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.

Part of the back story is tourism. Before the Second World War, boosters in the region devoted great energy into enticing people to come to the Black Hills. They built new roads for automobiles, they persuaded Calvin Coolidge to spend a summer, and they promoted Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.  The impact of this work remains on view today in Rapid City, which is a virtual museum of tourist hotels of every vintage. During several productive days of reading in the South Dakota History Room of the Rapid City Public Library, I stayed in a 1970s-era motel of the type that wraps around a chlorine-permeated interior courtyard with a swimming pool. (Remember when we thought this was fancy?)  I also noticed around town the smaller roadside motor courts that established the tourism industry in earlier times. Rapid City residents were accustomed to recruiting visitors—so why not the United Nations?

Rapid City also was home to one of the central figures in Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations. Anyone tempted to dismiss the bid of the Black Hills as simply crazy has to have second thoughts upon hearing the story of Paul Bellamy, the local businessman who launched the campaign and pursued the dream halfway around the world. Who could argue with a father who had received the most dreaded sort of telegram about his son, a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Force, and who sought the United Nations headquarters as a memorial tribute? Fortunately for me, Bellamy also saved every scrap of his work to bring the Capital of the World to the Black Hills. Not so fortunate for me, his papers were not in Rapid City but 400 miles across the state at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. They turned out to be a gold mine, and I will have more to share from them as we continue the search for the Capital of the World.