For students of U.S. history, world history, and American studies, Capital of the World provides a panoramic view of individuals and communities making the transition from war to peace at the end of World War II. Through an accessible narrative following the frenzy of civic boosterism over the United Nations’ need for a headquarters site, readers will gain a deeper understanding of the spirit of hope, determination, and anxiety that characterized this pivotal moment in world history. They will see how American individuals and communities viewed their place in the world at a time when new transportation and communications technologies were transforming the experience of time, space, and distance. The narrative also conveys the ways in which the world’s diplomats viewed the United States as they sought an acceptable location for the permanent headquarters of the United Nations.
Introduction (pages 1-5)
Opening with the laying of the cornerstone for the New York headquarters of the United Nations in 1949, the introduction notes the absence of attention to how and why the UN came to be in New York. Capital of the World finds that Americans in at least 249 cities and towns became involved in promoting potential sites for the UN and that the organization’s difficulties in making a choice exposed weaknesses in its decision-making capabilities in its earliest days. The outbreak of civic boosterism in pursuit of the honor of becoming the Capital of the World provides an opportunity to consider how individuals and communities perceived their place in the world at this pivotal moment of transition from war to peace.
The introduction serves as a foundation for the themes of the book, which include:
- the idea of “world capital” and its precedents in world history;
- changing experiences of time and space;
- the “parent generation” of World War II;
- civic boosterism in U.S. cities and towns at mid-century;
- the role of heritage and tourism in shaping civic identity;
- the role of individual citizens and the news media in international affairs;
- the U.S. in the world at the time of transition from war to peace;
- the significance of the UN site selection in the early days of the new world organizations.
Notes to the introduction place the book in the context of scholarship in urban history, diplomatic history, place theory, America in the world at the end of World War II, and the history of the United Nations.
1. United Nations Secretariat building under construction in 1949 (William Eckenberg/The New York Times/Redux).
Part I: From War to Peace (pages 9-77)
Chapter 1. Inspiration (pages 9-27)
September 1944-March 1945
Placing the civic boosters in the forefront of the narrative, this chapter introduces four of the earliest world capital hopefuls: the Black Hills of South Dakota; Detroit; Philadelphia; and San Francisco. Through the experiences of individuals who launched these campaigns, the chapter describes the wartime experience of each locality and demonstrates the variety of motives behind American interest in the location of the UN headquarters. These cases also show the press, particularly hometown newspapers, playing a significant role in boosterism and elevating the UN headquarters site to be a “Capital of the World.” Also in this chapter, while civic boosters mobilize, the Crimean Conference takes place in Yalta, where Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and President Roosevelt agree on San Francisco as the site for the conference to draft the UN charter. By the end of this chapter, the interest of civic boosters begins to reach Washington, D.C., as they seek to invent their roles as world citizens to influence an organization that did not yet exist.
- Paul Bellamy, leader of the Black Hills campaign, drives Franklin Roosevelt to Mount Rushmore in 1936 (University of South Dakota Libraries).
- Philadelphia invitation to the United Nations, featuring the Liberty Bell (Library of Congress).
Questions for discussion:
- In what ways did the homefront experiences of the localities in this chapter contribute to their interest in becoming the Capital of the World?
- How and why did the world capital competition start and why did it spread? What does this reveal about time and distance at this point in time?
- How did the life experiences of the individuals in this chapter set the stage for their interest in making their communities the Capital of the World?
- In what ways did the world capital competitors invoke American history?
- What is a “world citizen”?
Chapter 2. Hope (pages 29-51)
Hope for the future of the world flowed into San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization (UNCIO), which met in May and June 1945 to draft the UN Charter. By selecting San Francisco for this event, the United States also conferred the opportunity for the city to demonstrate its suitability as a Capital of the World. Against the backdrop of the death of Franklin Roosevelt and the end of the war in Europe, this chapter tells the story of the UN Charter conference with an emphasis on the experience of the city and its efforts to meet the needs of such a large gathering of diplomats. The journeys of diplomats across the United States to San Francisco demonstrate the challenges of long-distance travel prior to widespread commercial airline service. In San Francisco, the diplomats find they have company: civic boosters from the Black Hills and Philadelphia who are seeking to become the host for the UN’s permanent headquarters, even though the question is not on the agenda. By the end of this chapter, the U.S. State Department surveys delegates to the conference about potential sites for the headquarters and finds them focused on whether the organization will be centered in the United States or Europe.
- Floral display in Golden Gate Park welcomes the UN to San Francisco (San Francisco Public Library).
- Paul Bellamy from Rapid City, South Dakota, shares a cigar with a delegate from Saudi Arabia (University of South Dakota Libraries).
- Promotional brochure for the Black Hills displays a map demonstrating that the region is “Readily accessible from any part of the world” (University of South Dakota Libraries).
- Architectural rendering for a UN headquarters in Marin County, California (Environmental Design Archive, University of California, Berkeley)
Questions for discussion:
- What were the major challenges facing the delegates who gathered in San Francisco?
- What did the campaigns of Philadelphia and the Black Hills reveal about their promoters’ perception of their place in the world in 1945?
- What issues or occurrences during the San Francisco conference foreshadowed difficulties ahead in selecting a headquarters location?
- What were the major provisions of the United Nations Charter?
Chapter 3. Schemes (pages 52-77)
In this chapter, the narrative moves to the Great Lakes region and hopes that the peaceful border between the United States and Canada would be an appealing location for the United Nations. Noting the strategic role of the Great Lakes region in World War II, the chapter opens at the U.S. Governor’s Conference, held in in 1945 on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. The indefatigable boosters from the Black Hills of South Dakota are there to promote their cause, and they find they have company from other world capital hopefuls around the Great Lakes. This chapter introduces the interest of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (and Ontario), where leadership of the local world capital campaign launched a career in international service for Stellanova Osborn, the longtime companion of a former governor. Also introduced in this chapter is the campaign of Chicago, which also sends a representative to the Governor’s Conference. By the end of the conference, the world capital idea has been unleashed among the nation’s most accomplished politicians. As interest builds among civic boosters, the U.S. Senate ratifies the UN Charter. The chapter concludes with the end of the Second World War and the new realities of the atomic bomb as a threat to urban centers and an incentive to secure the peace.
- Stellanova Osborn (Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)
- Architectural rendering for UN capital on Sugar Island near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (United Nations Archives).
- Architectural rendering for UN capital on Navy Island near Niagara Falls (Library of Congress).
- Architectural rendering for UN capital on Northerly Isle in Chicago (Chicago Herald-American).
Questions for discussion:
- How and why did the Great Lakes region become important to World War II and to the search for a location for the United Nations?
- What do the speculative site plans for San Francisco (Chapter 2), Sault Ste. Marie, Chicago, and Niagara Falls reveal about the envisioned world capital?
- How were localities affected by the project to build the atomic bomb and the consequences of its use at the end of World War II?
Part II. The New World (pages 81-141)
Chapter 4. Blitz (pages 81-106)
The competition to become the Capital of the World—which no one had announced—reached London in the fall of 1945 with a bombardment of invitations that no one had solicited. This chapter is set in London, where the United Nations Preparatory Commission begins the work of launching the new world organization. For the first time, diplomats take up the question of where the UN’s headquarters should be. For them, the decision represents the balance of power in the postwar world. Prolonged debates demonstrate the weight of the choice between the traditional centers of diplomacy in Europe and the prospect of locating in the United States, still viewed by many diplomats as the “New World.” Their debates reveal differing and changing perceptions of time, space, and distance at a time of new transportation and communication technologies. Meanwhile, the booster invitations reaching London demonstrate contrasting images of American history and experience. In addition to the UN debates over site selection, this chapter focuses on booster appeals from New England (especially Boston and Newport, Rhode Island) in contrast to Oklahoma, where a member of the Choctaw nation seeks the UN headquarters for Tuskahoma as an act of social justice. The chapter concludes by considering the importance of centrality to both the diplomats and the boosters and the malleability of that concept in promotional materials reaching the UN.
- Cartoon of diplomat surrounded by signs promoting potential world capital sites (Associated Press).
- Flight attendant displays San Francisco promotional brochures being shipped to London (San Francisco Public Library).
- St. Louis promotional brochure demonstrating importance of heritage and centrality (Missouri Historical Museum).
- Brochure promoting Tuskahoma, Oklahoma (Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives, University of Oklahoma).
- Site plan for UN headquarters in Black Hills of South Dakota (University of South Dakota Libraries).
Questions for discussion:
- In what ways did the interests of diplomats and civic boosters differ? In what ways were they the same?
- Why was selecting a headquarters site a significant question for the diplomats?
- How and why did the United States take a position of neutrality on the site question? What were the consequences?
- Why was finding “the center” such a difficult task in 1945?
- What do we learn about American identity by comparing the cases of world capital competitors in New England and in Oklahoma?
- How did world capital contenders manipulate maps to make their case? (See illustrations in this chapter.)
Chapter 5. Showtime! (pages 107-122)
Against the advice of the U.S. State Department, sixteen of the most assertive world capital hopefuls in the United States send representatives to war-torn London to make personal appeals to the UN. Confronted by this uninvited presence, the diplomats appease them by scheduling a series of hearings. This chapter serves as the heart of the book as it describes the boosters’ journeys to London and their presentations, noting similarities to the popular culture of the era (Irving Berlin composes “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” at the same time). Apart from the booster appeals to a small subcommittee, the UN Preparatory Commission continues its struggle over Europe versus the United States and finally opts for a new start in the U.S. for the new world organization. Each wave of headlines in United States newspapers prompts new invitations to the UN from American cities and towns.
- Promotional brochure for Chicago (Chicago History Museum).
Questions for discussion:
- What does this chapter demonstrate about the realities of international air travel in 1945?
- What do the Americans’ presentations in London reveal about the nature of civic boosterism?
- Among the civic boosters making presentations in London, who seems to have the best case?
- Why did the diplomats choose the United States over Europe for the headquarters location? What were the consequences of this decision?
Chapter 6: Surprise (pages 123-141)
Bolstered by their polite reception by the diplomats, American civic boosters are optimistic about their world capital prospects by the end of 1945. In the last days of December, however, they are surprised by the swift elimination of large portions of the United States in favor of a headquarters site in the Northeast. This chapter shifts attention to the internal deliberations of diplomats, with verbatim records of meetings providing a candid and penetrating view of the diplomats’ perceptions of the geography, politics, and race relations of the United States. The UN Preparatory Commission eliminates the western United States as too distant from Europe. A site review committee then eliminates the Midwest as too isolationist and the South as too prone to racial discrimination. Left, then, is the Northeast, where the diplomats decide to search for a site in the vicinity of New York or Boston—not in the cities themselves, but in their suburbs where the UN might establish a distinct identity rather than being absorbed into a metropolis. While world capital hopefuls in the eliminated regions howl with dismay, a new flood of invitations arrives from cities and towns in the targeted areas.
- Map of areas to be considered by site selection committee near New York and Boston (Geographical Review).
Questions for discussion:
- What do the diplomats’ discussions in this chapter reveal about race relations in the United States?
- Why were the diplomats concerned about the political climate of potential world capital sites?
- What do the diplomats’ discussions reveal about attitudes toward cities and suburbs? Why did they prefer a site in the suburbs?
Part III. American Dreams (pages 145-218)
Chapter 7. Stumble (pages 145-169)
With little knowledge of American real estate or local politics, a team of diplomats embarks for the United States to inspect potential headquarters locations in the vicinity of Boston or New York. They seek much more than a site for a building; their hopes instead are for an expanse of forty to fifty square miles to create a world capital. This chapter follows the site searching team’s remarkably brief jaunt into the northern suburbs of New York City and up along the Hudson to Hyde Park; to Princeton, New Jersey, with a side trip to Atlantic City; and to Boston, where their adventures include a visit to Plymouth Rock and a voyage by blimp to view the landscape. While numerous eager communities beckon for their attention, the diplomats encounter resistance in two of the locations that they consider most desirable: Concord, Massachusetts, and Greenwich, Connecticut. When they announce their choice of a site including Greenwich, they touch off a public relations disaster.
- Promotional brochure for Hyde Park, New York (United Nations Archives).
- Map of recommended site spanning Westchester County, New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, including Greenwich.
- Cartoon of alarmed homeowner resisting the approach of the United Nations (Associated Press).
Questions for discussion:
- Why did some communities resist the interest of the United Nations?
- What do the controversies in Concord and Greenwich reveal about the changing circumstances of small towns near major cities in the middle of the twentieth century?
- What does this chapter reveal about the decision-making processes of the new United Nations?
Chapter 8. Scramble (pages 170-193)
Set primarily in New York City, this chapter follows the efforts of prominent New Yorkers such as Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Moses as they seek to capitalize on the UN’s difficulties in the suburbs. The UN Security Council holds its first meetings at Hunter College in the Bronx, which the borough president views as the ideal future Capital of the World. Meanwhile Moses and his colleagues seek to place the United Nations in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the site of the 1939-40 world’s fair. They gamble on an investment in transforming an indoor skating rink into a General Assembly meeting hall and find offices for the UN Secretariat in a Long Island community with the promising name of Lake Success. As the UN’s debacle continues, more world capital hopefuls come forward and some previous competitors, including San Francisco and Philadelphia, reappear on the scene. In the suburbs of New York, diplomats with decades of international experience prove to be no match for local citizens determined to defend their communities.
- High school students in San Francisco organize a letter-writing campaign to bring the UN back to their city (San Francisco Public Library).
- Suggested site for United Nations headquarters in Riverdale, the Bronx (United Nations Archives).
- Sketch of UN headquarters by Le Corbusier (United Nations Archives).
- Map of prospective UN sites in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and Westchester County, New York.
Questions for discussion:
- Why did so many suburban residents object to the United Nations’ interest in their communities?
- How did resistance affect the UN’s plans for a headquarters?
- According to Corbusier, what was the difference between a world capital and a headquarters? In his view, which was preferable for the United Nations?
- How and why were New Yorkers successful in capitalizing on the UN’s difficulties in the suburbs?
Chapter 9. Deal (pages 194-218)
In this chapter, Nelson Rockefeller comes to the forefront as the individual with the financial resources and connections to resolve the UN’s dilemma. Although the UN General Assembly convenes in Flushing Meadows, diplomats are highly dissatisfied with the site and the difficulties of commuting from Manhattan. They look again at sites in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston—and seem poised to move to a site in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. With the prospect of losing the UN from New York—and perhaps from the United States—a call goes to Rockefeller. The chapter concludes with a moment by moment account of the making of the deal that placed the United Nations in its current location in midtown Manhattan and the end of the dream of creating a Capital of the World.
- General Assembly auditorium in Flushing Meadows (United Nations Photo Library).
- Artist’s rendering of future world capital in Flushing Meadows (New York Public Library).
- Slaughterhouse district selected as site for UN headquarters (United Nations Photo Library).
Questions for discussion:
- How and why did the United States drop its position of neutrality on the site question?
- How and why did UN diplomats come to prefer an urban location instead of the suburbs?
- Why did the new site-searching team find Philadelphia especially appealing? If that was the case, why didn’t the UN ultimately select Philadelphia?
- What was the role of Nelson Rockefeller in securing the UN headquarters for New York?
Epilogue (pages 219-227)
Reflecting on the Capital of the World competition, the epilogue provides an account of the later lives of some of the prominent contenders and returns to the major themes of the book to draw conclusions.
- Proposed grand concourse adjacent to UN buildings (Rockefeller Archive Center).
- Aerial view of UN headquarters complex (United Nations Photo Library)
Appendix: Capitals of the World (pages 231-255)
The appendix provides brief accounts of all known world capital contenders at the time of the book’s publication. Expanded accounts are available in the List of Contenders on this website.
Why did so many American communities offer sites for the United Nations headquarters?
For the generation of Americans born at the end of the nineteenth century, how and why did the world seem to be a smaller and more interconnected place by the 1940s?
Why was the location of the center of the world debatable by the end of World War II?
In what ways was the Second World War both a local and a global experience?
What role did issues of race play in the early life of the United Nations and its selection of a headquarters location?
Did Americans have a shared national identity at the end of World War II?
What are the characteristics of civic boosterism? Have they changed in the decades since the Capital of the World competition?
What does the Capital of the World competition reveal about attitudes toward cities and suburbs at the end of World War II?
What do the architectural designs for a Capital of the World suggest about Americans’ imagination of the future?
Why did so many world capital competitors base their appeals on local contributions to American history?
What does the Capital of the World story reveal about the exercise of power at the end of World War II?
Why did resistance to UN headquarters plans emerge in the suburbs of Boston and New York?
What role did the news media play in the Capital of the World competition? Was this an appropriate role for the press?
Why did the UN fail with its first choice for a headquarters location? What can be learned from this case about how to choose a location for a business or institution?
In what ways did popular culture in the 1940s capture the same spirit as the Capital of the World competition?
Was the strategy of the United States government in the UN site selection effective? Why or why not?
How did the emerging Cold War affect the UN’s challenges in seeking a headquarters location?
How would you promote your hometown as a potential Capital of the World?
How and why did the United Nations eliminate regions of the United States other than the Northeast from consideration for a headquarters location?
Why was the defense of home so important to Americans at the end of World War II?
Is New York City, the location of the UN headquarters, the Capital of the World?
If a Capital of the World competition occurred today, who would the competitors be? How and why would the competitors promote themselves?
Select one of the world capital precedents in the introduction for further research. Elaborate on the ways in which the precedent set the stage for the UN headquarters competition.
Using local newspapers, research your local community’s experiences at the end of World War II (1945-46). What plans were being made for the future? Did local residents become involved in supporting or opposing the United Nations?
Create a map of world capital contenders in a state or region. Does the map suggest any patterns that help explain why these communities, and not others, became involved in the competition?
Select one of the world capital contenders and research its history. In what ways does this add to your understanding of the community’s interest in the United Nations or raise new questions?
Investigate current promotional slogans and campaigns of localities involved in the world capital competition. Do they demonstrate continuities with 1945-46 or change over time?
Devise a campaign to promote your hometown as the Capital of the World.
Select another example of a competition among cities, such as vying for the Olympics or for a national political convention. Research your selected case and compare it to the world capital competition of 1945-46.