Looking back at the U.N.’s place in New York

Seventy-five years ago, on September 14, 1948, officials broke ground at the New York site for the United Nations headquarters.

Earlier, after World War II ended, 50 countries had founded the U.N. to maintain global peace and security and improve international cooperation. In the face of war’s destruction, President Biden says, the founders could have focused on humanity at its worst. “Instead, they reached for what was best in all of us, and they strove to build something better.”

U.N. Acting Secretary-General Benjamin A. Cohen saw New York, with its large immigrant population, as an exemplary place for the U.N.’s headquarters because New York attracts “people coming from all over to live in peace and harmony,” the New York Times reported at that time.

Diptych of construction site for United Nations and U.N. Secretariat Building with flags in front (Both photos: © UN)
Left: The permanent U.N. headquarters under construction in Manhattan. Right: The U.N.’s Secretariat Building with flags of member states (Both photos: © UN)

Decades later, world leaders from the U.N.’s 193 member states converge on Manhattan’s East Side each September for the U.N. General Assembly, bringing modern levels of traffic to the neighborhood. The inconvenience is well worth it, according to Thomas Pickering, who served as U.S. representative to the U.N. in the early 1990s. “Actions by the U.N. still count,” Pickering says. Its general assembly sessions can mold the opinions of world leaders, create legitimacy for the use of force and advance cooperation on protecting human rights, he says.

This year Tuesday, September 19, marks the start of high-level debate for the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly. Biden will address the assembly on that day.