European Candidates for the UN Headquarter

  July 19, 2021   Read time 5 min
European Candidates for the UN Headquarter
The most obvious European site was Geneva. Large and imposing buildings had been purpose-built for the League. There would have been a clear financial saving in using these, rather than building new ones (it was not then widely realized that the League's would be required anyway).

But the chances that a Swiss site would be chosen were weakened by the ambiguous position taken up by the Swiss Government, which was even more cautious towards the new organisation than it had been to the League. The experiences of the Second World War had made clear to the Swiss the manifest advantages of their neutral status.

They were somewhat alarmed at the concept of the new organisation as a body which might quickly find itself making war to keep the peace, using its own armed forces against an errant member-state. Even to be host to such an organisation, it was believed, could threaten Switzerland's neutral status. So the Swiss Government declared that, while they would be willing to see a new organisation set up on Swiss soil if this was generally desired, any decision by the Security Council involving the use of force would have to be taken outside Swiss territory: a somewhat absurd position which effectively excluded Switzerland as the site for the headquarters.

Within the Executive Committee of the Preparatory Commission, the West European states strongly advocated a European site. Nearly all the rest, including the Soviet Union, China, Australia, Czechoslovakia and the Latin American countries, wanted a site in the United States. The United States and Canada remained neutral. Accordingly a US site was recommended to the Preparatory Commission, though no exact location was suggested.

By the time the Preparatory Commission began to discuss the question, at the end of November 1945, the issue had become a public one. This stimulated a flood of offers of sites in a number of cities and areas of the United States, on a large number of well-meaning grounds. Delegations from all over North America flocked to London to preach the merits of their own particular city, anxious to acquire celebrity or commerce as the site of the new organisation. The places offered included Hyde Park, the estate of the late President Roosevelt in New York State; a place on the border between the United States and Canada, which it was proposed should become international; an area of the Wild West in the Black Hills, on the border between South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming; the estate of Abraham Lincoln; an island in Niagara Falls; a place in Hawaii; and other picturesque spots, together with a dozen US cities, including San Francisco, New York, Denver, Boston and Philadelphia.

There was active lobbying by the various delegations on behalf of these different localities. The governors of Massachusetts and California, the mayors of San Francisco, Chicago and Atlantic City, and committees of distinguished citizens argued the special attractions of their states and cities. Altogether, twenty-two sites had been offered - nineteen in the United States and three in Canada - by the time the Preparatory Commission met at the end of November.

Within the Commission, Adlai Stevenson, the US delegate, expressly stated that his country made no special claims, but that, if the United States were the general choice, the UN would be welcomed there. France and Britain continued to claim it was essential to choose a seat in Europe. The initial vote came down against a European site, but only by the barest majority (25-23, with 2 abstentions). But, once this had been rejected, the main resolution favouring a US site was carried by a substantial majority. Later it was decided overwhelmingly that the seat should be in the eastern part of the United States.

An interim committee of twelve members was then established to inspect the main alternatives offered and report to the Assembly. The sites to be considered were one in the Boston area and three others east of the Hudson River: in New York, Connecticut and near Princeton in New Jersey. At this time, the general view was that the headquarters should be in a rural area, where a whole new international city could be established. After inspecting various sites, the Committee came up with a recommendation for somewhere in the region around North Stamford and Greenwich, not far from New York City. The Assembly accepted this in a modified form, proposing two particular areas. It set up a new headquarters committee to make a final choice.

But the residents in the area recommended had different views. Unlike the mayors and other dignatories who had flocked to London a few months earlier to tout their own state or city, they had altogether no desire to see the headquaters of an international organisation despoiling the countryside where they lived. They did not relish the prospect of having a huge cosmopolitan colony of international bureaucrats and politicians dumped down in their midst. And they therefore protested in loud and unflattering terms. The result was that the Headquarters Committee, intimidated by this outcry, rejected the recommendation of the previous committee in favour of the Greenwich area. Instead it came down in favour of an alternative site close to New York, either in Westchester County, or in Fairfield, Connecticut.

But once again the local residents took a hand. The reaction was quite as hostile as it had been in Greenwich - and the extremely wealthy residents even more influential. By the time the Assembly met again in the autumn of 1946, this protest movement had become loud and articulate. To impose the new headquarters on a bitterly hostile population, it seemed to suggest, would be to land the new organisation in trouble for years ahead, and trouble of a totally unnecessary kind, since there were many localities clamouring to receive the new organisation. As a result a number of delegations felt that the whole question should be looked at afresh; and the restriction to a site in the New York area should be abandoned.