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




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.

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Road Trip: Chicago

One of the great pleasures of publishing a new book is the opportunity to revisit places that became my temporary home while I was doing the research. I’m especially excited to return to one of my favorite cities, Chicago, this week. Please join me at the fantastic Printers Row Lit Fest on Sunday, June 9, and at the amazing Newberry Library on Thursday, June 13. We will relive the adventure of Chicago’s race to become the Capital of the World at the end of World War II, and I am sure I will learn a lot from you about the city’s more recent endeavors to take the world stage. Click for details:


Gardner, Mass.: A Logical Site

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.

A discovery from the archives: Promotional booklet for Gardner, Massachusetts (Courtesy of Sean M. Fisher)

A discovery from the archives: Promotional booklet for Gardner, Massachusetts (Courtesy of Sean M. Fisher)

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!


The Blog Tour Begins: A Bookish Affair

How does a writer go about researching a story involving 248 cities and towns across the United States? The blog tour for Capital of the World begins today with a guest post on A Bookish Affair.  Read the story behind the story, together with a review (“Pretty darn good!”) and a chance to win a copy of the book, by clicking here.


The Great and Powerful Osborn (Maybe)

Chase and Stellanova Osborn, depicted on a monument in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Who was the real promoter? Chase and Stellanova Osborn, depicted on a monument in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

I first became curious about Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, while sifting through files of letters in the United Nations Archives in New York. It seemed bizarre that the UN would have received a resolution from a “Young People’s Society for Better Hearing,” based in Lansing, Michigan, calling on the new organization to place its headquarters on Sugar Island, on the U.S.-Canadian border near Sault Ste. Marie.

I spent far more time than I should have trying to unravel this part of the Capital of the World story. Parts of it lie in the United Nations Archives, and other parts in the State Archives of Michigan in Lansing and the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. This turned out to be an excellent example of the ways in which historical evidence can mislead as well as inform. Let me explain.

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The Black Hills and the World

From the beginning, I knew that I would go to South Dakota. Most books about the early history of the United Nations do not pay much attention to the question of where to place its headquarters, but when they do, there is usually a throw-away reference to the Black Hills of South Dakota.  How absurd, they suggest, that such a place would have offered to become the Capital of the World.

Granted, on the surface and in hindsight, it seems far-fetched. During my research trip, one day I sat on a bench in the Black Hills town of Keystone (pop. 337 in 2010) and tried to imagine the diplomats of the world mingling outside the Dairy Queen. Not likely. But spend a little time in and around the region, and the motives for a Black Hills invitation to the United Nations begin to come into focus. Continue reading


In search of the Capital of the World

Follow the journey from the beginning …

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