How did it all begin? Follow the journey from the beginning …
One of the great pleasures of publishing a new book is the opportunity to revisit places that became my temporary home while I was doing the research. I’m especially excited to return to one of my favorite cities, Chicago, in just a few weeks. Please join me at the fantastic Printers Row Lit Fest on Sunday, June 9, and at the amazing Newberry Library on Thursday, June 13. We will relive the adventure of Chicago’s race to become the Capital of the World at the end of World War II, and I am sure I will learn a lot from you about the city’s more recent endeavors to take the world stage. Click for details:
When the United Nations began its search for a world capital site in the northeastern United States in 1946, Boston became a focus of attention. With diplomats on the way to inspect possible sites, cities and towns in Massachusetts clamored to be noticed. Their letters, telegrams, and promotional brochures came so quickly, and in such volume, that news reporters could only speculate about the extent of the competition. Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations documents more than forty communities in Massachusetts that vied for the UN’s attention — along with several that energetically resisted.
Now, we have a new contender. Sean M. Fisher, an archivist with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, writes that evidence of a world capital campaign by Gardner, Massachusetts, turned up during a recent survey of local history records at Gardner Heritage State Park. The Gardner boosters, led by William A. McMahon (1910-98), presented their town as the “logical site for the permanent home of the United Nations Organization” in a promotional booklet dated January 5, 1946.
Thanks to Sean for adding to our understanding of the scope of American interest in creating a Capital of the World at the end of World War II. I am sure there are more world capital hopefuls waiting to be found, especially in the northeastern United States. Let me know, and if there is documentation we will add them to the list!
On May 2, 1945, the Niagara Falls Gazette published an editorial that gave new life to an old idea.
During the First World War, Congressman Robert H. Gittins had proposed an international conference at Niagara Falls to form a league of nations. Thirty years later, as a private citizen, Gittins proposed the location once again for the UN and the Gazette’s editorial launched a civic campaign to create a world capital on an island between the United States and Canada. Business leaders and public officials from Niagara Falls, Ontario, joined their counterparts in New York in an extensive campaign that included traveling to London to appeal directly to the UN. Originally aiming to place the UN on Canada-owned Navy Island, they quickly changed their proposal to nearby Grand Island, in U.S. territory, after the UN’s decision to place its headquarters in the United States.
Ultimately, Niagara Falls lost its bid to the UN’s desire to be close to a major city, particularly Boston or New York. To find out more about campaigns by New York cities and towns, check out the List of Contenders and the complete story in the pages of Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations.
On December 17, 1945, the Daily News-Press of Stillwater, Oklahoma, published an editorial proposing, “Stillwater Should Be the World Capital.”
Within days, letters to the editor agreed. Stillwater should be the Capital of the World—that is, the headquarters site for the newly-chartered United Nations. Granted, the letters included some that were penned purely for amusement by servicemen stationed nearby at the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School. But the newspaper was not joking when it advised its readers, “Some spot within the United States will become the capital for the United Nations and Stillwater should get busy and do a good selling job to get that capital located here.”
If Stillwater had been alone in this far-fetched idea, it would be no more than a footnote to local history. But Stillwater was not alone. During 1944-46, Americans in at least 248 cities and towns vied for the attention of the world’s leading diplomats as the UN sought a site for its headquarters. New York City, the ultimate choice, was far from the favored option and in fact was ruled out initially because the diplomats desired a place with its own identity apart from a major city. The model they had in mind was Canberra, the new capital city of Australia.
Even as the UN’s search narrowed to the northeastern United States, boosters in the rest of the nation remained convinced that the diplomats were overlooking obvious, more suitable opportunities. “In this section, delegates could work in peace and quiet free from the nervous and flighty east,” the Daily News-Press in Stillwater noted when the diplomats eliminated the American West because of its distance from Europe. In the spirit of boosterism, others concluded brightly that they had succeeded in gaining a welcome flash of publicity, if not the ultimate prize.
In the theater of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where diplomats convened in April 1945 to draft a Charter for the United Nations, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy flank the stage. As I was reminded during a visit this week, the Opera House was a suitably impressive venue for the enormous and somber task of creating a new world organization to secure a peaceful future. But those masks also seem symbolic of the difficulties the UN encountered with such a mundane task as selecting a place for its permanent home. With the tragedy of war still unfolding in 1945, civic boosters from Philadelphia and the Black Hills of South Dakota showed up in San Francisco to push their interests in becoming the Capital of the World even before the United Nations officially existed. And San Francisco’s boosters aimed to show how suitable their city could be.
I thought of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, too, as I walked through United Nations Plaza, the commemorative space near the San Francisco Public Library. The flag of the United Nations flag flies there, and pillars topped by symbolic globes bear the names of all of the member nations. Amid inscriptions of human rights and dignity, the plaza on this day was populated by apparently homeless people, bundled against the cold whipping wind, sleeping, and safeguarding shopping carts of belonging. One had a boom box tuned to a radio station blaring a commercial for easy credit. At one end of the plaza, vendors offered a miscellany of goods for sale: sunglasses, jewelry, colorful scarves. As offices began to empty in the late afternoon, commuters dashed through all of this for the Civic Center transit station and seemed unaware–or numbed–to it all. For those who notice, United Nations Plaza is far from the hopes and dreams of the boosters of 1945 who sought to make San Francisco the Capital of the World.
In the twentieth century, Detroit earned a reputation as the automotive capital of the world — a declaration of pride in its manufacturing achievements. In the twenty-first century, the struggling city has cropped up in the news as the murder or arson capital of the world. Based on its massive consumption of salty snacks, some even regard it as the potato chip capital of the world.
But suppose Detroit were the capital of the world, known around the globe not only for its industrial past or post-industrial present, but also as the focal point of international diplomacy. Suppose that the United Nations had its headquarters there, and that the last six decades in Detroit’s history were framed not only by the decline of the auto industry, the racial tensions, and the plummeting population, but also the work of securing world peace. What then would we think of Detroit? And what might we think of the United Nations?
Continue reading on the web site of Foreign Policy magazine (requires free account registration). Featured in The Atlantic Cities Best #CityReads of the Week, April 6, 2013.
Thank you to everyone who attended the Conversations program on April 3 at the Philadelphia History Museum and to the partners in the event, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and NYU Press. Make sure to visit the Historical Society’s Digital Library to check out their newly digitized photographs, maps, and documents about Philadelphia’s campaign to become the Capital of the World. And watch for us on C-Span’s Book TV!
Airing on Book TV and in the C-Span Video Library.
Link to Video
Audio also available through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Media Library.
Link to Audio
On this beautiful spring day in Philadelphia, I took a drive out to one of the potential sites for a Capital of the World — Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park. It’s easy to see why Philadelphians offered this location to the United Nations. Notice the skyline of the city visible beyond the tree line. In 1945-46, the skyline would have been only as high as Philadelphia’s City Hall, but the trees would have been lower, too. The location also is within view of Memorial Hall, one of the few remaining structures from the Centennial Exhibition world’s fair in 1876. It was a spectacular offer, and it nearly lured the United Nations out of New York.
When the diplomats of 1946 confronted suburban governments, they didn’t have a chance. Kim Ukura, who has first-hand experience in community journalism, pointed this out in her review of Capital of the World. This passage made her laugh:
Time and time again during the summer of 1946, negotiators for the United Nations motored from New York City to Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, the two suburban counties where they hoped to find a site for a headquarters. But in the meeting rooms of county and municipal authorities, it became clear that even diplomats who had served kings and presidents, who had kept governments afloat in exile during the war, and whose nations had subjected entire populations to colonial rule, were no match for local governments and suburban property owners.
I began my career as a local government news reporter in Michigan City, Indiana – and so it came as quite a surprise when I discovered that this town at the tip of Lake Michigan was one of the many self-anointed world capital contenders. In contrast to the suburban homeowners near New York, the people of Michigan City pursued the dream. The plan was to put the United Nations at the International Friendship Gardens, which had been transplanted from the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago to a site just east of Michigan City.
This weekend, The Press of Atlantic City highlighted the visit of United Nations diplomats who spent a weekend at the seaside resort in January 1946 as part of their search for a home for the UN. Their hosts were sure that they would see their honored guests again. Why? Because the leader of the mission allowed sand to be poured into his shoes. By local custom, this guaranteed a return visit.
While the diplomats visited the shore, communities in North Jersey towns within commuting distance of New York also scrambled to attract attention. Among the most vigorous of contenders was Morristown, located 30 miles west of New York City.
Morristown Mayor Clyde Potts was sure that he had the best possible argument for placing the United Nations in his town. Like world capital promoters in Philadelphia and Boston, Potts viewed his community’s connection to the world in terms of local and American history. In Morristown’s case, this meant the town’s connection to George Washington. While Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, Washington had selected Morristown as one of his headquarters – so why shouldn’t the United Nations do the same? Continue reading