Follow the journey from the beginning …
During the winter of 1945, as American cities and towns accelerated their campaigns to become the Capital of the World, Irving Berlin composed a song that captured the spirit of boosterism:
Anything you can do, I can do better
I can do anything better than you …
In the same spirit, the most assertive of the American civic boosters seeking the attention of the United Nations set out for London — without invitation — to personally present their cases to the UN Preparatory Commission meeting there. On December 1, 1945, a subcommittee of diplomats began the first of three hearings to appease their eager suitors. Much to the entertainment of the press corps, each team of boosters seemed to determine to top the others.
- Atlantic City – Boosters for the seaside resort argued that their community “presents an ideal location because of its beautiful Boardwalk, beach and ocean, temperate climate, superb hotel accommodations, mammoth Convention Hall, its proximity and accessibility to cosmopolitan centers, and its rail and airport travel facilities.” Two representatives dispatched to London offered a headquarters site on Brigantine Island and warmed up the diplomats by passing out salt water taffy and Colgate soap products in delegation offices.
- Black Hills Region – Paul E. Bellamy, a Rapid City businessman whose son had been killed in the war, led the campaign to place the UN in the Black Hills grew into a three-state effort by South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The Black Hills boosters promoted their region as central, accessible, spacious, and politically neutral. Bellamy added that hungry delegates would find no shortage of beef steak.
- Boston — Led by Governor Maurice Tobin, a delegation for Boston stressed their unique qualification as the American city closest to Europe, the traditional center for diplomacy. They unveiled an enticing offer of seventy-five scholarships to Boston-area colleges and universities.
- Chicago — A team from Chicago promoted their city as centrally located and prominent to the war effort, but in boasting about the city’s newspapers they also displayed an unfortunate headline: “Gangland Murder on the North Side.”
- Denver – University of Colorado President Robert L. Stearns carried the city’s case to London and stressed the facilities available in the “Second Capital of the United States,” which had become a center for federal agencies during the Roosevelt years. In contrast to other competitors, Denver stressed its proximity to Latin America.
- Newport, R.I. – A British cousin of one of Newport’s boosters presented the case for placing the UN in and among the aging mansions that survived from the Gilded Age.
- Philadelphia –Among the earliest and most persistent campaigners for the UN’s attention, the Philadelphians stressed their ability to meet all of the UN’s needs for a temporary and permanent meeting place. A journal of the trip kept by one of the Philadelphia promoters derided other competitors for such commercial tactics as showing color films of scenic attractions.
- San Francisco — Last in alphabetical order for the first day of hearings, Mayor Roger Lapham simply reminded the subcommittee of the war welcome they had received earlier in the year during the conference to draft the UN Charter.
The result of these proceedings? More headlines in American newspapers about the search for a UN home, more invitations from world capital hopefuls, and more booster delegations determined to make their way to London before it was too late.
Excitement rippled through northern New Jersey in December 1945 and January 1946, as United Nations site inspectors arrived in the United States to look for headquarters locations in the suburban areas of Boston and New York City. The UN team had already determined to look at just two New Jersey communities: Princeton as a potential permanent site and Atlantic City as a hotel-ready temporary location. But with the diplomats making their home base at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, boosters in nearby New Jersey could not resist leaping into the race to become the Capital of the World.
An opportunity to speak at the New Jersey State Library this week led me back into my research files and reminded me of this wave of interest that followed the UN’s decision to focus on sites in the Northeast. The New Jersey hopefuls included these, among others:
Asbury Park. Mayor George A Smock II wrote to the UN Preparatory Commission on December 20, 1945, to promote Asbury Park as a wholesome community free of racial discrimination, with “a cosmopolitan understanding of the world’s people, their customs, and habits based on 75 years of entertaining visitors from all sections of the globe in our resort city.” The local Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis club joined in appealing to the UN while its representatives visited the United States in January 1946, but UN staff members declined to add Asbury Park to the site inspection itinerary.
Central Region. A consulting engineer, H.E. Kuntz, wrote to the Governor of New Jersey on January 11, 1946, to suggest an 11,000-acre site southeast of Princeton that he had surveyed in 1911 for a proposed “great capitol of aviation” and University of the Air. He offered to reproduce his layout for a town and university as a headquarters for the United Nations.
Hawthorne. W.E. Fairhurst, a resident of Hawthorne, created a sketch to show how a UN headquarters at this location “would be a beacon light to approaching ships at sea … as well as a guide to all planes, from all the world.” His plan, sent on January 8, 1946, to the UN site inspection group then in New York, proposed buildings dedicated to Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, “whose leadership certainly brought the nations closer together.
See the List of Contenders for a list of known world capital hopefuls in New Jersey (does anyone know of more?). My thanks to the staff and audience at the New Jersey State Library for the opportunity to share some of the stories of the Capital of the World competition and for the report on the event already posted on the library’s website.
One of the great assets for researchers studying United Nations history is the extensive record of verbatim transcripts, necessary to translate proceedings into the UN’s official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish). Because the transcriptions date to the earliest days of the organization, they provide penetrating access to the discussions that led to locating the UN headquarters in the northeastern United States.
Among the most revealing of the discussions on the site question centered on race in America and the diplomats’ understanding of conditions north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line — a creation of the eighteenth century that is being commemorated this month on its 250th anniversary. It was startling to read the diplomats’ conversation of U.S. regions in terms of a boundary that became associated with division between North and South in the Civil War. Clearly, the line remained in international consciousness in 1945 as a symbol of distinction between regional cultures in the United States. The diplomats’ fascinating discussion of the potential for racial discrimination against dark-skinned UN personnel is recounted in Chapter 6 of Capital of the World. Their solution, in the end, was to adopt the Mason-Dixon Line and eliminate all world capital contenders in the South.
This decision, at the end of December 1945, put an end to world capital hopes of all southern contenders, including:
- Miami, Florida. A World War II hub for military transportation, housing, training, and hospitalization, Miami’s campaign to attract the UN originated with a Navy officer, Rear Admiral C.D. Leffler Jr. In addition to offering an East Coast location with a favorable climate year-round, the Miami Chamber of Commerce argued that as a resort city, Miami would spare the UN any entanglements with industrial labor conflicts. In a promotional booklet filled with statistics and photographs of seaside hotels and grand estates, the boosters suggested that the UN place its headquarters in Villa Vizcaya, the Bicayne Bay estate of the late James Deering, an International Harvester executive. U.S. Senator Claude Pepper made a personal appeal for Miami while in London in December 1945, but the city was eliminated with all other contenders in the South.
- New Orleans, Louisiana. The New Orleans Association of Commerce campaigned for the UN’s consideration beginning in October 1945. The boosters promoted their city as “the most centrally located city in this country with reference to all the Americas,” especially Latin America. They also called attention to the city’s French and Spanish heritage and plans for other international projects such as a Pan-American exposition or Olympic Games. They proposed two possible sites: on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain within the city limits, or on the north shore of the Lake on property including parts of the parishes (counties) of St. Tammany, Washington, and Tangipahoa. Unable to make air travel arrangements in time to make a pitch personally to the UN, the boosters relied on presentation delivered by a journalist, foreign correspondent Frederick Oechsner, a former resident of New Orleans. Like all other southern hopefuls, New Orleans lost its chance when the diplomats excluded the South.
- Charlottesville, Virginia. Residents of Charlottesville, including officers of the local Chamber of Commerce, began to mobilize in May 1945 and formed a Peace Headquarters Location Committee that submitted an offer by telegram to Edward Stettinius on October 5, 1945. They called attention to the “peaceful countryside” of Virginia and their association with Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. “Inspiration obtainable from the philosophy and teachings of Jefferson should be invaluable,” they argued. They later elaborated on Charlottesville’s proximity to other cities, its plans for an airport, its climate, and cultural and educational institutions.
The Mason-Dixon line decision delivered the greatest blow of all to a team of boosters from Newport News, Virginia, who were promoting a site near Colonial Williamsburg as the future Capital of the World. Encouraged by the publisher of the Newport News Times-Herald and Newport News City Council, a Virginia Peninsula Committee Sponsoring Williamsburg for United Nations Home had organized a campaign to advocate a headquarters site at Camp Peary, a Navy training camp on the York River. The campaign called attention to the historic resonance of nearby Colonial Williamsburg as well as to Camp Peary’s modern facilities and room for future growth. Armed with promotional volumes bound in white leather, two representatives headed for London to make a direct appeal — but by the time they landed, the decision had been made. The South was out, and the UN turned its attention to the Northeast in its search for a permanent home.
The world capital competition of 1944-46 creates an opportunity for teachers seeking to make local connections to world affairs, as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania demonstrates in this new blog post. The featured UN Day History Lesson calls attention to some of the sources at the Historical Society that helped me put together the story of Philadelphia’s campaign to land the UN’s permanent headquarters. Take a look for links to photographs, maps, and the amazing journal of an overseas flight to London in 1945. To see how the interest in Philadelphia began, also see the original editorial from the Philadelphia Record, which I have just posted on the companion site for Independence Hall in American Memory.
On this date in 1945, the United Nations came into being when a sufficient number of nations — twenty-nine — ratified the UN Charter. This milestone signaled the fifty-one member nations to send representatives to London to serve on the UN Preparatory Commission, which would lay the groundwork for the first meeting of the UN General Assembly.
This step in the UN’s early days also alerted civic boosters in American cities and towns that a decision about the UN’s permanent headquarters location might be approaching. On the very day that the Charter ratification became official, a team from Philadelphia visited President Truman to make a pitch for the City of Brotherly Love. By the end of November, the Philadelphians and representatives of other hopeful cities were on their way to London — without invitation — to be sure that their cases were heard. The race was on.
My journey last week to Boston felt like a tour of the world capital contenders of New England, as the exit signs on interstates, turnpikes, and parkways announced the names of familiar places from Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut to Quincy and Dedham in Massachusetts. On the way home, I had the opportunity to stop at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, which has the papers of Mayor William H. Mortensen. In October 1945, just after the first recommendation within the United Nations to place the organization in the United States, Mortensen heard from one of his predecessors, Thomas J. Spellacy. A Hartford resident, Fred L. Rice, already had suggested his home city as a potential world capital in a letter to the Hartford Courant, but Spellacy carried the idea into official channels with an appeal based on Hartford’s foundations of history, faith, and freedom:
Dear Mayor Mortensen:
The United Nations Preparatory Commission decided last night that the permanent seat of the United Nations will be in the United States. In view of this decision, will you not be so kind as to accept a suggestion?
Our city was founded by a band of Pilgrims from Massachusetts led by the Rev. Thomas Hooker. Some three hundred years ago, here in Hartford, he preached a sermon that for the first time enunciated the doctrine that under God, all power is derived form the people.
This sermon, unfortunately not stenographically recorded, was translated into the Fundamental Orders. This document was the first written constitution in the history of the world. Under it the Colony and State of Connecticut was governed for generations. Democracy as we know it was conceived, born and nurtured in Hartford.
As the site of the birth of freedom, would it not be most appropriate that Hartford be selected as the home of the permanent seat of the United Nations? Would it not be a good omen, as history does repeat itself?
My suggestion would therefore be for you as Mayor, representing all of us, to petition our President to consider the location of the United Nations Organization in our Hartford. I am certain that all of us will join with you in such an appeal.
(Signed) Thomas J. Spellacy
The next step fell to Mortensen’s successor, Cornelius Moylan, who took office in December 1945, as the UN’s interest began to turn toward New England. In a telegram on December 24, 1945, he added more practical considerations such as Hartford’s location midway between Boston and New York. Along with climate, transportation, and educational institutions, Moylan also mentioned Hartford’s “high class industries” as a selling point. This was not enough to entice the UN’s site-searching team, however. The diplomats focused on the Connecticut suburbs closer to New York City and initially settled on Greenwich — where they surprised and enraged local residents who viewed the prospect of becoming the Capital of the World as a threat to the historic character of their town.
When I arrived at the Massachusetts Historical Society this week, I found Capital of the World on exhibit together with maps of some of the Massachusetts contenders and the book by Oliver Wendell Holmes that bestowed the title “Hub of the Solar System” on Boston. What a wonderful surprise! Thanks to Peter Drummey for his work on the exhibit and to all of the staff at MHS for making arrangements for the program Wednesday evening.
As I look forward to revisiting Boston this week, I am reminded of my quest to understand the origins of the city’s reputation as “the Hub” – which, naturally, came into play as Bostonians pursued the prize of becoming the Capital of the World.
In 1858, the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes bestowed the nickname “Hub of the Solar System” on the Massachusetts State House,but he did not mean it as a compliment. In his story “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Holmes called attention to Bostonians’ tendency to see themselves at the center of the universe (from which they could cast indispensable light on lesser folk in outlying orbits). The story’s narrator observed wryly that this attitude was not unique to Boston, but might be found in any city or town.
Over time “the Hub” lost Holmes’s satirical intent and found its way into booster campaigns for business and tourism. Promoting New England as “distinctively the summer playground of the eastern part of the United States,” the Chamber of Commerce boasted in 1911 that “Boston, so often referred to as ‘the Hub of the Solar System,’ is literally the ‘hub’ of this vast volume of tourist and vacation travel.” Cut down to its essence, Holmes’s phrase served well as a headline-handy abbreviation for the city itself – “the Hub.” As a place reference, the term became so common that no explanation was necessary, as in Around the Hub: A Boys’ Book About Boston, published in 1881, and A Ramble ‘Round the Hub, which appeared in 1905. In common usage, the original “Hub of the Solar System” evolved into the more dramatic “Hub of the Universe.” So it appeared in 1938, when the Boston Post published a cartoon with then-Mayor Tobin serving up “Historical Boston – The Convention City” on a promotional silver platter, with a “Hub of the Universe” flag fluttering atop the State House dome. Before long, Tobin as Governor of Massachusetts led the way in promoting the Boston metro area as a potential headquarters site for the United Nations. What happened next? We’ll talk more about all of this on Wednesday, October 16, at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Link here for details.
Related:A Home for the United Nations … in Massachusetts? (Boston Globe, Sept. 22, 2013)
Welcome to readers of the Boston Globe, who have the opportunity this weekend to see a map of the world capital hopefuls of Massachusetts in the Ideas section of the newspaper. I look forward to meeting you in person on October 16 at the Massachusetts Historical Society — in the meantime, please post here if you know of additional contenders and we will continue to add to the list.
The UN’s interest in Massachusetts in 1945-46 centered on the Boston metro area, where the diplomats hoped to find a location close to the amenities of a city but far enough away to allow for a more pastoral and distinct identity. To compete for the prize, Boston’s boosters produced a detailed, richly illustrated promotional booklet, “Boston Answers Seven Questions.” Point by point, they sought to match the United Nations’ requirements:
1. Political Conditions
United Nations: “Political conditions in the host State, and the general character of its press and public opinion should be in harmony with the spirit and Preamble of Article I of the Charter. The United Nations should be so situated as to be free from any attempt at improper political control or the exercise of undesirable local influence.”
Boston Answers: “Boston offers the United Nations an atmosphere in which the ideals of freedom and liberalism have long flourished. The Mayflower Compact and the Massachusetts Constitution — older than the United States Constitution — have enriched free men everywhere. One of the most truly democratic of all institutions, the New England Town Meeting, is still the basis of town government throughout the area …”
2. Easy Accessibility
United Nations: “The site should offer easy accessibility from and to the world at large, and it must, therefore, possess adequate and satisfactory means of travel to and communication with any area where immediate action might appear to be necessary. Location at a place too far removed from normal routes of world communication or with prevailing unfavorable atmospheric conditions would not be suitable.”
Boston Answers: “Boston is one of the natural gateways to the United States. It is a major communications center. For centuries it has been a great port, at one time the greatest port in the country. The distance by water form ports in the United Kingdom, Northern Europe, and the Mediterranean to Boston is shorter than to any other port on our Atlantic coast. Boston is also closer by sea to the east coast of South America than any other port on the Atlantic coast…”
3. Uninterrupted Contact
United Nations: “Unrestricted and uninterrupted contact between the United Nations and all countries in the world, particularly in cases of emergency, must be maintained. In order to guarantee this contact a radio station and airport are essential.”
Boston Answers: “An airport certified for transatlantic traffic, a short-wave radio station with beam antennae for the whole world — these are the immediate facilities not generally available elsewhere which Boston offers so that the United Nations may maintain uninterrupted contact in case of emergency…”
4. Healthy Climate
United Nations: “Climate conditions which would not entail hardships likely to affect the health or efficiency of permanent or temporary residents connected with the United Nations.”
Boston Answers: “The New England climate is one of the most invigorating and healthful in the world. The best minds of America have found it an ideal climate in which to work, to live, and to play. … The advantages of New England have long been appreciated by diplomats who escape the oppressive summer heat of Washington and its region to establish their summer embassies in New England…”
5. Living and Culture
United Nations: “General use by the local population of either of the working languages of the United Nations, together with favorable cultural conditions, suitable living accommodation, and educational, health, and recreational facilities.”
Boston Answers: “You must not think we are exaggerating in presenting Boston’s cultural, educational, and recreational assets. More students are at work within 25 miles of Boston than anywhere else in the world. Our music and musical teaching, our fine arts, and our theater are of unexcelled quality. Boston lives at a slower pace than, say, New York. It is easier to get around in, and cultural facilities are close at hand — just as are shopping and theatrical and recreational facilities. And New England is visibly the major recreational area in North America …”
6. Buildings and Sites
United Nations: “Sufficient facilities for the immediate establishment of the necessary offices, including satisfactory printing facilities, and the possibility of acquiring, on satisfactory terms, such land or buildings as the United Nations may need.”
Boston Answers: “Preliminary investigations have shown that office-building facilities for housing the United Nations staff, and splendid sites for a later building program, are readily available. … The Commonwealth of Massachusetts possesses, in the immediate vicinity of Boston, several large state reservations. … One such location, the Middlesex Fells Reservation, is only 6 miles from the downtown hotels. Another, the Blue Hills Reservation, is 8 miles away, but reached by swift transportation facilities and set in the midst of choice residential areas …”
7. Travel Facilities
United Nations: “The grant by the host State to private individuals, of reasonable facilities for travel to the seat of the United Nations.”
Boston Answers: “Guarantees of reasonable travel facilities for private individuals to the seat of the United Nations are positive and explicit in the case of Boston. Its geographical position on the extreme northeast coast means that persons from all parts of the world can gain access here, dependent only upon transoceanic travel facilities.”
Copies of Boston Answers Seven Questions survive in the collections of Harvard, MIT, the Boston Athenaeum, and the State Library of Massachusetts. Two copies also survive in the British Library, where they serve to document the wave of American civic boosterism that struck London in 1945 as diplomats gathered there to organize the United Nations.
As the new school year begins, I am glad to see Capital of the World is being picked up for course reading. Post here, and I’ll do my best to respond to questions or to provide primary sources related to the text. To start the conversation, here are some discussion questions that draw upon major themes from the book. I look forward to hearing about your journey into the worlds of civic boosters and diplomats at the end of World War II.