California, here they came

At the end of WWII, the United Nations needed a headquarters… And so began the race to host the United Nations, with over 200 American cities and towns fighting to become the UN’s new home, or the “capital of the world.” 

In Capital of the World (NYU Press, 2013),  award-winning historian and journalist Charlene Mires uncovers this fascinating history of hometown promoters in hot pursuit. We invited Mires to share a few of these stories with us on our blog. Our final entry in the series moves to the West Coast, starting with a telegram that would propel San Francisco into a global competition. (For more stories like this one, visit the author’s blog!)

In the last months of World War II, an unexpected telegram arrived in San Francisco from around the world. “California, here we come,” the Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, wired from Moscow to San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham, who up to that moment was enjoying a peaceful lunch at his usual club on Nob Hill. Thus began San Francisco’s moment on the world stage as the United Nations’ first Capital of the World – the site of the conference to draft the United Nations Charter – and the quest of San Francisco and other California cities and towns to keep the honor.

Would San Francisco and other world capital hopefuls in the American West benefit from the feeling that the postwar world would be centered more on the Pacific region than the traditional centers for diplomacy in Europe? Or would they lose to perceptions that they were too distant from European capitals?

At a time when prospects for commercial aviation were changing ideas of time and distance, anything seemed possible. Placing the United Nations in New York was far from certain, and San Francisco competed prominently and vigorously among nearly 250 American cities and towns seeking the honor of becoming the Capital of the World. While many Californians aligned with San Francisco’s bid, offers also reached the UN from more than a dozen other California contenders. From the West also came invitations from Denver and Salt Lake City, and suggestions of Grand Coulee, Washington, and the Grand Canyon.

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations follows the San Francisco boosters and other world capital hopefuls as they competed for the UN’s attention at the end of the Second World War. Reaching across the nation and around the world, from boardrooms to the halls of diplomacy, the book relates the surprising and often comic story of American determination at a pivotal moment in world history. Any town could have dreamt of becoming the Capital of the World, and readers will wonder: what if their dreams had come true?

Charlene Mires is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University-Camden. She is also the author of Independence Hall in American Memory and a co-recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.

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