NYU Press, March 2013
Featured on PRI’s The World, February 13, 2013
From 1944 to 1946, as the world pivoted from the Second World War to an unsteady peace, Americans in more than two hundred cities and towns mobilized to chase an implausible dream. The newly-created United Nations needed a meeting place, a central place for global diplomacy—a Capital of the World. But what would it look like, and where would it be? Without invitation, civic boosters in every region of the United States leapt at the prospect of transforming their hometowns into the Capital of the World. The idea stirred in big cities—Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans, Denver, and more. It fired imaginations in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in small towns from coast to coast.
Meanwhile, within the United Nations the search for a headquarters site became a debacle that threatened to undermine the organization in its earliest days. At times it seemed the world’s diplomats could agree on only one thing: under no circumstances did they want the United Nations to be based in New York. And for its part, New York worked mightily just to stay in the race it would eventually win.
With a sweeping view of the United States’ place in the world at the end of World War II, Capital of the World tells the dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of hometown promoters in pursuit of an extraordinary prize and the diplomats who struggled with the balance of power at a pivotal moment in history.
Mires (history, Rutgers Univ.-Camden), corecipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, investigates a largely unexamined aspect of the birth of the United Nations: the attempt by many U.S. cities during the closing days of World War II to persuade it to base its headquarters in their respective communities. Mires has tracked down elusive archival sources and forgotten newspaper accounts, uncovering a fascinating chronicle involving countless American politicians, foreign diplomats, and community promoters who participated in the feverish lobbying campaign that at times resembled an Atlantic City beauty contest. After numerous site inspections and unending deliberations, the prize was finally awarded to New York City in late 1946, largely owing to the $8.5 million gift of the Rockefeller family allowing the United Nations to build its “workshop of peace” on the Manhattan site overlooking the East River where it resides to this day. VERDICT While plenty of books address the creation of the United Nations, Mires provides an important supplement showing how the idealistic search to establish the physical presence of the fledgling organization gave way to the cold realities of the marketplace. Recommended for readers of 20th-century American history, students of urban history, and scholars of post World War II diplomacy.
Polls have repeatedly indicated that many New Yorkers wouldn’t mind if the UN left their city lock, stock, and barrel, taking its bureaucracy and parking-violating diplomats along. The irony is not lost on Mires, for, as she reveals in her surprising and often amusing work, New York “won” the privilege to host the UN after a furious, sometimes sad, and sometimes comical competition with other cities and locales. Some of the competitors were seriously considered, including San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and even an Ontario Island near Niagara Falls. Others, including the Black Hills of South Dakota, never had a chance. Mires shows how the competition was triggered by a combination of municipal pride, boosterism, and an eagerness to reap the financial rewards that were expected to accrue to the host city. Mires also captures the pervading sense of optimism amongst the claimants after the horrors of WWII. This is a very readable, entertaining account that is aimed at a general audience.