UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Richard Toye

Richard Toye is Lecturer in History at Homerton College, University of Cambridge.
He is the author of The Labour Party and the Planned economy, 1931-1951 (2003) and is co-author, with John Toye, of The UN and Global Political Economy (2004).
He is currently writing a book on the political relationship between David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
“Alfred Zimmern, Julian Huxley and the initial leadership of UNESCO: a comparative perspective”

The period leading up to the birth of UNESCO was one of fierce personal and ideological rivalries over the leadership of the new UN agency, tensions that were linked with inter-governmental contests over UNESCO’s purpose, direction and staffing.

A key protagonist was Sir Alfred Zimmern, the first Executive Secretary of UNESCO’s Preparatory Commission, whom Julian Huxley succeeded in replacing, and then ultimately displacing for the Directorship-General. Zimmern, with Professor Gilbert Murray, had helped to found the League of Nations Society, the educative arm of the League. He believed in the emergence of an ‘international mind’ at the interface between local, national and state thinking – an ideology which combined Idealism and pre-liberal values.

When Zimmern fell ill in the middle of the Preparatory Commission’s work, Huxley took over as Executive Secretary. On his recovery Zimmern became Adviser to the Preparatory Commission for UNESCO, but the relationship with Huxley never worked, and the Adviser post was terminated at the end of 1946. Huxley claimed that Zimmern used his position to mount a whispering campaign alleging that he (Huxley) was a communist. This false claim was probably what caused the US government to insist that Huxley serve for only two years rather than the statutory five.

Behind this personality clash, a far more significant ideological struggle for the soul of the fledgling UNESCO was in progress. Zimmern was an Oxford classicist who, in the inter-war years, had built up a very extensive international network of historians, international relations specialists and educators. He was strongly linked to both Christian and British Commonwealth idealism. His candidacy responded to a public mood favouring ‘moral rearmament’ after the revelation of the Holocaust.

By contrast, Huxley, an eminent biologist, came from a younger generation that was much less antagonistic to secularism and to socialism. This put him in good standing with Ellen Wilkinson, the Education Minister in Attlee’s Labour government. Together with J.D. Bernal, he succeeded in getting the word “scientific” inserted into UNESCO’s title. He expressed his vision for UNESCO in terms of ‘scientific humanism’, but was not successful in getting UNESCO to adopt this philosophy as its organisational creed.

The first years of UNESCO, under Huxley as Director-General from 1946-8 were amongst the most creative of its existence to date. Under Huxley’s leadership the organization adopted a pioneering approach to both literacy and population control, and launched an ambitious project for a History of Mankind.
These events are discussed in Huxley’s memoirs, and also, briefly, in the secondary literature (e.g. W.H.G. Armytage, ‘The First Director-General of UNESCO’, in Milo Keynes and G.Ainsworth Harrison (eds.), ‘Evolutionary Studies: A Centenary Celebration of the Life of Julian Huxley’, Macmillan, 1989). A wealth of archival material, however, still remains untapped. Yet it casts significant new light on the events of these years. Of particular importance are the voluminous papers of Zimmern and Huxley themselves, as well as a number of files in the British National Archives (formerly Public Record Office).
In exploiting these archival resources, we will adopt a comparative perspective. Drawing on the research already conducted for our book The UN and Global Political Economy: Trade, Finance, and Development (Indiana University Press, 2004), we will clarify the contrasts between the UNESCO experience and that of other new UN bodies in the economic and financial areas, bearing in mind UNESCO’s status as a UN agency, which may have been a significant difference.
There are four dimensions of comparison that seem, prima facie, to be relevant.

1. The ways in which the new UN bodies adapted their intellectual inheritances from the League of Nations.

2. The methods used for initial staff recruitment, and problems that they caused.

3. The disruption caused to UN bodies by the outbreak of the Cold War, and the specific reactions of the top UN managers to accusations of communism made against Western employees.

4. The stratagems that top UN managers deployed in the face of expressions of ‘awkward’ intellectual views, such as Huxley’s scientific humanism, particularly in relation to the rule of anonymity of authorship of UN publications.

The extent to which these initial lines of comparative enquiry are pursued will obviously depend on the actual material that is recovered from the archives.
In summary, our intention is to produce an archive-based and comparative account of the personal and ideological contests that shaped the initial leadership of UNESCO.

Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific