Duluth’s bid to become headquarters of the U.N

In June 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco at the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They worked together to write the United Nations Charter, which the conference members approved on June 25, and on June 26, 1945, in a ceremony at the Veterans Building, all 50 representatives signed the Charter. Then, when the Charter was ratified by China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries on October 24, 1945, the United Nations (then known as the United Nations Organization or UNO) officially came into existence.

That same month, the United Nations Preparatory Commission began meeting in London to plan the launching of the UN. As described in the book Capital of the World: the race to host the United Nations, by Charlene Mires, one big item of business was the discussion of the location of the new UN Headquarters. On October 3, the Preparatory Commission’s Executive Committee met and voted to recommend locating it in the United States. That decision was the inspiration for many regions and cities of all sizes in the U.S. to submit proposals to become the site for what was then being called the “Capital of the World.” In December, the Preparatory Commission met and discussed the recommendation of the Executive Committee, and after much discussion, on December 15, 1945, they agreed on the United States as the location.

City of Duluth officials considered submitting a proposal that their city be considered as the site for UN headquarters after hearing about a meeting of the United Nations Preparatory Commission on December 17 in which the possibility of racial discrimination in some U.S. locations was discussed. Some reports also stated that there were commission members who wanted to avoid areas with hot, humid climates. On Friday, December 21, Walker Jamar, president of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce, sent the following message to Adlai Stevenson, acting U.S. delegate to the UN:

Reports indicate cool climate desirable for UNO headquarters. Therefore request you submit Duluth, Minn., for consideration. 70-year average August-September temperatures 61.5 degrees. Comfortable days and cool nights insure maximum working efficiency. Scenic recreational climate, geographic advantages recommend Duluth. Racial discrimination unknown. Three hours by plane from Chicago. Descriptive material follows.

The next day in London the UN’s new Interim Committee on Headquarters, chaired by Roberto MacEachen of Uruguay, agreed that the UN site in the U.S. should be east of the Mississippi River, eliminating the proposals of San Francisco, Denver, and St. Louis, as well as some smaller towns. That recommendation came from the delegate of Great Britain, who felt the headquarters, if in the U.S., should be located as close to Europe as possible. The decision was a tough blow for supporters of San Francisco, who believed they had a very good chance of landing the headquarters site; Duluth, at least theoretically, was still in the running.
Also on December 22, Duluth officials recruited Arthur Gunderson, a former Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Herald editorial writer who was working for a press service in London, to advocate for the city’s selection as the UN’s permanent headquarters site. In a letter to Gunderson, Duluth Mayor George W. Johnson said:


Duluth City Hall painting of Mayor George W. Johnson

Please consider this our authorization for you to serve as the official representative of the city of Duluth in presenting to the proper United Nations Organization officials our invitation to the United Nations committee on permanent headquarters site to visit Duluth with the view of inspecting its possibilities as such a permanent site for that organization.

Then, at closed door meetings in late December, the committee made more decisions that narrowed the field of candidates for the headquarters. First, they decided on December 27 that the site should not be below the Mason-Dixon Line, mostly because of the potential for discrimination against visiting diplomats of color. Next, the committee decided to eliminate locations in the Middle West, in large part because of positions taken by the Chicago Tribune that supported a more isolationist stance and opposed the formation of the United Nations. They felt that the newspaper was a major influence on the entire region. Finally, after narrowing down the potential geographic area to the Northeast, the committee, still meeting privately, decided to consider two specific areas—one within a 60-mile radius of Boston, and one within 80 miles of New York City, but not closer than 25 miles to the city. Since they didn’t want to publicly reveal their discussions of bigotry and isolationism that eliminated the Midwestern and Southern states (wanting to avoid offending the U.S. or turning public opinion against them), committee members simply referred to the Eastern states’ proximity to Europe as their reason.


From Who’s Who in St. Louis County, Collier Printing, Duluth, MN 1932

Duluth Chamber of Commerce President Walker Jamar, who had submitted the city’s original proposal, was informed of the committee’s decision in a cable on January 3, 1946. In the cable, which was quoted in that day’s Duluth Herald, Chairman MacEachen thanked him for Duluth’s offer and expressed regret that it could not be accepted “because of the decision to recommend the location of headquarters in the New York or Boston areas.” Gunderson also cabled Mayor Johnson in City Hall with that information. That same issue of the Duluth Herald featured a local editorial that chastised the UN for its decision to locate its headquarters on the East Coast and also demonstrated that the idea of “flyover country” dates back to at least the 1940s:

Middle America should be the location of the world capital. Almost anywhere in the middle of the continent. If the term “Middle West” offends the touchy East, let’s forget it, for Middle America is a far better description anyway. . .For a world capital it is better and more conveniently located than either coast for the convenience of a greater number of foreign delegates and others who will have to visit the world capital. It’s about time we get over the illusion that the neighborhoods of New York, Boston and Washington should be sacred to national and international matters. The facts do not bear out the argument; rather, they dispel it.

The United Nations team tasked with the job of evaluating proposed sites in the Northeastern U.S. arrived at New York’s LaGuardia Field on January 5, 1946, and the next day took a train to Washington, DC, to meet with President Truman and other federal officials. They soon began visiting sites in the Northeast and some other areas, a task that would take most of the year and cause controversy among residents of some locations who feared they would be forced from their homes if the UN decided to locate near their town. By August, the members had decided to recommend one of five locations in New York’s Westchester County, but discussions in meetings in those areas during the following weeks ran into strong and vocal resistance from local property owners.

The headquarters site search was finally ended on December 11, 1946, when John D. Rockefeller Jr., urged by his son Nelson, donated to the United Nations six blocks in Manhattan from 42nd Street to 48th Street along the East River, valued at $8.5 million, to serve as the site for the headquarters. The city of New York agreed to spend $2 million to purchase and donate some additional land in the same area. Within two days, both the UN Headquarters Committee and the General Assembly had voted to accept the gift, and the decision of a permanent site for the UN was settled.

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