New York and the United Nations: An Interview with Pamela Hanlon

Today on the blog, Gotham Center assistant Theoren Hyland speaks with Pamela Hanlon, author of A Worldly Affair: New York, the United Nations, and the Story Behind Their Unlikely Bond.

Normally, we ask authors why they chose their particular projects, but I read that you felt there was a gap in the literature. You were curious to learn about the relationship between New York and the United Nations, but dissatisfied with what was out there. So what aspect of your research did you find most engaging?

While I was well aware that the relationship between New York City and the United Nations has been a troubled one at times, the extent of their disagreements and the degree of tension over the years was surprising. I was especially interested to learn how, in what were still the very early years of the UN in New York — the mid-1950s — the relationship was so strained that many seriously speculated the UN might pick up and leave the city. Some at the UN “are grasping at every incident to stimulate a move to set up UN headquarters elsewhere,” an aide warned Robert Wagner, New York mayor from 1954 to 1965. At the time, the UN delegates and staff still were not well settled in New York. Of course, the UN complex had been built, and the General Assembly was meeting in its new swoop-roofed Hall. But most delegates hadn’t moved their families to New York and were still commuting back and forth to their home countries. And virtually no UN member-nation had invested in a significant mission facility at that point. It was indeed feasible that the UN might have left New York.

So then, one might ask, why had the City allowed the relationship to sour. Like so many partnerships, personalities has a lot to do with it. In the first years of the UN in New York, Robert Moses, the powerful master planner of New York, was in charge of virtually all of the city’s dealings with the UN. And as historians well know, Moses was not one to mince words in voicing his opinion. He had a particular problem dealing with a man who would become one of the most influential and respected secretaries general in UN history, Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold came into office in 1953 and he clashed with Moses almost immediately. Their disagreements began over the seemingly mundane problem of automobile parking, an issue that would forever plague the UN-city relationship. (In this case, the issue was the number of parking spaces the UN would provide in its underground garage.) Moses later said the diplomatic Hammarskjold was a “mystic… hard to understand.”

It fell to Mayor Wagner to mend the relationship. As one of his first acts after taking office on January 1, 1954, Wagner called on Hammarskjold in his office at the UN. When Wagner left, he instructed his aides to “leave no stone unturned in smoothing out the hundred and one wrinkles between the city of New York and the UN.” Wagner removed Moses from his UN liaison duties and set up a high level committee of prominent New Yorkers — including Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late president and former chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights — to tackle the issues. At the time, they ranged from racial prejudice and anti-communist sentiments, to lack of housing and schools with a globally oriented curriculum, confusion over taxes, to general hostility on the part of many New York residents. Then a few years later, Wagner set up a permanent city commissioner’s office to focus solely on the UN-city dealings. Today, the commission remains a part of city government, now called the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs.

In many ways, NYC was never predetermined to host the United Nations. In fact, during the immediate postwar years a continent for UN headquarters had not even been designated. Why Gotham? And what dynamics were key in facilitating the outcome?

Such a small enclave, only 18 acres in the middle of a large city of more than 300 square miles and 8 million people, was not the original intention of the UN. In fact, in 1945, when the organization’s charter was signed and the UN first started to look for a headquarters site, it had its sights set on a vast parcel of land in the countryside. What the UN planners had in mind was some 42 square miles… and engineers for the UN were formulating plans that would have expanded the site to some 172 square miles. It was to be a self-contained community — with not only offices and meeting halls, but with homes, schools, libraries, theatres, and shopping venues.

What were they thinking?, one might ask. Well, it seems clear that back then — just as World War II was ending and leaving such devastation in so many parts of the world — representatives of the new United Nations realized that in the United States there was plenty of spacious, unspoiled, land — vast acreage on which a large world community could be built.

And much of the United States welcomed the idea. More than 150 localities around the country expressed an interest in hosting the UN, and many of them lobbied hard to attract the organization. They mounted extensive promotional campaigns, from big cities, like Chicago and San Francisco… to rural areas, such as the Black Hills region of South Dakota and the Smoky Mountain range in the Appalachians. New York City, then led by the popular Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, wasn’t one of them. Not because the mayor didn’t want the UN to come to New York. He did. But La Guardia — ever proud of his city — said at the time, “I think it is unbecoming for a city to peddle itself… I am not going to put my city in the position of bidding for the UN the same as a small-sized city would bid for a national political convention or for the Elks convention or something like that.”

And he concluded, “When it comes down to the final analysis of what is needed, then it is New York.”

Today, we all know that La Guardia was right. But it didn’t happen without considerable consternation on the part of the UN, New York officials, and various regions of the country that the UN initially selected but that weren’t receptive to having the UN in their midst.

In your narrative, you place a lot of emphasis on individual actors’ role in bringing the UN to NYC. How did those elites use their positions to influence the process?

It is true that many of the city’s most prominent citizens worked hard to bring the UN to New York. Mayor William O’Dwyer, who succeeded La Guardia in January 1946, enlisted some 1,000 high-powered New Yorkers to help persuade the UN people that New York was the place to be. At the time, the administration wasn’t trying to persuade the UN to settle in Manhattan. The city plan for the UN was a headquarters in Queens, in Flushing Meadow Park, on the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair and the site of the UN’s temporary location.

The influential New Yorkers recruited by the mayor included The New York Times publisher Arthur Hayes Sulzberger, retailing giant Bernard Gimbel, RCA’s David Sarnoff, Mrs. Vincent (Brooke) Astor, RCA’s David Sarnoff, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, many members of the Rockefeller family, and even the celebrated party-giver, Elsa Maxwell. They all pitched in to try to persuade the UN that New York was the “place to be,” entertaining UN staff and their families at teas, luncheons, cocktail parties, dinners and even weekend stays at their homes in the country. They invited them to Broadway shows, the opera, and concerts, and arranged for the city’s galleries and museums to open their doors for private showings for the UN people. Nelson Rockefeller and his wife, Tod, made a regular practice of entertaining the UN men (and indeed, they were all men at this point) and their wives with dinner and performances at Radio City Music Hall. But it was Mrs. Vanderbilt who hosted what became probably the grandest party of them all – a five-course formal candlelight dinner at her twenty-eight-room mansion on Fifth Avenue, an event that ended up as a picture story in Life Magazine.

The UN selection committee initially envisioned a large, isolated compound located in a countryside environment, distant from metropolitan areas. NYC administrators, by contrast, dreamed of Flushing Meadow Park, site of the 1939 World’s Fair. Ultimately, neither idea, nor many others, panned out. Why the space between 42nd and 48th?

While the UN committee searched throughout the country, the temporaryheadquarters of the UN had been established in New York, scattered all about — from the Bronx, to Manhattan, to Lake Success on Long Island, to Queens, where a temporary General Assembly Hall had been set up on the site of the old World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park. While the committee was quite sure it didn’t want to be in Queens permanently, it was beginning to warm to Manhattan. The excitement, the glamour, and the nightlife was appealing to the UN folks. But they were well aware, of course, that the price tag for Manhattan real estate was far beyond the UN’s budget.

Behind the scenes, and just as the city was about to concede that San Francisco or Philadelphia areas would be selected as the UN home, a young, energetic member of the wealthy Rockefeller family — Nelson — was working on other ideas to keep the UN in New York. Then just 37 years old, Nelson Rockefeller would, of course, go on to be a three-term governor of New York and Vice President of the United States. But in the mid-1940s, he was focused on New York City affairs, and was keenly interested in seeing the UN come to the city. He had connections within the UN from time he had spent working in the U.S. State Department. And, of course, he had a wealthy father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself was a big supporter of the new United Nations. So Nelson persuaded his father to donate money to the UN so that it might buy a group of lots on the East River between 42nd and 48th Streets, then the site of stockyards and slaughterhouses. The offer of $8.5 million (over $100 million in today’s dollars) was made on December 11, and within just hours, the world organization accepted the gift and New York City had become home to the UN headquarters.

I might add that this quick synopsis of the Rockefeller donation does not do justice to the wisdom, knowledge and commitment of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as he came to his decision to help. I was fortunate that, while researching the book at the Rockefeller Archive Center, I had access to a recently processed “memorandum to the file” that was written by Rockefeller Jr. in early 1947, just days after he made his offer to the UN. It gave great insights into his thinking at the time, and was the basis for my chapter in the book called “Rockefellers to the Rescue.”

One strength of the book is your description of the relationship between the UN and New York City as purposeful accident, a mixture of driven actors committed to a particular vision of the future and the unfolding of unforeseeable events at opportune moments. Indeed, for every one of Robert Moses’ master plans, there was a potential site that opened up as a possibility. Do you view either of the two forces as more impactful than the other in this narrative?

Let me answer this way: I think the “force” that you refer to may have been New York City’s vibrant borough of Manhattan. When the UN began its search, it had no intention of settling its headquarters in a large city. And New York City officials had no intention of suggesting that the UN settle in Manhattan. They were focused solely on persuading the UN to set up shop permanently in Queens. Yet, as I point out in the book, these same city officials seemed almost always to entertain the foreign guests in the borough of Manhattan. Here is an example: On Wednesday, October 23, 1946, when the UN held its first General Assembly session at its temporary quarters in Queens, in the City Building (now home of the Queens Museum), the city’s extravagant welcoming festivities played out virtually entirely in Manhattan. Starting at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in the morning, a motorcade took the delegates — ninety-six cars and four buses — through the heart of Manhattan to City Hall for a ceremony with the mayor, then a ticker tape parade up lower Broadway, then lunch back at the Waldorf Astoria, and — after a late afternoon opening General Assembly session in Queens — back to the Waldorf Astoria’s Starlight Room for a reception hosted by President Truman and the First Lady. It really is no wonder that the UN people were beginning to think Manhattan was the “center of the world.”

From the girls at Hunter College’s Bronx campus to the inhabitants of Turtle Bay, New Yorkers have had a complicated, nuanced relationship with the UN’s presence in the heart of Manhattan. How did attitudes evolve over time, and how may we explain these changes?

In large part, I think New York’s relationship with the UN has tracked the sentiments and politics of the city’s leaders. As I noted previously, it was Robert Wagner, during his term as mayor in the 1950s and early 1960s, who worked hard — and ultimately effectively — to smooth relations with the organization and set them on the right track for the future. But then during following administrations, there were indeed ups and downs in the partnership. In particular, Ed Koch was, at least vocally, pretty hard on the UN. He readily acknowledged that his feelings stemmed from policy positions of member states, primarily related to Israel. He called himself “a proud Jew governing a city with more Jews than live in Tel Aviv,” and he notoriously called the UN a “cesspool,” “hypocritical,” and “cowardly.”

But underneath all the bravado, Koch was a supporter of having the UN in his town, and he had a very effective and influential city commissioner to the UN, Gillian Sorensen, who managed to work behind the scenes to smooth the waters.

Another mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, was even more provocative in his pronouncements about the UN’s presence in his city, once ordering the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, out of a city-sponsored Lincoln Center concert to which all UN members and observer states had been invited. And for almost one full year of his eight years in office, he embarked on a tirade over diplomats’ unpaid parking tickets. He once said, “If the UN would like to leave New York over parking tickets, then we can find another use for that area of town.”

Other mayors, like John Lindsay and David Dinkins, were openly supportive of the UN. And more recently, Michael Bloomberg rarely got into any public spats with the UN, whether over local irritants like parking, member nations’ policy positions, or the organization’s sometimes controversial foreign guests. He put it this way: “As the host city of the UN, we have to — even when it is painful and disgraceful and disgusting, any term you want to use — we have to be willing to let anybody that the UN wants to credit, or visit them, come here.”

The current mayor, Bill de Blasio, seems determined to be a good host to the UN. At a time when the Trump administration is openly critical of the UN and cutting funding for the organization, the de Blasio administration is showing, through an active Commissioner’s office, that not only does the city welcome the UN in its midst and appreciate the financial benefits it provides to the city (estimated to be close to $4 billion annually), but it also shares with the UN many of the same goals, such as the UN’s broad-based Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015.

For much of the UN’s existence, the U.S. was engrossed in the Cold War. Early hysteria over supposed communist infiltration of the government prompted many to even question if it could be a viable institution for advancing international stability. How did those politics complicate the UN’s relationship with NYC?

The fear of Communism in the U.S. in the 1950s — the “Red Scare,” as it has been called — found the UN-New York City duo in an unusually awkward position. Here was an organization, whose members represented many different ideologies — Communist and non-Communist alike — located in the midst of a city that, like cities throughout the U.S., was increasingly gripped by the fear of Communism. For instance, in the fall of 1952 as the first General Assembly session was held in the just-completed General Assembly hall, New York public school teachers and college professors were being investigated for Communist leanings under the so-called Feinberg Law. Congressional hearings were targeting some of the city’s most talented actors, writers, and musicians, leaving them “blacklisted” and out of work. And municipal workers were being investigated as a prerequisite to employment. At the same time, two high-profile investigations underway in Manhattan were looking into suspected U.S. communists working for the UN Secretariat. One was hearing evidence from an ambitious young assistant U.S. attorney, Roy Cohn. The other was a Senate subcommittee hearing, which had moved its proceedings from Washington to New York to be closer to the UN, which its chairman, Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, called “a vantage ground for (Communist) infiltration into the United States.”

It put the UN, then under Secretary General Trygve Lie, in a difficult spot. He said he deplored what he called the “hysteria” taking hold in the United States over the fear of “Reds.” And yet he also felt that with the UN permanently headquartered in the United States, it was “plain common sense not to want any American Communists in the Secretariat.”

It was a complex and uncomfortable episode in the UN-New York story, and it ended only with the easing of the fear of communism in the U.S. in the late 1950s.

In this eighth decade of an ever-evolving relationship, you observe the UN’s bond with NYC is stronger than ever. How do you see the future of this relationship?

I think it can be said that without question, the UN headquarters is in New York City to stay. That is not to say that the organization, which currently is embarked on a study of long-term reforms throughout its worldwide network, may not find solutions that call for downsizing some of its offices in New York and moving certain functions to other locations. But, with member-nations having invested in the city with large mission facilities and homes for delegates and staff, it is clear that New York will remain the base for UN headquarters for years to come. And certainly the current de Blasio administration is prepared to facilitate the UN’s presence. Perhaps New York City’s position can best be summed up by a promotional slogan that was introduced just last year: “We are the city of United Nations; Together we are greater.”

Pamela Hanlon, a New York writer, is a former corporate communications executive with American Express Company, United Airlines, and Pan American World Airways. She has lived on Manhattan’s East Side, near the United Nations headquarters, since 1976, and has written extensively about the area.