversial. It was giving our materials to our allies.  Army and Navy were upset about this: ‘Hold it.  We may have to fight.  What’s going on here?’  Stettinius was key to explaining the cause to the American people - that helping them was helping us, and so he was able to generate the support that made Lend-Lease so successful.”

And after the war, he crusaded for a new organization that could draw countries together. Again, UVA Vice Provost Jeff Legro.

“Struggling with the war, they realized that they needed to struggle with the peace as well, and that they needed some kind of organization to bring countries together to discuss world problems and to work as hard for peace as you worked for war.”

Stettinius was known as the architect of the United Nations, and he would become this country’s first ambassador to the UN after serving as secretary of state. Like Roosevelt, he was an idealist who thought the United States had an obligation to the world.   Today, you can find him on YouTube - a handsome man with a full head of white hair and dark, dramatic eyebrows.  He speaks evenly into the camera.

“As a nation that has been devoted throughout its history to the cause of liberty, the United States will continue to exert its full influence on behalf of the right of all people to govern themselves according to their own desires whenever they are prepared and able to assume the responsibilities of freedom as well as to enjoy its rights.”

Stettinius became rector of the University of Virginia in 1946 - promoting international studies.  He died three years later of a heart attack at the age of 49.  This week, UVA’s president marked the founding of the UN by announcing the Edward Stettinius Award for Global Leadership - a prize the university will give each spring to a prominent figure in world affairs.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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