Occasional attempts at international cooperation in educational, scientific, and cultural matters were made before World War I, but no machinery existed to promote these efforts on a worldwide scale. Even the League of Nations Covenant, when it was drawn up after the war, failed to mention international cooperation in these matters. However, thanks in great part to the efforts of the Belgian delegate Henri La Fontaine, a League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation was formed. Composed of 12 eminent persons, the committee met for the first time in the summer of 1922 under the chairmanship of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Among those who served on the committee were Marie Curie, Gilbert Murray, and Albert Einstein. The intellectual atmosphere that prevailed in the committee was a lofty one, but at the same time the committee established precedents in practical matters that have proved useful to UNESCO. Thus, the 40-odd national committees on intellectual cooperation whose creation this committee promoted were a precedent for the national commissions now operating in 190 countries and associate members to further the work of UNESCO. The International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, established with the aid of the French government and located in Paris, began work early in 1926 and provided a permanent secretariat for the committee.
The League was thus provided with a technical body to promote international activity and was active in many fields, especially those of interest to scholars, professionals, learned societies, librarians, and the like. Numerous conferences and symposia were held under the auspices of the International Institute in Paris. Among the topics taken up by these conferences as the world situation became more menacing were the psychological causes of war and methods of promoting peaceful change as a substitute for war.
More intensive international cooperation in the field of educational problems began during World War II itself. A Conference of Allied Ministers of Education was convened in London in November 1942 to consider how the devastated educational systems of the countries under Nazi occupation could be restored after the war. The first meeting of the conference was attended by representatives of eight governments in exile and the French National Committee of Liberation. The conference met at frequent intervals throughout the war, with the participation of a growing number of representatives of other allied governments. The United States delegation to the April 1944 meeting of the conference included J. William Fulbright, then congressman and later senator from Arkansas, and the poet Archibald MacLeish, at that time Librarian of Congress, who was later to participate in the drafting of UNESCO's constitution.
It was decided at San Francisco that one of the objectives of the UN should be to promote international cultural and educational cooperation. Addressing the closing plenary session, President Truman declared: "We must set up an effective agency for constant and thorough interchange of thoughts and ideas, for there lies the road to a better and more tolerant understanding among nations and among peoples."
The conference creating UNESCO was convened by the United Kingdom and France in London in November 1945. It was decided that the new organization should deal not only with the transmission of existing knowledge but also with the pursuit of new knowledge. Hence, the encouragement of natural and social sciences through international cooperation was one of the principal tasks assigned UNESCO. UNESCO's constitution was adopted by the London conference after only two weeks of discussion and went into effect on 4 November 1946, when 20 states had deposited instruments of acceptance with the United Kingdom government.