From World War II to the World Stage (or maybe not)

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. This entry, relating the South’s role in the race for the UN, is the second in our series.

At Christmastime in 1945, the world was in motion.  On ships tossing in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and on packed trains from city to city, troops headed home for the first holiday season after the Second World War.  As American sons and daughters set their sights on cherished hometowns, the parents and neighbors they left behind awakened to new opportunities.

For example, what if the old hometown could become the Capital of the World?

In every region – South, North, East, and West – the idea took hold that some lucky community might be selected as the headquarters site for the new United Nations.  In nearly 250 locations across the United States, civic boosters found a multitude of reasons to try for the prize.  In Virginia, for example, Charlottesville called attention to its distinction as the home of Thomas Jefferson.  Fredericksburg pointed to the inspirational boyhood home of George Washington. Portsmouth proclaimed itself “the South’s City of the Future.”  The tiny crossroads of Uno seemed “typographically perfect,” according to the Associated Press. Elsewhere in the South, Miami and New Orleans angled against other cities to become the Capital of the World.

But would the South’s aspirations be welcomed by the United Nations?  The fate of the southern contenders is one tale among many in the surprising and far-from-certain story of how the United Nations came to place its headquarters in New York City. At the end of the Second World War, when plans for commercial aviation were just taking off, it seemed that any location might be imagined as a potential center and Capital of the World.

In this light, just imagine the surprise that awaited boosters from Newport News, Virginia, who spent Christmastime in 1945 traveling from the United States to London, against the holiday tide. They were taking a gamble that UN diplomats there would hear their pitch to place the UN near Colonial Williamsburg. But by the time they arrived, all bets were off for the South. Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations explains why as it follows the adventures and antics of American civic boosters as they pursued the prize of becoming the Capital of the World. Their experiences capture the essence of American determination at a pivotal moment in world history, in the transition from war to peace.

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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