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.
My journey last week to Boston felt like a tour of the world capital contenders of New England, as the exit signs on interstates, turnpikes, and parkways announced the names of familiar places from Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut to Quincy and Dedham in Massachusetts. On the way home, I had the opportunity to stop at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, which has the papers of Mayor William H. Mortensen. In October 1945, just after the first recommendation within the United Nations to place the organization in the United States, Mortensen heard from one of his predecessors, Thomas J. Spellacy. A Hartford resident, Fred L. Rice, already had suggested his home city as a potential world capital in a letter to the Hartford Courant, but Spellacy carried the idea into official channels with an appeal based on Hartford’s foundations of history, faith, and freedom:
Dear Mayor Mortensen:
The United Nations Preparatory Commission decided last night that the permanent seat of the United Nations will be in the United States. In view of this decision, will you not be so kind as to accept a suggestion?
Our city was founded by a band of Pilgrims from Massachusetts led by the Rev. Thomas Hooker. Some three hundred years ago, here in Hartford, he preached a sermon that for the first time enunciated the doctrine that under God, all power is derived form the people.
This sermon, unfortunately not stenographically recorded, was translated into the Fundamental Orders. This document was the first written constitution in the history of the world. Under it the Colony and State of Connecticut was governed for generations. Democracy as we know it was conceived, born and nurtured in Hartford.
As the site of the birth of freedom, would it not be most appropriate that Hartford be selected as the home of the permanent seat of the United Nations? Would it not be a good omen, as history does repeat itself?
My suggestion would therefore be for you as Mayor, representing all of us, to petition our President to consider the location of the United Nations Organization in our Hartford. I am certain that all of us will join with you in such an appeal.
(Signed) Thomas J. Spellacy
The next step fell to Mortensen’s successor, Cornelius Moylan, who took office in December 1945, as the UN’s interest began to turn toward New England. In a telegram on December 24, 1945, he added more practical considerations such as Hartford’s location midway between Boston and New York. Along with climate, transportation, and educational institutions, Moylan also mentioned Hartford’s “high class industries” as a selling point. This was not enough to entice the UN’s site-searching team, however. The diplomats focused on the Connecticut suburbs closer to New York City and initially settled on Greenwich — where they surprised and enraged local residents who viewed the prospect of becoming the Capital of the World as a threat to the historic character of their town.
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.
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…”
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.
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.)
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.
The United Nations Placed on Belle Isle? (WXYZ, Detroit)
When the United Nations began its search for a world capital site in the northeastern United States in 1946, Boston became a focus of attention. With diplomats on the way to inspect possible sites, cities and towns in Massachusetts clamored to be noticed. Their letters, telegrams, and promotional brochures came so quickly, and in such volume, that news reporters could only speculate about the extent of the competition. Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations documents more than forty communities in Massachusetts that vied for the UN’s attention — along with several that energetically resisted.
Now, we have a new contender. Sean M. Fisher, an archivist with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, writes that evidence of a world capital campaign by Gardner, Massachusetts, turned up during a recent survey of local history records at Gardner Heritage State Park. The Gardner boosters, led by William A. McMahon (1910-98), presented their town as the “logical site for the permanent home of the United Nations Organization” in a promotional booklet dated January 5, 1946.
Thanks to Sean for adding to our understanding of the scope of American interest in creating a Capital of the World at the end of World War II. I am sure there are more world capital hopefuls waiting to be found, especially in the northeastern United States. Let me know, and if there is documentation we will add them to the list!
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.
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:
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
Individuals. Communities. Regions. Nations. The World.
One of the benefits of looking closely at local histories is to see how everyday lives connect with so many intersecting stories and layers of the past, the present, and the future. I have been thinking about this after a Twitter exchange this week with Kirsten Delegard (@historyapolis), who directs the Historyapolis Project in Minneapolis. Her project aims to bring visibility and accessibility to the history of Minneapolis, which are goals similar to The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia project that I direct.
Connections between the local and global are an ongoing theme of Capital of the World. For Minneapolis, the connections are clear in a letter I found during my research at the United Nations Archives in New York. As was often the case, I recognized a name that would later become much more prominent in national or international affairs. On December 26, 1945, the newly-elected mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, together with York Langton of the Minnesota United Nations Committee, sent this letter to Edward R. Stettinius, then the chief U.S. representative on the UN Preparatory Commission meeting in London: