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.


Chasing a Mystery in Downstate Illinois

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

This week in Chicago, I could not resist a side trip downstate to Champaign County, Illinois.  The place has nagged at me as one of the mysteries of the world capital competition. It appeared on a list that the United Nations published in November 1945, but left no paper trail in the UN Archives to follow. What led this contender into the race to become the Capital of the World?

It turns out, this was also a mystery for the people of Champaign County in 1945. When news of the UN’s list reached Champaign-Urbana through the news media, it took some digging by local reporters to discover how their community had achieved such a distinction.  There were only twenty-two invitations on the list at that point in time, and so it seemed that Champaign County had taken quite a leap onto the world stage. Reporters for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette solved the mystery, and so they also solved mine.

Continue reading


Niagara Falls Jumps In

Niagara Falls boosters envisioned a "capital" for the world as a stylized adaptation of Washington, D.C., placed on nearby Navy Island. The plan anticipated that visitors would arrive from both the United States and Canada, merging symbolically into one united traffic circle. (Library of Congress)

Niagara Falls boosters envisioned a “capital” for the world as a stylized adaptation of Washington, D.C., placed on nearby Navy Island. The plan anticipated that visitors would arrive from both the United States and Canada, merging symbolically into one united traffic circle. (Library of Congress)

On May 2, 1945, the Niagara Falls Gazette published an editorial that gave new life to an old idea.

During the First World War, Congressman Robert H. Gittins had proposed an international conference at Niagara Falls to form a league of nations. Thirty years later, as a private citizen, Gittins proposed the location once again for the UN and the Gazette’s editorial launched a civic campaign to create a world capital on an island between the United States and Canada. Business leaders and public officials from Niagara Falls, Ontario, joined their counterparts in New York in an extensive campaign that included traveling to London to appeal directly to the UN. Originally aiming to place the UN on Canada-owned Navy Island, they quickly changed their proposal to nearby Grand Island, in U.S. territory, after the UN’s decision to place its headquarters in the United States.

Ultimately, Niagara Falls lost its bid to the UN’s desire to be close to a major city, particularly Boston or New York.  To find out more about campaigns by New York cities and towns, check out the List of Contenders and the complete story in the pages of Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations.


“Niagara area offered site for UN headquarters,” column by Don Glynn, Niagara Gazette, July 4, 2013.


Stillwater vs. “The Flighty East”

On December 17, 1945, the Daily News-Press of Stillwater, Oklahoma, published an editorial proposing, “Stillwater Should Be the World Capital.”

Within days, letters to the editor agreed. Stillwater should be the Capital of the World—that is, the headquarters site for the newly-chartered United Nations. Granted, the letters included some that were penned purely for amusement by servicemen stationed nearby at the U.S. Navy Japanese Language School. But the newspaper was not joking when it advised its readers, “Some spot within the United States will become the capital for the United Nations and Stillwater should get busy and do a good selling job to get that capital located here.”

If Stillwater had been alone in this far-fetched idea, it would be no more than a footnote to local history. But Stillwater was not alone. During 1944-46, Americans in at least 248 cities and towns vied for the attention of the world’s leading diplomats as the UN sought a site for its headquarters. New York City, the ultimate choice, was far from the favored option and in fact was ruled out initially because the diplomats desired a place with its own identity apart from a major city. The model they had in mind was Canberra, the new capital city of Australia.

Even as the UN’s search narrowed to the northeastern United States, boosters in the rest of the nation remained convinced that the diplomats were overlooking obvious, more suitable opportunities. “In this section, delegates could work in peace and quiet free from the nervous and flighty east,” the Daily News-Press in Stillwater noted when the diplomats eliminated the American West because of its distance from Europe. In the spirit of boosterism, others concluded brightly that they had succeeded in gaining a welcome flash of publicity, if not the ultimate prize.


Michigan City Dreams Big

When the diplomats of 1946 confronted suburban governments, they didn’t have a chance.  Kim Ukura, who has first-hand experience in community journalism, pointed this out in her review of Capital of the World.  This passage made her laugh:

Time and time again during the summer of 1946, negotiators for the United Nations motored from New York City to Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, the two suburban counties where they hoped to find a site for a headquarters. But in the meeting rooms of county and municipal authorities, it became clear that even diplomats who had served kings and presidents, who had kept governments afloat in exile during the war, and whose nations had subjected entire populations to colonial rule, were no match for local governments and suburban property owners.

The potential world capital site outside Michigan City, photographed June 17, 2013.

The potential world capital site outside Michigan City, photographed June 17, 2013.

I began my career as a local government news reporter in Michigan City, Indiana – and so it came as quite a surprise when I discovered that this town at the tip of Lake Michigan was one of the many self-anointed world capital contenders.  In contrast to the suburban homeowners near New York, the people of Michigan City pursued the dream. The plan was to put the United Nations at the International Friendship Gardens, which had been transplanted from the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago to a site just east of Michigan City.

For about a month in 1945, the Michigan City News-Dispatch promoted this bold aspiration with gusto. Continue reading


The Parent Generation and Defense of Home

As the Patricia’s Wisdom blog points out today, Capital of the World is a story in which everyday people cross paths with the powerful and prominent – and in some cases, individuals whose legacy was not yet known.  The reviewer was pleased to find that the story includes Prescott Bush, whose son George H.W. Bush and grandson George W. Bush both went on to become presidents of the United States.

Prescott Bush, as a U.S. Senator, 1952-63. (Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress)

Prescott Bush, as a U.S. Senator, 1952-63. (Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress)

In 1946, Prescott Bush was moderator of the town meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut, a town that was caught by surprise when the United Nations selected it as its first choice for the new organization’s headquarters.  Bush was among the civic leaders I refer to as “the parent generation” of World War II, but he was not among the boosters who lobbied for the UN’s attention.  Instead, like some other townspeople in the orbits of growing American cities, he defended the traditional character of his community and its right to self-determination.

Bush summarized his position in a letter to the Greenwich Time newspaper, which published it on February 6, 1946:

Dear Sir:

Because my name has been connected with the opposition to the proposed UNO [United Nations Organization] site, I should like to make clear my feeling in the matter. I presume to speak for no one but myself, although a good many people have called me to voice strong opposition to the proposed site in our neighborhood.

My objection to the proposed site is based on the following points:

1. It certainly appears that the decision of the Committee was reached without the citizens of our community having had any opportunity whatever to express their sentiments regarding the proposition, which was sprung as a complete surprise to our community. Continue reading


In search of the Capital of the World

Follow the journey from the beginning …

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