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.


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.


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.


Greetings From Philadelphia

"Conversations," April 3, 2013 (Photograph by Don Groff)

“Conversations,” April 3, 2013 (Photograph by Don Groff)

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


Field of Dreams

In Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, one of the sites offered to the United Nations.

In Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, one of the sites offered to the United Nations.

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.


In search of the Capital of the World

Follow the journey from the beginning …

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