In search of the Capital of the World

Follow the journey from the beginning …

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Now Available in Paperback

The paperback edition of Capital of the World has just been released!  It is available now on Amazon.com, along with the earlier hardback and Kindle editions. If you are a teacher considering course adoption, please feel free to let me know of additions you would like to see to the teaching guides published on this website. Thank you for your interest!


New Teaching Guides for Capital of the World

Visitors to this website will notice some new features, which have been created to assist teachers and training professionals who are using Capital of the World in classes and staff development workshops (thank you!).  So far, the teaching guides include U.S. history, world history, and American Studies; urban and suburban history; diplomatic history; and media studies, journalism history, and public relations.  Feel free to write if you would like to see additional teaching guides or if you would like to have access to documents for any of the communities in the List of Contenders. Reach the author directly at cmires@camden.rutgers.edu.


Porkopolis (Showtime! Continued)

Cincinnati, Ohio — the “Queen City” by the Ohio River — embraced the idea of becoming the Capital of the World with uncustomary gusto. In just two weeks’ time at the end of 1945, civic leaders assembled a proposal to make Cincinnati the permanent home of the United Nations and traveled to London make a personal appeal to the UN Preparatory Commission meeting there.  On December 20, 1945, the Cincinnati team joined other river cities from the American midsection, St. Louis and New Orleans, to make pitches to a small subcommittee assembled to assuage the UN’s eager American suitors. As they made their appeals, the uninvited competition to become the Capital of the World continued to escalate toward an eventual total of at least 249 American cities and towns.

The Second World War had given Cincinnati a new basis for claiming a central place in the world: a global short-wave radio communication system put in place in nearby Bethany, Ohio, by the  U.S. government shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The operator of the equipment, Cincinnati radio station WLW, was as a result “the largest radio station in the world with the largest listening appliance in the world,” Mayor James G. Stewart boasted.  A vice president from the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, James D. Shouse, who had spurred the Cincinnati campaign into action, assisted the mayor in describing the city’s new wonder of mass communication.  The mayor and the President of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, food wholesaler Walter F. Eberle, extolled their city’s other virtues as a “symbolical American city.”  Cincinnati would be a perfect choice, the mayor argued, “an industrial thriving American city, but, on the other hand … a city that is small enough so that the greatness of the city itself will not over-shadow the importance of the United Nations Organization.” Cincinnati offered a city park setting for the UN in Eden Park, overlooking the Ohio River.

Lithograph of pork packing in Cincinnati, 1873.

Pork Packing in Cincinnati: A claim to fame not promoted to the United Nations. (1873 lithograph, Library of Congress)

Characteristically, Mayor Stewart could not resist dwelling a bit too long on the history of his city.  The mayor, 65 years old, was a trial lawyer known for his oratorical skills as well as his ability to rattle off all of the names of the vice presidents of the United States, the cabinet members, the terms they served, and the names of their wives. And so the subcommittee heard about Cincinnati’s creation under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and about how George Washington selected its name in honor of his officers’ Society of Cincinnatus.  (The mayor omitted reference to the nineteenth-century nickname that expressed the agricultural essence of Cincinnati – Porkopolis – but the Chamber of Commerce president let slip another prosaic moniker, “Machine Tool Center of the World.”)  Considering his audience, and perhaps the political dimensions of the site selection struggle, the mayor quoted the Englishmen Winston Churchill and Charles Dickens, both of whom had visited Cincinnati and generously described the beauty of the city and the Ohio River.

Something struck a chord.  The men from Cincinnati made the usual offer to provide additional information.  And this time – the only time throughout three days of hearings consisting of sixteen booster performances – one of the four listening diplomats had a question.  Perhaps the Yugoslavian Stoyan Gavrilovic was paying especially close attention now, knowing that he would soon play a part in selecting a precise location for the world organization’s home. After lavishing his customary praise and gratitude for the presentation, he asked: “Would it perhaps be possible for you to give us some details as to what your facilities are in the way of what we call interim arrangements … in case the City of Cincinnati is selected as the seat of the United Nations?”  But of course!  Mayor Stewart was happy to describe the 3,400-seat Music Hall, ample committee meeting rooms, hotels, and housing that could be readily found in his city “resting on seven hills, like ancient Rome.”

The chairman’s question was enough to generate a headline back home in the Cincinnati Enquirer: “Subcommittee in London is Impressed.” Cincinnati made it as far as a draft itinerary of potential UN headquarters sites to be inspected. But by the end of the year, Cincinnati’s hopes were dashed by a decision that eliminated all of the self-appointed contenders from the Midwest.  This region of the country, the delegates decided, was too prone to isolationism to be a welcoming home for a new world organization.  They turned their attention instead to the Northeast, particularly the suburbs of Boston and New York.

Related: Showtime!


Christmas 1945

Dinner Menu from U.S.S. Santa Fe, Christmas 1945

Christmas Dinner Menu from the U.S.S. Santa Fe, December 25, 1945. (http://www.history.navy.mil)

In the days before Christmas in 1945, naval vessels loaded with thousands of American sons and daughters battled hurricane-force winds and eighty-foot waves in the stormy Atlantic, aiming to deliver the troops home in time for the holidays. Sailors shored up buckling bulkheads with timber supports to keep their ships afloat. Converted aircraft carriers carrying thousands of veterans cut speed to ride out furious storms. Half a world away, more ships moved in calmer seas but they carried an even larger force – 179,000 in all – from Pacific battle zones to ports on the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. On a single day, December 24, forty thousand men and women returned to the United States from duty overseas. The crush of military travelers overwhelmed ports and railroads, creating a situation that most regarded as the worst traffic jam in the nation’s history. Fifty-three thousand servicemen were stuck in San Francisco, where local residents invited them home for Christmas dinner. In Los Angeles, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad turned over his private car to twelve Army nurses bound for home in the East. Five sailors in San Pedro, California, convinced a taxi driver to take them to Dallas, then another to drive four of them on to Atlanta.

In Chicago, where rail lines converged from east and west, fifteen thousand impatient passengers stampeded at Dearborn Station, police descended, and the New York Central System temporarily refused to sell tickets on eastbound trains, an action with repercussions across the nation. The governors of Illinois and Indiana called out the state militia to drive veterans home. On the East Coast, trains filled to capacity and civilians waited in lines at airline terminals for the rare seat not already taken. A strike affecting Greyhound buses in eighteen states compounded the gridlock. Fifteen thousand troops spent Christmas Day in New York City, marooned but relieved by the sight of the familiar Manhattan skyline after days at risk in rough seas. “When I saw the New York skyline again and knew that I was really back in the States and close to my family, nothing else counted,” said a veteran of nearly two years in the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps in India. “My Christmas is going to be all right.” Only partway home for Christmas, stranded servicemen and women gratefully settled for long-distance telephone calls to their families. After two or three years at war overseas, the reunions could wait another day or two.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people in motion, on December 22 the Mayor of San Francisco began his long journey home from London after nearly a month of courting the United Nations. As representative for one of the many cities seeking to become the UN’s permanent home — the Capital of the World — Roger Lapham had stayed longer than any other American civic booster to circulate among the delegates and remind them of the warm welcome they already had experienced in San Francisco. Through the first two weeks of December, Lapham had listened to  lengthy debates over whether to place the headquarters in the United States or in Europe, and he had been gratified to hear San Francisco mentioned frequently as a possible location. By December 20, when the UN Preparatory Commission determined that the site question needed further study by an interim committee, Lapham decided he had done all he could for the moment. The interim committee had been instructed to select up to six well-qualified locations for the General Assembly to consider, and Lapham felt confident that San Francisco would be among them. He knew that a final decision had been deferred until the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in January.

On Saturday, December 22, the weary but optimistic Mayor of San Francisco boarded a train for the Hurn airport to join the mass migration of Americans out of Europe. There, as he waited for his flight, he heard stunning news:  San Francisco was out of the running.  For San Francisco, and for a new pack of competitors for the title of Capital of the World, the holiday season of 1945 became a time for reaching out to the world as for reuniting families at home.



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.


New Jersey: So Close, But So Far

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.

Related: Why Not Morristown? (It Was Good Enough for George Washington)


The UN and the Mason-Dixon Line

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.

The Mason-Dixon Line, a symbol of region and race for UN diplomats in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Mason-Dixon Line, a symbol of region and race for UN diplomats in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

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.


Tips for Philadelphia Teachers

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.


October 24: United Nations Day

United Nations Day 2013

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.


In Connecticut, Faith and Freedom

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:

Thomas Hooker leads his congregation from Massachusetts to Connecticut (1893 drawing by Charles H. Niehaus, Library of Congress)

Thomas Hooker leads his congregation from Massachusetts to Connecticut (1893 drawing by Charles H. Niehaus, Library of Congress)

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.

Related: The Parent Generation and Defense of Home