******      BACK       HOME       NEXT

(Indexing terms: United Nations; poverty; war; Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Charter of United Nations; equal rights; Abraham Lincoln; Dogmas a the quiet past; We must think anew and act anew) 

By John B. Isom
February 2001

Of all sad words of tongue and pen the saddest are
these - it might have been." 
- John Greenleaf Whittier

After World War II the leaders of 50 nations got together and agreed to create the United Nations - the primary objective being a world society free of poverty and war.  They wrote a charter in which they describe the major things they would have to do to achieve that objective and indicated a number of ways and means by which they could accomplish that noble dream.  A few years later they adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, describing, in great detail, basic human rights that belong to every world citizen.  The Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights describe, in a remarkable way, the human world of which I have read in the great literature of humanity - some of which is nearly as old as writing itself.    I will use two quotations from the Jewish Bible to describe the human world I have found described in the oldest literature and the latest literature of the human race.   My translation from the book of Micah -- "Every man shall sit under his vine and every woman under her fig tree and none shall make them afraid."   From the book of Isaiah - "Nations shall not lift up swords against nations.   They shall beat their swords into plow points and their spears into pruning hooks - neither will they study war any more."  Who has not dreamed of such a world?  It is the human world the United Nations declared it was their intention to create.   Why have we failed so tragically to realize such a world?  Here is a list of reasons that strike me as being important.

First!  If my memory is not lying to me the United States never signed the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Even though we claim to be the champion of human rights, and criticize other nations for not living up to our standards in that regard, we did not sign.  Why?  How did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights violate the human rights standards of the United States?   I can think of three ways.

1.  It violated the
unequal standard of human rights by which we judge the rights of black Americans. 

2.  It violated the
unequal standard of human rights by which we judge the rights of Native Americans and other minorities.

3.  It violated the
unequal standard of human rights by which our courts judge the rights of poor Americans.

Second!  I know of no leader of any country, including the United States, who has made a consistent effort to know and understand, or to help their people know and understand the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as adopted by the United Nations.  It is important that all the peoples of the world be familiar with and embraces as their standard the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, if we are ever to achieve the overall objectives of the United Nations - a world free of poverty and war

There are simple things people of every nation could do to help.    For example:  Chances are most  people today have never seen the flag of the United Nations.  It is 99 to 1 that no one has ever seen the United Nation's flag flying above his nation's national symbol.   I have never seen the United Nation's flag flying above the stars and strips.   

What if the people of every nation decided to make such a display of the United Nation's flag?   How would that help people of the world do what has to be done to achieve the objectives of the United Nations?  The answer is none, unless it created enough interest to prompt the world community to begin an educational program, for all age groups, using all the modern means of communication, with two primary objectives.   

First - to make sure people know and understand what the declared objective of the United Nations is.   That knowledge may be found in the Charter of the United Nations and in their Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The knowledge found there makes it clear enough that the primary objectives of the United Nations is nothing less than a society free of poverty and war.

Second - to make the peoples of the world understand why 50 nations felt compelled to join together in such a way in an effort to put an end to war and poverty.    A study of world history, leading up to the formation of the United Nations, would reveal that, for the last 5000 years, different groups of people of the world, called nations today, have been fighting one another in ways we call war.   The objective of each nation has been to kill or enslave as many people of the other nation as it had the power to do so, and to rob them of their valuables and property or destroy them.   The result of those wars has been, to this day, a life of poverty for most people who have ever lived on this earth, and the tragedy of war for all.

How many billions of hours of human labor, and how many billions of tons of natural resources did it take to fight all those wars during the last 5000 years?   Had all those hours of labor, and all those tons of natural resources, been used to make peace possible and to provide the essential goods and services needed to feed, cloth, educate and care for all the people of the world - would that have helped to reduce the curse of poverty if not eliminate it?   Obviously I do not know the answer to that question, but it is equally obvious that it would have helped.   

In a speech given near the end of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln said, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present.  Our present is piled high with difficulties.  We must think anew and act anew - then we will save our country."  We are now citizens of a world society and it is our world society that must be saved. 

Here Lincoln describes what we must do if there is ever to be a human society free of poverty and war.   Let me paraphrase a little of what he said.  "We must think anew", then we will act in ways to save our country.   He called attention to the fact that "our present is piled high with difficulties".  I assume he had those difficulties in mind when he said "we must think anew" about those difficulties if we are going to act in new ways to solve them.   He did not tell us what those difficulties were, but it is a safe bet that one of the difficulties he had in mind was the old ways white people had been thinking about black people.   

About one hundred thirty five years ago the Congress of the United States voted to end the legal institution of slavery.   One hundred and thirty five years later the dogmas of our white ancestors still dominate the thinking of many white Americans about black Americans.   No doubt the dogmas and mentality of our slave ancestors still influence, to some degree, how many black Americans think about white Americans today.  It is those old ways of thinking, about each other, that prevents us from solving, once and for all, what is known as the "race problem."   

The legal institution of slavery was abolished by fighting one of the most deadly and destructive wars in human history.   It was fought between relatives, neighbors and citizens of the same country.   Had our forefathers been ethically and morally prepared to end slavery by peaceful means would the aftermath have been better than the horrible aftermath we have experienced for the last one hundred and thirty five years.  It may have taken a little longer to end slavery by peaceful means and probably would have required black Americans to endure slavery a little longer.   That would have been a high price for them to have to pay for that time.   However, when you balance that cost against what it cost black Americans during the war, and what it cost those who lived through it and the cost to their descendents, a peaceful solution might have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of black Americans from living in abject poverty, without any protection of the law,  for not less than 75 years.  Such was the life of most black Americans in the South where I lived.

Every black American had to use all his wits and ingenuity to remember and observe all the rules for staying in his "black place".    Any white person could punish a black person for violating one of those unwritten rules in whatever way he chose, including killing him, and never be arrested.  White people lived above the law.  The human rights of black people had no legal protection.  Unless you have been living with your head in the sand you cannot honestly say, even today, that the human rights of black people are protected by law.   

On top of the pile of old difficulties there is a new difficulty in our time.  If we fail to solve this new difficulty chances are we will never have to opportunity to even try to solve the old ones.  That new problem is this - the killing and destructive power of present and future weapons of war.   During my life time the United States has been involved in two World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, The Oil War (know as Desert Storm), a number of smaller wars, plus 40 years of the Cold War with Russia. 

In spite of such wholesale killing and destruction during the last 100 years a small percent of the people of the world still have access to the means to live fairly comfortable, if fearful, lives - a small percent, even if you count all those whose lives are as comfortable and fearful as my own.   To make our comfortable and fearful lives possible, how many people must live a terrible life of poverty?  I am going to make a guess at what those numbers are.   It matters little if they are too many of too small.   The total number is more than enough to stagger the sensitivity of anyone who dares to take an honest look at them.  My guess is that more people are living in a state of starvation, or in a dreadful state of poverty, today than the total number of people that where alive in 1850. 

If your imagination is large enough imagine how many hours of human labor, how many tons of natural resources, were wasted on the hot wars and Cold Wars of the past 100 years. Again let's imagine if all that effort and expense had been used to create peace and eliminate poverty.

Had all those hours of human labor, and all those tons of natural and human resource been used to create essential goods and services so all could live and play without fear of poverty or war, chances are that the number of people living in poverty would be close to zero.  However that will continue to be an impossible dream if we, the people, fail to do the new kind of thinking and acting to make the world safe from the use of modern weapons of war.   You don't have to take my word for that; ever since 1945 Presidents of the United States, generals in the army, and many other people, far more knowledgeable than I am, have been saying essentially the same thing.   

Two years after WW II a number of scientist who helped create the two atomic bombs dropped during WW II toured the country trying to help people understand the enormous killing and destructive power of those two bombs.   One team of those scientists came through Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I was living at the time.   I did all I could to advertise the event and I assumed everyone else did likewise.   I was confident that the auditorium wouldn't hold half the people who would want to hear what these atomic scientists would have to say.   I was never more disappointed when it turned out that the auditorium was half full.    The killing and destructive power of those two bombs was hardly more than the power of two large firecrackers when compared with the power of today's modern weapons of war.      Our present weapons of war confront this generation with the greatest danger ever to the welfare of all life on earth.   Add the dangers we are creating by our use of atomic and nuclear energy for peaceful means. Has there ever been a generation facing greater dangers than the dangers with which the present generation is now living.   All I know, or think I know, compels me to believe that such a discussion between two or more people would include a lengthy discussion concerning the greatest danger now facing the human world.  As I view the world scene from my little peephole, it appears to me that most people prefer not to talk about the greatest problems they live with.

During the peak of the Cold War Frank Miller, cartoonist for the Des Moines  Register, drew this cartoon depicting the earth with it's top blown off and nothing left but a shell.   This cartoon may have overstated what the earth itself would look like after such a war.   More likely than not this picture is a revealing likeness of what would be left of human society after such a war.   In the shell of the human society that would be left only small pieces would be found.  These small pieces would live at a level below the well being that could be paid for with a minimum wage.  Every level of well being above that would be blown away with the top. 

The unequal protection of black American's rights, and that of other ethnic groups in this country, and the threat of modern day weapons of war are the unresolved difficulties in our culture.   It will continue to be so as long as we permit the dogmas of our master and slave heritage to dominate our sensitivity and mentality. Until that difficulty is resolved our American society cannot be the society "it might have been."  We are now citizens of a world society and it is our world society that must be saved. 

The unresolved difficulties of our world are nuclear war, poverty, and the lack of equal rights for ALL people.    If these difficulties are ever to be resolved we, the people of the world community of the United Nations, will have to do it.   Our continued efforts to arm ourselves with the newest and most deadly weapons possible suggest to me that the sensitivity and mentality of most people today is still dominated by the old dogmas of our historic past.  We assume there is no way to prevent such poverty or war - and that it is useless to try.   If we are ever to free ourselves from those old historic dogmas we will have to act on, and take seriously Abraham Lincoln's suggestion.  I believe our human nature is endowed with the conscious sensitivity and the conscious mentality to do the new kind of thinking and acting that would be required to create a world community free of poverty and war.  It will require new ways of thinking and acting 180 degrees contrary to our old ways of thinking and acting that have dominated human societies going back to the dawn of civilization. 

I don't like ending this essay on such a pessimistic note, but it is the only honest thing I can say.  Hopefully it will remind people how important it is for us to  "think and act anew" if we are ever to change the course of history.  If we fail now to do the kind of thinking and acting that will help us achieve the declared objective of the United Nations, the world society that "might have been" will remain only a noble dream.

BACK       HOME       NEXT