On Saturday night, a two-hour TV special, “One World: Together At Home,” celebrated the WHO’s pandemic response with performances by Beyoncé, the Rolling Stones and Taylor Swift and appearances by Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. No one uttered Trump’s name.
Talk of forming an international health group began after World War II. The declared purpose was to combat diseases such as cholera and malaria, to promote medical research, and to advise governments on sanitation, nutrition and other health measures. It began in Geneva on interim basis in 1946. But to become operational, the WHO had to be ratified by 26 nations by June of 1948.
In March of 1947, President Harry S. Truman asked Congress to approve the United States joining the new health organization. “I am sure it will make a substantial contribution to the improvement of world health through the years,” Truman said.
The House and Senate introduced measures to provide $1.9 million a year to the WHO, or $20.6 million in current dollars. The Senate passed the bill and so did the House Foreign Relations Committee. Then without explanation the House Rules Committee blocked the bill for nearly a year.
Opponents charged that the United States would wind up paying a disproportionate share of the WHO’s budget.
“Republican leaders who would not allow their names to be used said they considered the bill an opening wedge in a campaign to have Uncle Sam foot the medical bills of the entire world,” The Washington Post reported in late March of 1948.
The delay drew criticism. “The prevention and control of epidemics is one of those international undertakings which have remained free from East-West rivalry,” The Post editorialized. “The effect of the Rules Committee’s intransigence is to have American medicine lagging behind Russian in a strictly humanitarian field.”
In May, Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, urged congressional passage. “It is vital for the United States to join this great effort because we have obtained leadership in world health.” Fishbein told The Post in an interview.
As for warnings of opening the door to socialized medicine, he said with a dry smile, “The American Medical Association does not propose to advocate anything which would permit an outsider to come in and tell us what to do within our borders.”
Few details were published about the behind-the-scenes opposition. In 1946 Republicans, including many anti-Communist isolationists, had taken control of both the House and Senate. Their suspicions about naive supporters of the United Nations were supported by former surgeon general Hugh Cummings. He urged President Truman not to join the support for the WHO, which he said reflected “the dominance of star gazers and political and social up lifters.”
Then “ignorant and prejudiced members” of the House Rules Committee blocked the measure, said Canadian psychiatrist Brock Chisholm, the WHO’s first director general, according to the book “Brock Chisholm. The World Health Organization & the Cold War” by John Farley.
Finally, in May, the House Rules Committee agreed by a 6-to-3 vote to a revised bill by Rep. Walter Judd (R-Minn.). “There has never been an explanation of the Rules Committee’s perverse action in refusing to report the bill out,” the New York Times reported. “We say perverse because just three months ago at Geneva, this country inspired the world with its statesmanship when its delegation made the child health and anti-malaria campaigns its major targets in the coming world crusade for health. ”
The revised bill hinted at the reasons for opposition. For one, it put the $1.9 million funding as an annual limit. The committee said “This would keep the United States from having to foot the bill if in future years there should be some great and costly epidemic,” the Times reported.
Second, the bill required that any U.S. physician appointed to the WHO’s executive board have at least 10 years experience. “This was said to rule out public health service physicians, in favor of those representing organized medicine,” the Times reported.
In 1950, as the “Red Scare” spread in Congress and Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) charged that the United Nations was infiltrated by communists, a provision was added: American appointees to the WHO couldn’t serve “until such person has been investigated as to loyalty and security by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” then headed by J. Edgar Hoover.
Finally, the bill specified that nothing in the WHO’s constitution committed the United States to pass any legislation connected to the WHO’s guiding principles. “This was said to be intended to make certain that this country would not engage in any socialized medicine,” the New York Times reported.
Congress quickly passed the final bill, and Truman signed it into law. In June, the United States sent a 21-member delegation to Geneva for the WHO’s first official assembly.
In July, the WHO ended its first annual session, the Associated Press reported, “after agreeing to have the United States foot 40% of its bills. The U.S. delegation sought to cut its contribution to 25 percent. The United States cast the only dissenting vote.”
Ironically, in 1949, the Soviet Union dropped out of the WHO, claiming it was “inefficient and overexpensive.” It rejoined in 1956.
Today, U.S. payments to the WHO total more than $440 million a year and account for about 20 percent of the organization’s budget. Responding to Trump’s funding threat, in Geneva, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “For now, our focus, my focus, is on stopping this virus and saving lives.”
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