Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations

Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations

Excerpt

October 24, 1949, in New York City was a day of symbolism and silences.

At East Forty-Second Street facing the East River, a sleek slab of a building reached toward the sky, its upper floors still under construction. Seventeen acres, previously a district of stinking slaughterhouses, had been cleared of all traces of earlier times. Where livestock once lumbered through the streets, ten thousand people now sat in wooden folding chairs facing the flags of fifty-nine nations and a platform draped in blue. Onstage, President Harry S. Truman and New York governor Thomas E. Dewey appeared to chat amiably despite their rivalry in the 1948 presidential election. Diplomats from both sides of the Iron Curtain shook hands while a municipal band played a jaunty rendition of The Sidewalks of New York (“east side, west side, all around the town …”). They gathered on this construction site to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the United Nations and an event that many considered to be a milestone in the history of the world—the laying of the granite cornerstone for the UN’s permanent headquarters in New York. The dignitaries spoke of hopes for lasting peace. The New York Times wrote of the ghostly presence of thousands of wartime dead whose sacrifices led to this day.

Occasionally, speakers on this occasion also described the UN’s headquarters as the “world capitol” and New York, by extension, as “the capital of the world.” From 1944 through 1946, as the world pivoted from the Second World War to an unsteady peace, the birth of the United Nations sparked a much more ambitious idea: that a new Capital of the World should be created to serve as a permanent center of international diplomacy. It was imagined as something like a perpetual world’s fair, or perhaps a cluster of fashionable embassy buildings, or even an entirely new city where the UN’s staff could live and work in modern buildings symbolizing a bright, unencumbered future. How this idea took root, gained momentum in a rush of postwar civic boosterism, but ultimately lost its luster is . . .

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