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Escott Reid.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1983.
181pp, cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 0-7710-7442-5.

Grades 12 and up.
Reviewed by Paul E. Blower.

Volume 12 Number 3
1984 May

Escott Reid was a leading member of the Canadian delegation attending the four conferences leading up to the formation of the United Nations. His book is a fascinating memoir of that time (1945-46), from the San Francisco Conference to the First General Assembly. The bulk of the book consists of letters to family members (chiefly his wife) and memoranda written during those years, together with comments from nearly forty years later, clarifying (and sometimes correcting) those comments. Though Reid's advice was not always taken, he was a keen observer of contemporary events, detailing the growing split between the West and the Soviet Union and the alternating states of hope and despair that attended the formation of the United Nations itself.

Included also is Reid's "Personal Charter for World Sanity" written in April, 1945. He believed that the unjustified use of the veto power by a great power member of the Security Council intent on world domination would be negated by the threat of the other four great powers to wage war against it. Much of the rest of the document frankly seems to be simply high-minded rhetoric, emphasizing the rights and duties of the individual and the fact that the state serves the individual and not the other way around, as though world peace could be willed by the appropriate language.

Indeed, Reid himself seems to sway between hope and despair. With the advent of the atomic bomb, he confessed to not having "enough faith in man or god" to believe that the obliteration of civilization in another war could be prevented. "But there's nothing to do except to live as if it were possible, and to try to do one's best to make it possible."

There was often a sense that conference delegates were "merely writing marginal notes on the pages of history" while substantive history was being made in Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet advance. Nevertheless, if the United Nations were to succeed, concessions had to be made to the Soviet Union: "Life with the Russians is difficult, but life without them would be impossible." Politically inspired procedural wrangles also caused frayed nerves; Reid attempted to remedy problems by rewording contentious articles in clearer language, with some success.

Reid believed that his sense of duty subjected family relations to a certain amount of strain but felt that such sacrifice was necessary to prevent the outbreak of World War III. All the more reason why he was critical of those who failed to measure up to this important task. American Secretary of State Edward Stettinius was "an utter incompetent"; Trygve Lie was "second-rate"; Mackenzie King was "extraordinarily irresponsible and stupid": "The more you learn of the little man the more despicable he is."

Some negative judgments were formed in the heat of the moment and later revised, e.g., on Lester Pearson, but some appear to be motivated by thwarted personal ambition: not being appointed to certain jobs, not having certain ideas carry the day, being relegated to an advisory role on occasion while a less knowledgeable delegate took centre stage.

Used in conjunction with standard histories, Reid's book provides the senior student with a valuable insight into Canada's role in the formation of the United Nations, an imperfect instrument in an imperfect world.

Paul E. Blower, Sault Ste. Marie P. L., Sault Ste. Marie, ON.
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