You might wonder why anyone would pick any city other than New York City for the headquarters of the United Nations (UN). It embodies all the qualities one would want for a “world capital”: known to everyone, bustling, multicultural, central, influential. But leading up to the UN’s selection of NYC for their headquarters in December 1946, dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands, of cities and towns across the U.S. lobbied to be picked. Charlene Mires has documented that competition well in her book Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations.
Seeing as the story took place in the less globalized mid-1940s, that the headquarters would be in either Europe or the U.S. was a foregone conclusion. Were the UN in the process of selecting a headquarters in 2013, one wouldn’t be surprised to see Shanghai, Mumbai or São Paulo in fierce competition with NYC. But with Europe just beginning to recover from World War II, all eyes were on the U.S. (Canada? Don’t make me laugh.)
Interestingly, a large number of top UN diplomats were opposed to having headquarters in a large city proper, worried that it would become “subsumed into the metropolis.” They didn’t just want a headquarters – they wanted an honest-to-goodness “capital of the world,” a global center for international diplomacy. Today, the Hague is as close to such a city as they’ve gotten, even if NYC is more popular. But then, civic boosters seemed more than happy to let their metropolises, such as they were, become subsumed by the UN.
Mires focuses on a few cities with particularly extensive booster campaigns – Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco – and suburbs abutting them that would have been more appealing to city-averse diplomats. One relatable character who opens the book is Paul Bellamy, who, spurred by the memory of his late son (an Air Force pilot killed in action), promoted his hometown of Rapid City, South Dakota, as a peaceful and prosperous UN site. It may seem laughable, but he and scores of other boosters knew at least some of what the UN wanted to hear.
Ultimately, though, they did settle for NYC. A pricey land donation from the Rockefeller family was helpful, even essential, in their decision. But with most of the diplomats setting their sights on personal residences in the city, it came down to the practical consideration of commuting. Not ideal for a UN-brand “world capital,” but NYC embodied all the necessary qualities of such a city with or without the UN.
This book is as much a history of the UN headquarters as a series of case studies in civic boosterism, which makes it required reading for anyone who studies urban issues. I would have broken it up into chapters by city instead of by chronology, but Mires’s pacing is solid and her anecdotes were chosen well. I deem this book shelf-worthy.