Detroit’s Quixotic Bid to Host the United Nations

What if the U.N.'s headquarters had been on Lake St. Clair instead of the East River?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the 20th century, Detroit earned a reputation as the automotive capital of the world — a declaration of pride in its manufacturing achievements. In the 21st century, the struggling city has cropped up in the news as the murder or arson capital of the world. Based on its massive consumption of salty snacks, some even regard it as the potato chip capital of the world.

But suppose Detroit were the capital of the world, known around the globe not only for its industrial past or post-industrial present, but also as the focal point of international diplomacy. Suppose that the United Nations had its headquarters there, and that the last six decades in Detroit’s history were framed not only by the decline of the auto industry, the racial tensions, and the plummeting population, but also the work of securing world peace. What then would we think of Detroit? And what might we think of the United Nations?

At the end of World War II, Detroit’s boosters dared to dream. In 1944, while the Dumbarton Oaks conference met to lay the foundation for the United Nations, Detroit was the first American city to conceive that the new world peace organization might also offer a hometown opportunity. The idea to invite the United Nations to establish its headquarters in Detroit originated with the local Convention and Tourist Bureau, gained unanimous support from the Detroit City Council, and before long was dispatched to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. As the United Nations became reality in 1945 and 1946, additional missives to the world’s diplomats called attention to Detroit as an ideal site for the organization’s headquarters.

The Motor City pointed to its location on the U.S.-Canadian border — "the international boundary of two great nations which have been at peace for 132 years" — and to its role as one of the "arsenals of democracy" that helped win World War II. By 1945, as the United Nations began to define its criteria for a headquarters location, Detroit also boasted of its cosmopolitan population, listing every conceivable nationality that resided there — but in a sign of the times, excluding any mention of its large and growing African-American population.

The boosters imagined the city as a future hub of commercial air travel, arguing that Detroit’s central location would allow for swift transportation and communication to all parts of the world. "Other American cities may have one advantage, but Detroit has them all," wrote the president of the Convention and Tourist Bureau, Frank A. Picard. Even the climate would get with the program: "Few localities in the world can offer such delightful days in spring or fall, and it is an area free from hurricanes, earthquakes, cyclones, or floods."

In the early days of the United Nations, a vision for a freestanding Capital of the World — not merely a headquarters within an existing city — led to a search for a large tract of land that would allow the organization to create its own distinctive identity. Detroit’s civic leaders felt they had an ideal location: Belle Isle, the lovely 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River landscaped earlier in the century by Frederick Law Olmsted. Such a location, Detroit’s leaders proclaimed, was the perfect setting for a U.N. building that would be a "living monument to world peace."

Boosterism being what it is, the invitation accentuated the positive — to borrow a phrase from the 1944 song — and left out a particularly revealing detail. Belle Isle also had been a flashpoint for a devastating wartime race riot: In July 1943, fighting between black and white teenagers on the island combined with widespread rumors of racially motivated violence against women to spark a three-day riot that left 34 people dead, hundreds injured, and $2 million in property damage. While dramatic, it was not an isolated event but a symptom of the racial tension in a city with a growing African-American population and vast inequalities in employment and housing opportunities.

Detroit’s boosters were only too happy to ignore this hitch in their plans — and they were persistent in pressing their case. In 1946, they managed to lure U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie to an Automotive Grand Jubilee celebration, and the Convention and Tourist Bureau detected a glint of hope when Lie proclaimed, "With your brains, your leadership, your energy, and your toil, you played a leading part in achieving victory" in World War II.

Diplomats being diplomatic, no one ever said no to Detroit — only that the city’s interest would be considered by the appropriate authorities at the appropriate time.

Detroit wasn’t the only city vying for the United Nations’ attention: The new global organization unintentionally ignited a wave of world capital boosterism that swept to every region of the country between 1944 and 1946. Without invitation, other localities joined Detroit in staking claims to ideal locations on the U.S.-Canadian border. Invitations came forth from the two towns of Niagara Falls, New York and Ontario, and from the two Sault Ste. Maries, Michigan and Ontario, not to mention a suggestion of the International Peace Gardens on the border of North Dakota. Other American cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, claimed the mantle of arsenal of democracy. Geographically, Boston could claim to be the closest city to Europe, the traditional center of diplomacy, and just about any community could imagine itself at the center of a commercial air network that had yet to be constructed.

Before it was over, Americans in at least 248 cities and towns made suggestions, issued invitations, or launched full-out campaigns to win the prize of becoming the Capital of the World. Like most of the other contenders, Detroit never really stood a chance.

After prolonged debate over whether to place the U.N. headquarters in Europe or the United States, the diplomats opted for the United States, and then quickly reduced the options by region. The West was considered too distant from Europe, the Midwest too isolationist, and the South too prone to racial discrimination. Only the Northeast remained. In the face of homeowner resistance in the suburbs of New York, dreams of a Capital of the World gave way to the expedient gift of $8.5 million from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the site, previously a slaughterhouse district in midtown Manhattan, where the U.N. headquarters stands today.

We cannot know whether a world capital on Detroit’s Belle Isle would have changed the course of the city’s history. It seems unlikely, given the extent of the inequalities that already existed and the struggles the auto industry would soon endure. We cannot know whether a U.N. headquarters in Detroit would have survived as an island enclave or become another of the city’s haunting ruins.

But this much we do know: At a pivotal time in history for the city and for the world, Detroit’s promoters lifted their gaze from their city’s looming crises to imagine happier alternatives. They staked local prosperity on international dreams. If it seems a little crazy in retrospect, then we have lost touch with the spirit of determination that forged connections between local ambitions and world affairs at the end of the Second World War.

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