Capital of the World

The Race to Host the United Nations

328 pages

April, 2015

ISBN: 9781479833757



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Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers University-Camden. She is the author of Independence Hall in American Memory and a co-recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. 

All books by Charlene Mires

From 1944 to 1946, as the world pivoted from the Second World War to an unsteady peace, Americans in more than two hundred cities and towns mobilized to chase an implausible dream. The newly-created United Nations needed a meeting place, a central place for global diplomacy—a Capital of the World. But what would it look like, and where would it be? Without invitation, civic boosters in every region of the United States leapt at the prospect of transforming their hometowns into the Capital of the World. The idea stirred in big cities—Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, New Orleans, Denver, and more. It fired imaginations in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in small towns from coast to coast.  
Meanwhile, within the United Nations the search for a headquarters site became a debacle that threatened to undermine the organization in its earliest days. At times it seemed the world’s diplomats could agree on only one thing: under no circumstances did they want the United Nations to be based in New York. And for its part, New York worked mightily just to stay in the race it would eventually win. 
With a sweeping view of the United States’ place in the world at the end of World War II, Capital of the World tells the dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of hometown promoters in pursuit of an extraordinary prize and the diplomats who struggled with the balance of power at a pivotal moment in history.


  • "With meticulous research and journalistic verve, Charlene Mires tells an overlooked story about American engagement with the world. Writing in a decade when many Americans worry about their nation's place in the world, Mires reminds us about the excitement that the newly created United Nations generated not only in big eastern cities but also in the heartland of the Middle West and Great Plains. Her fast-moving and always entertaining narrative captures the optimistic spirit of the 'Greatest Generation.'"

    —Carl Abbott, author of How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America

  • "Charlene Mires provides a fascinating account of the enthusiastic effort to establish a home for the fledgling United Nations at the end of World War II. She creates a powerful sense of suspense as she describes the intense competition among boosters from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and even the Black Hills of South Dakota.  In lively and elegant prose, from the first sentence to the last, she captures the contradictory visions of the 'Capital of the World' that persisted from beginning to end."

    —Allan M. Winkler, Distinguished Professor of History, Miami University

  • "Capital of the World is an exceptionally imaginative book that warrants an exceptionally diverse readership. Charlene Mires, a former journalist who recognizes the extraordinary in the ordinary, leverages her skill as a public historian and expertise in material culture to tell the complicated and surprising story of the competition to select the site of UN headquarters. By ascribing meaning to this competition rooted in the defining historical moment in which it took place, Mires offers us an innovative transnational history that provides an unexpected twist to understandings of glocalization."

    —Richard H. Immerman, Edward J. Buthusiem Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History, Temple University

  • "Mires delivers an amusing account of the intense, if not world-shaking competition for the U.N. headquarters...Although little was at stake and everyone knows the outcome, Mires works hard and mostly successfully to hold her readers’ interest in the energetic, often-quaint public-relation antics of the 1940s."


  • "Mires has tracked down elusive archival sources and forgotten newspaper accounts, uncovering a fascinating chronicle involving countless American politicians, foreign diplomats, and community promoters who participated in the feverish lobbying campaign that at times resembled an Atlantic City beauty contest...While plenty of books address the creation of the United Nations, Mires provides an important supplement showing how the idealistic search to establish the physical presence of the fledgling organization gave way to the cold realities of the marketplace."

    Library Journal

  • "Polls have repeatedly indicated that many New Yorkers wouldn't mind if the UN left their city lock, stock, and barrel, taking its bureaucracy and parking-violating diplomats along. The irony is not lost on Mires, for, as she reveals in her surprising and often amusing work, New York "won" the privilege to host the UN after a furious, sometimes sad, and sometimes comical competition with other cities and locales. Some of the competitors were seriously considered, including San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, and even an Ontario Island near Niagara Falls. Others, including the Black Hills of South Dakota, never had a chance. Mires shows how the competition was triggered by a combination of municipal pride, boosterism, and an eagerness to reap the financial rewards that were expected to accrue to the host city. Mires also captures the pervading sense of optimism amongst the claimants after the horrors of WWII. This is a very readable, entertaining account that is aimed at a general audience."


  • "Most know that UN headquarters rest in midtown Manhattan overlooking the East River, but what many do not know—and what Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Mires delivers in this entertaining account—are the improbable twists and turns the organization took in settling on that location. In a refreshing turn, Mires offers insight into "a period that lies midway between the booster strategies of the nineteenth century...and the more intense place marketing and branding efforts of cities around the world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century," keeping the story firmly focused on the efforts to determine a location while leaving the more minute details of the UN's formation for other scholars to explain. As a result we are treated to ambitious visions of a world capital tucked into South Dakota's Black Hills, or isolated Sugar Island near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The quick dissolution of plans calling for 40 to 50 square miles of land—one can hardly imagine Westchester County, New York, as home to a teeming international metropolis—to a mere parcel in New York City deftly summarizes the grand ambition and brief optimism of lasting peace that permeated existed after the end of WWII."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "The writing is fluid, precise, and exciting."

    Lifelong Dewey

  • "Ms. Mires provides an entertaining and informative account of mid-century boosterism and optimism."

    The Wall Street Journal

  • "engaging, well-written work"


  • "thoroughly entertaining book"

    —John King, SFGate

  • "Do you want to know a little known fact about Philadelphia?  This nation's first capital was in the running to become the globe's first capital too!  Nowadays, many refer to New York City as the 'cultural capital of the world,' for various and obvious reasons.  Beyond the apparent diversity of its inhabitants, New York City has hosted the United Nations headquarters for over 60 years, hence the 'world capital.'  Back in the 1940s, New York City was not a shoe-in location however; over 200 cities and townships throughout the globe strived, campaigned and lobbied to become the host of the United Nations Headquarters.  Philly was not only one of the hundreds competing to become this global capital, but it just about persuaded the world's diplomats to call Philadelphia home - until an unexpected turn of events." 

    Historical Society of Pennsylvania

  • "Capital of the World is a rich and fascinating book that both entertains and enlightens.  Mires has an eye for the telling vignette, a skill for plumbing the archives and interrogating the documentary and visual record, and an ability to see the large in the small and vice versa.  Although the book's accessibility is sure to gain it a wide nonacademic readership, scholars, particularly those with an interest in such topics as the United Nations, modern U.S. history, civic engagement, and postwar internationalism, will find it more than worth their time."

    —Mary Ann Heiss, The Journal of American History

  • "In what promises to be the definitive account of this story, Charlene Mires, a former journalist who is now a professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, relates how the United Nations wound up in the heart of Manhattan.  It is a story, she notes, that has been largely ignored by most previous historians of the United Nations.  Mires does not limit herself to a bloodless account of bureaucratic maneuverings; instead, she embeds her narrative in a broader framework that traces the history of the international organization back to the early nineteenth century."

    —Gary B. Ostrower, The New England Quarterly

  • "This fascinating and extremely detailed story covers the period from late 1944, before the UN had even been formally created, to the end of 1946, when the decision was made to locate the organization in New York City.  Based on extensive research, the book is vividly written in an accessible fashion that is suitable for a wide audience."

    —Andrew Johnstone, American Historical Review

  • "As World War II was drawing to a close, thought turned to the structures and location of a new organization for peace and security.  Though a number of countries were vying for the privilege, in this well-researched tome Charlene Mires focuses on the frenzied activity in the United States.”

    The Historian

  • “Highly informative, well-researched, and narratively compelling, Capital of the World stands as a singularly important work that will appeal to students and general readers of urban history, diplomacy, economics, architecture, American studies, and the history of New York.” 

    New York History