Exclusive: Bailing out of Oblivion In August 1949, in a converted gyroscope factory in northwest Long Island, the first United Nations conference on the environment took place. A temporary UN headquarters, the factory was located at Lake Success bordering the city borough of Queens. Gathered together that August were 706 experts from 48 countries -- agriculturalists, economists, geologists, and ecologists -- from universities, scientific associations, and from private industry. They were tasked to produce the evidence and the solutions to one of the world’s most intractable problems – known then as “the improvident use of the world’s natural resources”. The 1949 UN Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources was a milestone. And yet today no one talks of it. Instead, history records that the involvement of the UN in the environmental cause began in 1972 in Stockholm at the Conference of the Human Environment. The 1949 conference was not even a footnote.
The most urgent issue on the agenda in 1949 had been the “exhaustion” of the world’s essential raw materials and the demands of an ever-increasing population. There were high hopes. At the opening ceremony on August 17, the Democratic Mayor of New York, William O’Dwyer, had described how the human race was at last to summon “the intelligence and the fortitude to bail itself out of oblivion”. The world was ready to “take up its account with nature”. O’Dwyer told the conference participants that they were “accountants” who were to prepare a balance sheet: “The accounting may prove shocking to some, others may quarrel with the bill, still others may threaten to fight. But in the long run, and in the highest interest of mankind, the account must be squared”.
The 1949 Scientific Conference was built around six major themes -- land, water, forests, wildlife and fish, fuels, energy and minerals. There were discussions about wind power and thermal electricity, and the potential energy available in the world’s rivers. Wind power was examined in some detail and also “the direct utilization of the energy of the sun” ; there were ideas for “the better design of buildings with improved insulating materials”. There was expertise provided on flood control and the prevention of soil erosion. There were calls for soil research by geologists, ecologists and economists. Ideas for better land use were discussed. There was criticism of reliance on meat production, which it was argued could not be sustained. Evidence was presented of the inherent danger in the continuing destruction of the world’s forests “in large scale” and warnings about the “dire consequences” of a “lavish use” of timber. Each of the debates held during the conference included a variety of experts -- foresters, engineers, agricultural scientists, civil engineers, and economists. One participant recalled: “Virtually every session of the conference produced rigorous proposals for the changes in the policies of governments and the need for conventions between governments”.
There were also special interest lobbyists at Lake Success; they fielded experts who willingly provided estimates of world-wide oil and gas reserves which they predicted would “last for centuries”. But the real danger to the idea of conservation was to be found elsewhere, for even as the final preparations for the conference were underway there had been a series of newspaper headlines that “reds” and “subversive aliens” had infiltrated the UN staff. This information had come from an anonymous witness in testimony to the all powerful Congressional committee – the Senate Judiciary Committee whose chairman was Senator Patrick McCarran. A divorce lawyer and former Chief Justice of Nevada, McCarran was an expert in mining, land and water rights. And while Senator Joe McCarthy’s name defines the era, McCarran’s own legacy was a creation of distrust on Capitol Hill of all things concerning the UN. McCarran said that the UN had been created to extend the welfare state idea to a welfare world.
McCarran’s anti-UN broadside had been greeted with derision at first but soon there were FBI agents wire-tapping UN offices and running a network of “informers” in order to investigate the political beliefs of the US employees. The intelligence gathered at the UN was passed directly to the FBI’s Assistant Director, Louis B. Nichols who in turn gave it to the McCarran Committee Chief Counsel, Robert Morris. One of the first targets of this surveillance was Alfred J. Van Tassel, the Executive Secretary of the 1949 Scientific Conference, who had been responsible for its structure, its procedures and programs. Van Tassel was an economist-engineer from the New Deal. He was the first UN employee to be summoned to a Federal Grand Jury in New York City which had been created to find out whether or not “a group of disloyal US citizens associated with the international communist movement” was employed at the UN. Van Tassel was called before the jury seven times. Six months later he was subpoenaed once more. But this time he was to appear before McCarran’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee which was holding special hearings in a Federal court house in New York – on the day when the UN General Assembly was due to open. Van Tassel was quickly and inevitably asked about his communist party affiliation. He had pleaded the Fifth Amendment. In the following days some thirty more US employees of the UN were called to testify. Eighteen invoked their Constitutional rights to silence, and in a matter of weeks all of them were removed from their jobs; Van Tassel was additionally banned from the Secretariat building.
These UN employees were editors, economists, lawyers, and anthropologists. Their careers and reputations were ruined. Their work was discredited and their archives were buried. In April 1953, when Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary General, he had found cause to complain at the lack of highly qualified officials on the international staff. Van Tassel became a books editor specializing in conservation and ecology and edited a study of water pollution, fossil fuel consumption and the effects of carbon dioxide: “Our Environment: Outlook for the Crucial Decade” was the result of a study in 15 US cities revealing the problems of air and water pollution.
The world’s first conference on the environment in 1949 was billed as “a first union between the UN and the world of science”; it was intended to harness science and technology “to fuller use in peace as we did in war”. In the final report the conference was described as a great UN success, and to have encouraged new and accelerated research. The conference, it was claimed by those who attended it, had “welded the scientific and human resources of the world into a closer and more permanent bond”. Yet it has been confined to the archives.
This story first appeared in The Ultimate Crime. Who Betrayed the UN and Why, Linda Melvern (Allison and Busby, October 1995).
A version was published on December 20, 2009 in The Day, Connecticut.
Linda Melvern has recently published a revised and updated paperback: A People Betrayed. The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. (Zed Books, 2009).