The University of Chicago Magazine December 1995
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Drafting Salvation

By John W. Boyer

Illustrations by Steve McCracken

In a race against doomsday, Chicago's best minds forged a plan that, five decades later, reads a bit like prophecy.

The Sunday following the August 6, 1945, bombing of Hiroshima, Robert Maynard Hutchins offered humanity two clear choices. Speaking in an NBC radio round-table discussion, "Atomic Force: Its Meaning for Mankind," the University of Chicago chancellor predicted that proliferation of the bomb would inevitably lead to "world suicide" unless war itself was abolished "through the monopoly of atomic force by a world organization." William Ogburn, a distinguished Chicago sociologist, replied laconically: "But that is a thousand years off," to which Hutchins rejoined:

Hutchins's comments were all the more ironic (and controversial) in view of the fact that much of the research work on the atomic bomb had been done at the University of Chicago under the stands of the old Stagg Field.

Soon after this broadcast, Hutchins was approached by two senior members of Chicago's Humanities faculty, Richard McKeon and Giuseppe Borgese. In a memorandum to Hutchins, they proposed that the University sponsor a study group to do in reality what Hutchins had advocated in theory: to write a constitution for world government. The professors argued that the University of Chicago "has played a decisive role in ushering in the atomic age, whose birthplace and date might well be put in Stagg Field, December 2, 1942....There is no manifest destiny, but there is more than a symbolic value in the suggestion that the intellectual courage that split the atom should be called on, on this very campus, to unite the world."

True to his character, both as a visionary and an iconoclast, Hutchins quickly agreed to sponsor and lead a distinguished committee of academics in crafting nothing less than the outline of a government for the world. Most were U of C faculty members, among them Borgese, who became secretary of the group and main writer of the final draft; McKeon, whose disagreement with the group majority on some basic issues would later diminish his role; Robert Redfield, then dean of Social Sciences; Mortimer Adler, who had advocated world government in his book How to Think about War and Peace; economist Rexford Guy Tugwell; and Law School Dean Wilbur Katz. Other founding committee members were William Hocking, James Landis, and Charles H. McIlwain of Harvard; theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (who later withdrew); and Beardsley Ruml, a former dean at Chicago and by 1945 the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York.

Dubbed the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, the group convened its first closed meeting in the fall of 1945. While ambitious in scope, the project's goals were tempered with humility. At best, it was hoped that "the world at large will have ample occasion to learn from our successes and failures," Hutchins wrote in 1947, "and to teach us and others....We do not think [the constitution] will be adopted; we dare to hope that it will not be ignored."

Elisabeth Mann Borgese--wife of Giuseppe Borgese, daughter of Thomas Mann, and a research associate on the committee--described the group's inner workings for the University of Chicago Magazine in March 1949:

Regarding the group's chemistry, Mann Borgese observed:

Grounding the committee's deliberations were some very practical considerations: How would a world constitution handle the control of nuclear weapons; how would it work in relation to the United Nations Charter; and how could it work at all if, as anticipated, it would be rejected outright by the Soviet Union?

The draft Hutchins's committee finally agreed upon is an elegant document that established various organs of world governance, providing as well a declaration of duties and rights for the people of the world. Among its bolder and more farsighted propositions was the assertion that the four elements of life--earth, water, air, and energy--are "the common property of the human race," postulates that earned committee members the unenviable tag of being crypto-socialists. The draft was also forward-looking in that it sought to displace the electoral power of individual nation-states with regional federations, which the authors hoped would experience and profit from shared economic and cultural interests over time.

When the Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution was published in 1948, public reaction varied from unalloyed admiration to excoriating criticism. Not only did the Soviet Union militantly oppose any world government, but it was by no means clear that such a scheme bore any resemblance or even imaginable relationship to America's or Western Europe's vital interests in the later 1940s. When an early version of the Draft fell into the hands of the Chicago Tribune, then a bastion of America-first loyalties, the paper sounded the alarm, declaring its discovery of a "super-secret constitution" generated by "one of a rash of militant globalist organizations which have sprung up in the United States and England since the United Nations has demonstrated its uselessness." For the Tribune, the bill of rights contained in the Draft "appears to be a combination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Karl Marx."

As expected, the Draft encountered an equally venomous reaction from the spiritual home of Karl Marx. Moscow Radio quoted Soviet journalists who condemned it as an effort "to justify the American Empire plan for world supremacy," concluding that "the program of the Chicago world government embodies the ambitions of the American warmongers."

Despite such criticisms, the Preliminary Draft did have its day in the sun. Although at least 50 other world constitutions--"from crack-pottery to a substantial nucleus of serious scholarly endeavor," in the words of Elisabeth Mann Borgese--were being circulated by 1949, none had the impact of the Preliminary Draft, which was translated into 40 different languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, and Russian, and had an estimated final circulation of over a million copies. Reactions came from all over the world, and they were of sufficient interest to justify the University of Chicago Press publishing a special monthly journal, Common Cause, as a venue where world-government proponents could respond to and debate with their many interlocutors.

That the Draft enjoyed worldwide appeal was partly a reflection of its deliberately global influences. As Mann Borgese explained, the document "drew inspiration from the U.S., Swiss, Russian, Spanish, Weimar, Swedish, Chinese constitutions....There is Christianity and there is Hinduism; there is free enterprise and there is socialism and economic planning. There is democracy and aristocracy. The inspiration behind it all may be defined as Social Humanism."

Hutchins and his cohorts were guardedly optimistic that their efforts would lay the groundwork for a worldwide movement leading to the convocation, through the U.N. General Assembly, of a World Constituent Assembly. But by 1951 publication of Common Cause was suspended, and the Draft itself seemed destined to become little more than an interesting historic footnote.

In fact, most of the energy (and anxiety) impelling the world-government initiative was driven by a palpable fear, in 1945, that the human race faced not only the possibility of perpetual war, but atomic war at that. By the early 1950s, the horrific specter of atomic annihilation that so preoccupied Hutchins and his friends had not come to pass. As Hutchins ruefully observed in 1947, "Apparently you can get used to anything." The dream of world government once again seemed, in William Ogburn's words, "a thousand years off."

Yet seen from the distance of the last half century, with the threat of nationalist terror--witness the current bloodbaths in the Balkans--even more before our eyes (and hearts), the committee's dream of a world order guaranteeing universal justice beyond the proclivities of nationalism and national self-interest may not seem so quixotic as it did in the days of the incipient Cold War. Moreover, some particular elements of the draft constitution have seen subsequent confirmation.

The regionalist emphasis articulated by the Chicago committee, for example, no longer seems so utopian or crackpotish in the age of the North American Free Trade Agreement, whose goal is a huge regional economic zone among Canada, the United States, and Mexico; or in the even more striking regionalism of the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, establishing a European Union now encompassing no fewer than 15 European nation states.

Another important public-policy arena anticipated by Hutchins and his colleagues has been the effort on behalf of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982, which asserts that the oceans and their resources are indeed "the common heritage of mankind" and should be subject to an international legal order to promote their "equitable and efficient utilization." The Law of the Sea movement was significantly aided by Chicago intellectuals like Elisabeth Mann Borgese and others who were influenced by the original Chicago world-constitution movement.

The world-government initiative at Chicago is also worth remembering for what it says about the institution's priorities, then and now. In the records of the committee one encounters a fascinating portrait of the University of Chicago's special capacity to draw upon the fund of human knowledge, embedded in a vast array of classical and modern sources, in order to enhance the future of mankind. It reminds us that a great university should have the capacity, the courage, and the commitment to think about and to act upon the future, and Chicago has done so brilliantly for over a century in all manner of interdisciplinary fields.

The work of the committee also affords an excellent example of the University's commitment to the education of citizens and to education for citizenship. When Beardsley Ruml was invited to join the Hutchins committee, he was initially skeptical. Perhaps with the gloom and disillusionment felt by many in late 1945 about the paradox that America had won total victory, yet found itself less secure than in 1941, Ruml assayed that "the time for interesting seminars is long past." But, in the end, Ruml was too much of a Chicago person to refuse to participate, for the world government committee was an "interesting seminar"--a seminar whose major goal was to enhance and enlarge the realm of public discourse about a vital issue of the time. The writers of the world constitution saw themselves above all as teachers of the American citizenry, and as the Chicago Sun observed, in a trenchant rebuke to the Tribune's paranoia, "We say the discussion is all to the good. In an age of the atomic bomb, the people who are thinking earnestly about a world government make a far more constructive contribution than those who confine themselves to the building of atomic bomb shelters."

Much has been made in recent times of the globalization and culture of economic development. As college students surf the world on the Internet, the economic future of their generation--so we are told--will depend on America's global competitiveness and global investment strategies. This generation is in fact far closer to experiencing a state of "one worldliness" than Robert Hutchins and his generation could ever have imagined, and yet these forms of one worldliness are somewhat private and rather different from our traditional conceptions of the engagement of democratic citizens in the overlapping communities to which they belong.

The writers of the world constitution of 1948 had something more in mind: They felt that their dual obligations as private citizens and as public intellectuals mandated that they speak out on significant civic issues. They believed that the search for peace and justice was not something to be left solely to anonymous government agencies or to be dumped on the laps of self-interested professional politicians. True, the world-government movement was marked by the constraints of its time--particularly the deep, almost phobic fear of the spread of nuclear weapons. But the committee also had a more general exemplary significance. Hutchins, Adler, Redfield, McKeon, Borgese, and the others were in fact sponsors of and contributors to what Francis Fukuyama, the author of Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, has recently called the "cohesiveness" of American civic associations. They believed, with Fukuyama, that in a free society people need to "cohere for common purposes," and that among the most important components of civic sociability is our capacity to discuss and to act upon vital and even controversial issues outside of the range of the state and of narrow professional politics.

John W. Boyer, AM'69, PhD'75, is dean of the College, a professor in the history department, and chair of the Council on Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences. An authority on modern central-European history, Boyer-along with history professor Julius Kirshner-was editor of the nine-volume U of C Press publication, The University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization (1986). This article is adapted from remarks by Boyer at the September opening convocation of the College, held in Rockefeller Chapel.