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.