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.


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




Comedy and Tragedy

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

Lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (see Chapter 2 of Capital of the World)

In the theater of the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, where diplomats convened in April 1945 to draft a Charter for the United Nations, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy flank the stage. As I was reminded during a visit this week, the Opera House was a suitably impressive venue for the enormous and somber task of creating a new world organization to secure a peaceful future. But those masks also seem symbolic of the difficulties the UN encountered with such a mundane task as selecting a place for its permanent home. With the tragedy of war still unfolding in 1945, civic boosters from Philadelphia and the Black Hills of South Dakota showed up in San Francisco to push their interests in becoming the Capital of the World even before the United Nations officially existed. And San Francisco’s boosters aimed to show how suitable their city could be.

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

United Nations Plaza, San Francisco

I thought of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, too, as I walked through United Nations Plaza, the commemorative space near the San Francisco Public Library. The flag of the United Nations flag flies there, and pillars topped by symbolic globes bear the names of all of the member nations. Amid inscriptions of human rights and dignity, the plaza on this day was populated by apparently homeless people, bundled against the cold whipping wind, sleeping, and safeguarding shopping carts of belonging.  One had a boom box tuned to a radio station blaring a commercial for easy credit. At one end of the plaza, vendors offered a miscellany of goods for sale: sunglasses, jewelry, colorful scarves.  As offices began to empty in the late afternoon, commuters dashed through all of this for the Civic Center transit station and seemed unaware–or numbed–to it all. For those who notice, United Nations Plaza is far from the hopes and dreams of the boosters of 1945 who sought to make San Francisco the Capital of the World.


Of Starfleet and Grand Hotels

As Steve Dundas points out today in his generous review of Capital of the World, even though San Francisco lost its bid to become the permanent headquarters city for the United Nations, it achieved fame in another realm.  As any Star Trek fan will remember, San Francisco of the future served as headquarters of the United Federation of Planets.  Approached by starships, the city still could be identified by the distinctive Golden Gate Bridge.



If anyone knows of documentation for Gene Roddenberry’s inspired choice of San Francisco for Starfleet, I would love to know about it!  I know a bit more about why San Francisco was chosen as the city where diplomats gathered in 1945 to draft the United Nations Charter.  Among other factors, the presence of San Francisco’s famed hotels helped the city gain the first opportunity to prove that it could be a Capital of the World.

San Francisco had an abundance of enormous fashionable hotels, a legacy from the great wealth generated in the late nineteenth century by the barons of mining and banking.  The barons filled their bank accounts, built their mansions, and outfitted their families with the finest fashions and furnishings. And then, they and their descendants built grand hotels intended to rival anything in New York City or in Europe. Many are still in business today.

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