The United Nations today seems inseparable from its New York City headquarters, the sleek, international-style complex wedged between the East River and the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. Could we even imagine the world’s diplomats meeting in a secluded spot like the Black Hills of South Dakota, Sault Ste. Marie in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or Tuskahoma, Oklahoma? Would the work of peace be more or less effective in another city? What about San Francisco, St. Louis, Chicago—or even Boston?
All of these possibilities came into play in 1945 and 1946 as the Allied nations of World War II began to search for a headquarters site for the newly organized United Nations. They initially envisioned not just a complex of buildings, but a new “capital of the world” of up to 40 to 50 square miles, roughly twice the size of Manhattan. This world capital would have included not only offices and meeting halls but also housing for delegates and staff, transportation and communications facilities, and unoccupied land for growth in the future.
Such a prospect proved irresistible to American civic boosters. With no invitation whatsoever, they besieged the United Nations with letters, telegrams, and promotional campaigns for cities and towns from coast to coast. The United Nations, for its part, was struggling over whether to settle in Europe or the United States. But once the balance tipped to the United States, the diplomats would look no farther than the northeastern cities closest to traditional European centers of diplomacy.
Cue Massachusetts. Boston seemed a natural candidate, given its position as the American city closest to Europe. “Hub of the World,” the Globe predicted, and former mayor and then-governor Maurice Tobin led the charge for the Boston metro area. Already an avid campaigner to lure conventions and other business to the city, Tobin called attention to Boston’s London-like townhouses; its ample business services,
auditoriums, and hotels; and its multinational population, which stood ready to assist in any language.
As the diplomats focused their search on the suburbs around Boston and New York, no fewer than 48 Massachusetts communities clamored for the United Nations’ attention. (A few resisted, notably Concord, where a skirmish broke out over the potential change that a world capital would bring to the town.) Massachusetts towns promoted their deep heritage, particularly the tradition of town meetings, as appropriate inspiration for the difficult work of global governance. They promised to build the world’s best airports. The woodsy Middlesex Fells were mentioned as a site for the World Court, and towns on the North Shore as far as Beverly beckoned. The undeveloped Blue Hills seemed a worthy prospect south of Boston, leading the people of Quincy to organize a campaign. When UN diplomats came for a look around in January 1946, they were lured to Plymouth to inspect the rock; they voyaged by blimp over Boston to get an aerial view.
In the end, Boston lost to New York, a deal sealed by $8.5 million donated by the Rockefeller family for the site in midtown Manhattan that became the UN headquarters. Looking back on the startlingly wide range of invitations, we can appreciate the spirit of a moment in history when the existence of the United Nations seemed not only desirable, but essential for the peaceful survival of the world. And if the world capital campaigns seem just a little bit crazy—as they did to some critics, even then—they are also somehow heartening, a reminder of a moment when nearly unlimited local ambition crossed paths with equally boundless global ideals.
Charlene Mires is the author of “Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations” (NYU Press, 2013) and blogs about the world capital campaigns at http://www.capital-of-the-world.com. She will speak at the Massachusetts Historical Society on Oct. 16.