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.