CAMDEN — Everyone knows New York City as the unofficial center of the universe, but what if the true capital of the world was right here in New Jersey? A Rutgers–Camden history professor says this was the dream of many towns in the Garden State at the end of World War II.
In Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations (NYU Press, 2013), Charlene Mires, an associate professor of history at Rutgers–Camden, details how small towns and big cities around the country once staked their claim to be home base for the United Nations.
“The research for this book was a wonderful opportunity to understand how people all over the United States were able to make the argument that their location was central to the world,” Mires says.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 after World War II. Today, its 193 member states are committed to maintaining international peace and security. But before it could begin its mission, a major question remained unanswered: where would the UN headquarters be located?
The people of major U.S. cities like Chicago and Philadelphia thought the “world capital” moniker best described their metropolis, but smaller municipalities also lobbied for the right serve as host for world leaders making crucial global decisions.
In New Jersey, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Cape May, Hackensack, Morristown, and Princeton were just some of the towns to bid for the UN’s attention.
According to Mires’ book, George A. Smock II, a former mayor of Asbury Park, said members of his community had “a cosmopolitan understanding of the world’s people [and] their customs.”
Cape May officials promoted the town’s reputation as a retreat for presidents and other government types, and Princeton played up its small town feel with access to a larger city. A man from Hawthorne sent an invitation to the UN complete with drawings of world capital buildings named for Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
When trying to determine a location, New York City was thought to be too big and a place in which the UN could not establish a separate identity. So, small town America made its appeals based on its heritage and ideals.
“At the time, any place could imagine itself to be the capital of the world,” Mires says.
In Pennsylvania, Gettysburg offered historical inspiration as “America’s greatest historic shrine” and Lancaster mayor Dale E. Cary wrote, “Most of our people are descendants of original settlers making for a conservative and truly patriotic atmosphere.”
In her study, Mires identified 248 U.S. localities involved in the competition to become UN headquarters. She says Americans had a strong sense of responsibility for securing and maintaining the peace after World War II.
“The scope of proposals indicates the previously unexplored public fascination with the prospect of creating a Capital of the World, evolving perceptions of the postwar world, and wide-ranging interaction between localities and world affairs,” Mires writes in her book.
Ultimately, the amenities large cities had to offer UN officials outweighed those in small town USA, and the threat of the urbanization of small towns caused the proposals to fall flat.
Stakeholders in the City of Philadelphia thought they could lay claim to the UN because it was the birthplace of American independence, which could serve as a global inspiration, but the UN was not persuaded by the city’s historical significance.
However, Philadelphia’s interest served as an incentive for UN officials to negotiate with New York City, which finally won out thanks to an $8.5 million gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. The money was used to buy land in Manhattan for the world headquarters.
“I think what we discover from this are some underpinnings to later ideas of globalization, especially in how local identities were connected to world affairs,” says Mires, who notes that the race for the UN revealed much about the global pride Americans had after World War II.
Read more about Capital of the World by following Mires’ blog at capital-of-the-world.com.
The author of Independence Hall in American Memory (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), Mires directs Rutgers–Camden’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), which supports humanities research, programming, training, and communication throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Colombia.
The Rutgers–Camden scholar received her bachelor’s degree from Ball State University, her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and her doctoral degree from Temple University.
She is a co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, an award she shared in 1983 with the staff of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana for coverage of a local flood. She also served as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
For more information about Rutgers–Camden news stories, visit us at news.rutgers.edu/medrel
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse