Center of the nation, center of the world

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 stories with us on our blog leading up to the book’s publication. Focusing on Chicago and the Midwest, this entry is the third in our series.

Chicago had much to boast about by the end of the Second World War. Less than 75 years after the Great Fire, the city had rebounded into a metropolis. Think of it: Host city to two world’s fairs, in 1893 and 1933. The crossroads of the nation’s railroads, moving people and commerce from East to West. A city of skyscrapers, and a destination for immigrants. During the war, it was even called one of the nation’s “arsenals of democracy.”

What more could one desire in a potential Capital of the World?

Without hesitation, in 1945 Chicago leapt into the spontaneous and spirited competition among American cities and towns to become the headquarters location for the new United Nations. Despite tendencies toward isolationism still embraced by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago and other Midwest contenders entered the fray among more than 250 cities and towns making pitches to become the Capital of the World.  How about one of the state parks in Indiana? Or Chicago’s rival in railroads and commerce, St. Louis? Why not the Black Hills of South Dakota? Or the “Queen City,” Cincinnati? These were among the world capital hopefuls who pursued the prize with such gusto that they sent teams of boosters to London – uninvited – to make personal pitches to the UN.

The UN’s choice of New York was far from certain, and all options seemed open as the world transitioned from war to peace. Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations tells the surprising, entertaining, and revealing stories of Americans who were determined to make a new place for themselves on the map of the postwar world.

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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