On Exhibit at the Massachusetts Historical Society

On display, October 16, 2013.

On display, October 16, 2013.

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.


Boston: Hub and Potential Capital

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.

Promoting the Hub (1938)

Boston Post, August 24, 1938

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.


A Home for the United Nations … in Massachusetts? (Boston Globe, Sept. 22, 2013)

Boston Answers Seven Questions

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.

One of the Globe's editorials boosting Massachusetts,  November 9, 1945

One of the Globe’s editorials boosting Massachusetts, November 9, 1945.

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…”

Coverage of Boston's bid in the Boston Post, November 18, 1945.

Coverage of Boston’s bid in the Boston Post, November 18, 1945.

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.


Fall Semester Conversation Starters

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.


Detroit: [Ironic Commentary] Capital of the World

The spirit of boosterism is alive and well in the United States, but with a darkly ironic undercurrent that becomes apparent in reaction to current events such as the recent bankruptcy news in Detroit. While officials in the former Motor City convened a news conference backed by posters that proclaimed “Reinventing Detroit,” the Twitterverse crackled with alternative slogans that were not nearly as flattering.  (See the slideshows on Huffington Post and Gadling.)

A view toward the Detroit skyline in 1942, when the city became one of the nation's "Arsenals of Democracy." (Library of Congress)

A view toward the Detroit skyline in 1942, when the city became one of the nation’s “Arsenals of Democracy.” (Library of Congress)

How far this all is from the Detroit promoted and envisioned in 1945, when civic boosters sought to lure the United Nations to a site on Belle Isle (by the way, a flashpoint for the race riot of 1943). The City Council’s resolution on the matter proclaimed:

Whereas, Detroit is strategically located upon the International Boundary line of 3,500 miles of unfortified frontier, between Canada and the United States, and

Whereas, as Detroit is located upon the great circle route of the Air Lines of the World, and

Whereas, Detroit with its manufacturing genius of skilled workmen and engineers in mass production, has played an important part in turning the tide of war into victory for the Allied Nations; and

Whereas, Detroit offers an ideal location for the permanent headquarters, dedicated ideally to World’s peace and International relationship

Be It Resolved, that the Detroit City Council, representing almost 2,000,000 population respectfully request that President Harry F. Truman or James F. Byrnes, Sec’y of State, receive a Committee composed of leaders of our State and City to present Detroit’s invitation and make known its advantages to provide a permanent headquarters for the United Nations Organization.

Adopted unanimously, October 9, 1945.


Detroit’s Quixotic Bid

The United Nations Placed on Belle Isle? (WXYZ, Detroit)



San Francisco?
No Shortage of Challengers in California

United Nations Plaza in San Francisco (photographed April 2013).

United Nations Plaza in San Francisco, a commemoration of the events of 1945. (Photographed April 2013).

Hope flowed into San Francisco in 1945 as diplomats gathered for the conference to draft the charter for the new United Nations. Chapter 2 of Capital of the World is an immersion into the ambitions and intrigues of those days, when San Francisco had its chance to prove it could be the Capital of the World, if only for a couple of months. I had the opportunity this week to reflect on San Francisco’s place in UN history on Zócalo: The Public Square, and it is a pleasure to welcome new visitors to this blog who are linking from Zócalo and circulating the post on Twitter in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

San Francisco pursued the prize of becoming the UN’s permanent home, but this did not stop other contenders from California. Here are a few more, culled from the UN Archives and the Earl Warren Papers at the California State Archives in Sacramento:

Monterey Peninsula: S.F.B. Morse, president of Del Monte Properties Company, suggested Monterey on the basis of its climate, beauty, resort hotels, and location 100 miles from San Francisco. “The city of Monterey is the most historically important town in California,” he stated in a letter on October 27, 1945. “It was the capital of this region both under the Spanish and Mexican regimes, and is situated dead center of the state.” A resident of Los Angeles, Jack Brunt, also suggested to the Governor of California that the UN be placed “somewhere along the 17-mile drive between Monterey and Carmel by the sea.” The Monterey Peninsula was discussed by visiting site inspectors a year later but rejected as too distant from San Francisco.

Palm Springs: The Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce delivered an early invitation for a UN headquarters to President Roosevelt in March 1945, but additional interest emerged in connection with an elaborate plan to create a peace memorial called the “Tower of Civilization and World Unity” in Palm Springs. The promoter of the memorial project, Parker W. Meade of San Diego, submitted an extensive proposal to expand his memorial plans into a world capital, with a world university, to be located near San Francisco.

San Simeon: Despite the strong isolationist position of William Randolph Hearst, San Francisco resident Jerome Landfield suggested the Hearst Estate at San Simeon because of its magnificent buildings and available land. “I take it for granted that [Hearst] must realize what a white elephant San Simeon would be after his death, since it is not suited to any public use and that it is most unlikely that anyone could be found able and willing to acquire it for a residence,” Landfield wrote to Governor Earl Warren on March 12, 1946.

In the United States at the end of World War II, civic boosters seldom crossed city lines to form coalitions. Instead, they jumped into competitions for the betterment of their own home towns (and if their ambitions also would promote peace for the world, so much the better).  To see if your home town entered the race to host the United Nations, link to the complete list of contenders — and to understand this dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of America in the world, I hope you will spend some time with the book, Capital of the World.


Comedy and Tragedy

Of Starfleet and Grand Hotels




New Visitor Information: UN Headquarters

Touring the United Nations headquarters in New York is the best possible way to step back into the art and architecture that have shaped the world of diplomacy from the organization’s earliest days to the present. If you plan to visit soon, though, plan ahead. With renovations underway in the General Assembly building, new procedures effective July 1, 2013, require making tour reservations online in advance. The entrance to the grounds also has been moved for the rest of this summer. For more information, click here.

To learn more about the massive renovation project, visit the website of the Office of the United Nations Capital Master Plan.


Echoes of the American Revolution

Washington Memorial Arch at Valley Forge, one of the locations suggested for the headquarters of the United Nations in 1945.

Washington Memorial Arch at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, one of the locations suggested for the headquarters of the United Nations in 1945.

Americans in 1945 often turned to their role in the nation’s history to argue that their hometowns offered the best possible location for the Capital of the World. For this week of celebration of the Fourth of July, here are some of the world capital contenders that heralded their American Revolution heritage:

Boston, Massachusetts: Led by Governor Maurice Tobin, Boston initiated its campaign in July 1945, and carried its proposal directly to the UN in London. The efforts succeeded in attracting repeated visits to the Boston area by UN site inspection teams, but the diplomats opted instead for the suburbs of New York and ultimately New York City.

Concord and Lexington, Massachusetts: On November 9, 1945, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers received this suggestion from a constituent and then forwarded it to Adlai Stevenson. Rogers cited the historic character of the towns, but the UN’s interest prompted resistance among residents who feared that the presence of the world organization would destroy that character. UN site inspectors visited in January 1946 but later opted for sites in the area of New York rather than Boston.

Morristown, New Jersey: Mayor Clyde Potts pursued the UN site selection group touring the New York City area in January 1946 but did not succeed in diverting attention from Princeton and Atlantic City. Potts promoted Morristown’s heritage as a headquarters site for George Washington during the American Revolution, and residents voted their support during a town meeting.

Saratoga Springs, New York: Starting with an invitation from the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce in September 1945, efforts grew by November into a “Committee on Advocation of Saratoga Spring for the Permanent Headquarters of the United Nations Organization.” The Chamber of Commerce promoted Saratoga as the “Birthplace of Freedom” for its role in the American Revolution as well as “the world’s largest spa.” The booster committee, distancing itself from more aggressive competitors, pledged to provide the UN with the basic facts but “nothing in technicolor, no elaborate brochures, no fanfare of publicity.” Writing to the UN on November 8, 1945, they called attention to Saratoga’s transportation facilities, healthful climate, and the availability of federally-owned land.

Ticonderoga, New York: After reading news reports that the UN might desire a small town in upstate New York, State Assemblyman A. Judson Moorhouse wrote on December 29, 1945, to recommend the town’s Revolutionary-era significance. “Here, at Fort Ticonderoga, England, France, and the United States, three of the key powers and permanent members of the [UN] Security Council fought over the same territory,” he wrote, also noting the congenial climate and beauty of Lake George. “This region is, of course, as accessible as any place in the United States to Russia, England, France and Canada,” he concluded.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Among the earliest and most persistent campaigners for the UN’s attention, Philadelphia’s interest began with a newspaper editorial published in the Philadelphia Record on March 5, 1945. A coalition of boosters including the President of Temple University traveled to San Francisco and London to present their proposal to the UN. Although initially ruled out as being too close to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia nearly succeeded in its efforts in the fall of 1946, after a UN site inspection group visited the city’s proposed site in Fairmount Park. But John D. Rockefeller’s gift of $8.5 million for a Manhattan location ended Philadelphia’s chances.

Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: John Robbins Hart, rector of Washington Memorial Chapel and President of the Valley Forge Historical Society, wrote to boosters promoting Philadelphia on November 19, 1945, to suggest this historic site of the American Revolution. “Bostonians naturally prefer Boston, New Yorkers New York, etc., but all people have a special devotion to Valley Forge and would come to a harmonious agreement in its selection,” he argued. Failing to persuade the Philadelphians to change their focus on a site in the city, Hart sent the same letter directly to the UN on December 29. Another private citizen, James H. Johnston of Narberth, Pa., also submitted the suggestion of Valley Forge.


The Olympics for Tulsa?

TulsaAn article on the front page of today’s New York Times sounds eerily familiar. Appearing under the headline “London. Tokyo. Athens. Tulsa?”, the story by Mary Pilon reports on the unlikely but ambitious dream to bring the Olympic Games to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Clearly the booster ambitions of Oklahoma are as alive today as they were in 1945, when three towns from the Sooner State were put forward as host locations for the United Nations. The contender nearest to Tulsa, Claremore, was so determined that boosters with brochures once showed up at the Tulsa airport at 2 a.m. to ambush a team of UN diplomats as their plane refueled. A second Oklahoma hopeful, Tuskahoma, resonated locally as the former capital of the Choctaw Nation. To put the United Nations there would be a statement of social justice, proponents argued. Stillwater also stepped up for the honor of becoming the Capital of the World, although the initial newspaper editorial about the idea was mostly egged on by letters from bored servicemen stationed nearby.

Thanks to Eric Banks, the incoming director of the New York Institute for the Humanities, and Alex Gallafent of Public Radio International for calling the Olympics story to my attention. New Yorkers who would like to talk more about the race to create a Capital of the World at the end of World War II are invited to join me this Wednesday at the Mid-Manhattan Library for an illustrated talk and conversation. (If anyone wants to accompany us with the soundtrack of Oklahoma!, it will be perfectly appropriate for the history as well as the current events.)


Indian Country to Host 2024 Olympics? (Indian Country Today)

Memo: Demonstration Sports for the 2020 Olympiad (The Lost Ogle)

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations (Alex Gallafent for PRI’s The World – with great music!)


A Man, a Monument, and a Cause

Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

George Washington flanked by Robert Morris (left) and Haym Salomon (right). Photographed June 10, 2013, Chicago.

The Great Triumvarite monument at Wabash Avenue and Wacker Drive in Chicago stands prominently in the landscape, but at the same time it fades from public attention. Traffic whizzes by on Wacker. Passersby today are drawn more toward the nearby memorial to veterans of the Vietnam War, and the life-size sculpture of three Revolutionary-era figures is a bit lost as it overlooks above the hubbub. Still, I sought it out during my recent visit to Chicago because this monument represents some of the key motivations behind American enthusiasm in the competition to become host city for the United Nations at the end of World War II. Continue reading