Every year, the United Nations General Assembly descends upon New York City, bringing with it traffic jams, crowded subways, diplomatic mishaps, and, in recent years, some tens of millions’ worth of public spending. Given the trouble—and today, a president whose only real interest in foreign policy seems to be alienating other nations—it’s hard to believe that ordinary Americans once saw the prospect of hosting the UN in their country as a benefit, not a costly liability.
Yet that was the prevailing sentiment in 1945, when the organization was searching for a place to settle. It was a different time: The men and women whom today’s right-wing politicians revile as “globalists” enjoyed a slightly more flattering profile. Intellectuals were more inclined to condemn nationalism strongly and without hesitation, calling it “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” (Orwell) or “an infantile disease…the measles of mankind” (Einstein). World peace was largely deemed a cause worthy of intellectual inquiry and charitable giving, rather than the subject of resigned shrugs.
It was in this atmosphere, and from the ashes of two world wars, that the United Nations rose: if not a symbol of peace, then, to paraphrase one of its architects, at least a “workshop” for it. But rootless cosmopolitanism isn’t particularly conducive to establishing a functional bureaucracy, so the UN had to go in search of a “forever” home—and after a lengthy debate about the best place for its headquarters, it opted for the United States. Curiously, this was the result not solely of American strong-arming, but also of the -international community’s reasoning that the United States would be less apt to “return to its previous isolationist tendencies” if the UN was on its turf. As New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia put it, the organization would “bring right home to us the troubles and the problems of the entire world, and also bring home to us our responsibility.”
The next question was precisely where in the United States to site the fledgling organization. Some 150 different US localities, from the Black Hills to the Great Smoky Mountains, volunteered to become “the new capital of the world.” A businessman from South Dakota pledged that in his state, “no large city will absorb your identity.” Minneapolis made a dubious claim that it had an “ideal climate.” La Guardia, while in favor of locating the UN in New York, refused to participate in the “scramble of cheap competition,” so it was up to his successor, William O’Dwyer, to do the city’s bidding.
Once New York was decided on, the search for a location was as complex as any of the city’s real-estate transactions. Scouts surveyed several sites in the area, including the Sperry gyroscope plant in Lake Success, Long Island, and Flushing Meadows Park in the borough of Queens, where the UN was temporarily housed. Parts of the Hudson Valley and Westchester County were also considered, to the great chagrin of some residents, until, in a last-minute move, the Rockefeller family decided to donate $8.5 million toward the purchase of a stretch of slaughterhouses known as “Blood Alley” on Manhattan’s East Side (they were assured that they would not pay tax on the gift).