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Why the UN Was Built in New York and Not in South Dakota


UN headquarters at Hunter College in the Bronx, 1946
The Bronx campus of Hunter College was the site of UN headquarters from March to June 1946, in the gym. A quick-moving deal arranged by Nelson Rockefeller put the UN in Manhattan, overlooking the East River.

Who knew there was once such hot competition to host the United Nations?

Not even the author of a book on the topic, when she first started out. One day in her home city of Philadelphia, Charlene Mires, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, was going through some old newspaper clippings. One featured a front-page editorial provocatively headlined, “Philadelphia — Home of the United Nations.” It was in the Philadelphia Record of March 5, 1945. Despite the city’s reputation as home of both the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence, some readers wrote in to protest that the city had a smelly river, dirty streets and bad water, but Philadelphia’s mayor promptly jumped on the promoters’ bandwagon. He insisted that his city — “the spiritual world capital of liberty and freedom” — was a logical choice.

For Mires, the newspaper clipping was the beginning a fascinating detective journey she traveled in writing her book, “Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations,” published this spring. She soon discovered that almost 250 cities, towns and regions in the United States were vying to become the UN’s permanent home in 1945-46. The civic boosters — ranging from San Francisco, Detroit and Chicago to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Beloit, Wis., and Claremore, Okla. — had energetically promoted their own locales as the best and most sensible site for the new UN. The search took Mires across the country to numerous libraries and archives where she soon learned that in those days, people wrote and sent telegrams to their governors, legislators and presidents about “absolutely everything.”

"Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations"
At one point, a big promoter of the Black Hills, in South Dakota, was pushing for that site for the UN headquarters.

The result of Mires’s search is a lively, detailed and very human account of how the UN ended up on a 17-acre slaughterhouse site next to the East River in Manhattan. The tale is all the more interesting since, initially, most New Yorkers had little or no interest in bringing the world organization to Manhattan itself.

The UN headquarters was imagined as a world capital, the center of global diplomacy, and a kind of perpetual world’s fair. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died well before a final decision was made, described the UN Charter as the international equivalent of the US Constitution. Though a European site was favored for a time by some diplomats, the continent was still recovering from wartime destruction, and the crusade for a location was largely American.

Mires, a co-recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, delivers a real “you are there” feel to the story with descriptive facts and photos. Can you picture, for instance, Paul Bellamy, the key promoter of the Black Hills, S.D. site, making his pitch in London before a subcommittee of the UN Preparatory Commission? He told the diplomats that it is better “to be a big toad in a little puddle” than vice versa and that they would be safely distant from any city that might be an atomic bomb target and would have access to very good dinners in the area for $1.25 or less.

Many other civic boosters, though urged by the US State Department not to make the trip to London, popped up there to make “intensely rehearsed” pitches for their particular sites. San Francisco’s mayor, Roger Lapham, who stayed on in London longer than the other promoters and thought the signing of the UN Charter in his city gave it a needed edge, learned on his way to the airport for his return flight that a Preparatory Commission subcommittee had just voted to limit its search to the eastern US. He told a reporter who caught up with him that it was a “cheap, dirty trick” that smacked of “regular ward politics.”

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What finally turned the tide in favor of Manhattan?

After the London session, the UN moved in March 1946 to a temporary site — the Hunter College gym in the Bronx. However, Trygve Lie, the first UN secretary-general, was soon convinced that the site could not support the UN’s long-term needs. City boosters invited him to meet with them to review all available options. He began to think of New York City itself as the best location.

Charlene Mires
Charlene Mires, the author of "Capital of the World," about how the UN landed in New York.

A well-known New York real-estate developer, William Zeckendorf, had begun to assemble property along the East River for a mixed-use elevated development of a hotel, apartments, offices and an opera house, to rival Rockefeller Center, when he learned on Dec. 6, 1946, that Philadelphia was fast becoming the compromise choice. He had paid $1 million toward an option to buy the property on the East River for $5.5 million more by the end of the year. As he recalled it later, he promptly told his wife, “I’m going to put those bastards [the UN diplomats] . . . over the slaughterhouses.” He phoned New York’s mayor, William O’Dwyer, to tell him he had the perfect site for the UN. The mayor also had a call from Lie that day, saying that unless New York had a new and better proposal, the UN would go to Philadelphia.

The Rockefeller brothers had been trying to put together a site that included a number of their suburban properties, but the idea was not working. When told of the possible East River site, Nelson Rockefeller, a former US secretary of state and strong UN supporter, quickly called the site “ideal.” Zeckendorf was tracked down at a nightclub, where he was the host of a party. He signed a paper, saying the UN could buy the land for $8.5 million within 30 days. After a quick inspection, the deal was sealed on Dec.  11, 1946. The rest is history. The Rockefeller gift, Mires writes, “seemed to have fallen from the sky.”

On Oct. 24, 1949, the UN’s fourth anniversary, some 10,000 people gathered on wooden folding chairs to witness the laying of the granite cornerstone of its new permanent home. The audience was facing flags of 59 nations and both the New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey, and President Harry S. Truman were on the platform, and “appeared to chat amiably despite their rivalry in the 1948 presidential election.” A municipal band was playing”The Sidewalks of New York.”

“Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations,” by Charlene Mires; 0814707947

Lucia Mouat is the author of “The UN’s Top Job,” a book about UN secretaries-general. She holds a B.A. in international relations from the University of Wisconsin and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Academic Council on the United Nations System. A longtime correspondent and editorial writer for The Christian Science Monitor, she covered the UN as her last assignment. She lives in Chicago.

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