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A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II
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New York City during World War II wasn’t just a place of servicemen, politicians, heroes, G.I. Joes and Rosie the Riveters, but also of quislings and saboteurs; of Nazi, Fascist, and Communist sympathizers; of war protesters and conscientious objectors; of gangsters and hookers and profiteers; of latchkey kids and bobby-soxers, poets and painters, atomic scientists and atomic spies.
While the war launched and leveled nations, spurred economic growth, and saw the rise and fall of global Fascism, New York City would eventually emerge as the new capital of the world. From the Gilded Age to VJ-Day, an array of fascinating New Yorkers rose to fame, from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes to Joe Louis, to Robert Moses and Joe DiMaggio.
In Victory City, John Strausbaugh returns to tell the story of New York City’s war years with the same richness, depth, and nuance he brought to his previous books, City of Sedition and The Village, providing readers with a groundbreaking new look into the greatest city on earth during the most transformative — and costliest — war in human history.
Sunday, April 30, 1939, dawned bright and sunny in New York. But by lunchtime a lid of low, dark clouds had clamped over the city, and soon it was steadily and drearily pelting rain. Knowing what we know now, the historiographer James Mauro noted in Twilight at the World of Tomorrow, it’s hard not to see this shift in the weather as ominously portentous.
April 30 was the day for the grand opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The fair’s theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow.” Starting in 1936, sixty nations, dozens of corporations, some of New York’s finest architects and designers, and an army of workers had pitched in to transform an ash dump in Flushing Meadows, Queens, into a heroic, soaring vision of a utopian future, a world of peace and harmony, rocket ships and robots, orderly ribbons of highway and glittering forests of skyscrapers.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Albert Einstein, and other dignitaries were on hand for the grand opening. The one million fairgoers organizers had predicted were not. The gloomy, wet weather reduced attendance to at best half that, and some estimates were as low as two hundred thousand.
On April 30, 1939, the future was cloudy indeed. Two of the world’s fair’s sixty original nations, Austria and Czechoslovakia, had recently ceased to exist as independent states, devoured by Hitler’s Germany. Germany, another original participant, had pulled out of the fair in a fit of pique over increasing criticism from Americans, not least of them the outspoken La Guardia.
In September 1939, as the fair’s first season was drawing to a close, Germany invaded another participating nation, Poland. Within weeks, Germany and the Soviet Union had divided the country. Two more nations at the fair, England and France, declared war.
New York’s world’s fair, like the world itself, was in shambles when it opened again in May 1940. From “The World of Tomorrow,” which now seemed hopelessly naive, the official theme was changed to “For Peace and Freedom.” Ten nations did not reopen their pavilions, most of them because they were now in Nazi hands. Finland, overrun by the Soviets, closed its pavilion. The Soviet Union had shut down its own pavilion, dismantled it, and shipped it away.
By July Hitler had established dominion over virtually all of western Europe, and his Luftwaffe was bombing England in preparation for an invasion. That July 4, a terrorist bomb at the fair killed two people and severely injured others. Japan, which had one of the more popular national pavilions at the fair, formally joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy that September. By the time the fair dispiritedly folded for good at the end of October 1940 its theme might as well have been “The World at War.”
The conflict that began in September 1939 raged on around the world until August 1945. Fifty million to 85 million people died (estimates still vary). Millions more were injured, raped, enslaved, displaced, or otherwise brutalized. Many of the world’s great cities were smashed to rubble. It all ended in the hellish flash of the most powerful weapon yet developed, the atom bomb.
Still, dreams of global peace and progress survived, and in 1946 they returned to Flushing Meadows. The only structure from the ’39 world’s fair still standing, the large New York City Building, was converted into a meeting hall for the first gathering of the General Assembly of the United Nations. While delegates conferred there, work on the UN’s permanent home got under way in Turtle Bay, a former area of slaughterhouses and crumbling waterfront on the east side of midtown Manhattan. On October 24, 1949—just a week short of ten years since the first season of the New York World’s Fair ended—President Truman, New York governor Thomas Dewey, various diplomats, and ten thousand onlookers gathered at the foot of the slim, elegant UN Secretariat tower, still under construction, to lay the granite cornerstone.
Becoming the home of the United Nations and the “capital of the world” was the crowning achievement for New York City when it was at the zenith of its power and influence. In the decades surrounding World War II, New York was a far larger presence in America and around the world than it is today.
To start with, there was its sheer size. In the 1920s it had eclipsed London to become the largest city in the world. Its population of seven and a half million in 1940 was larger than the next three American cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit—combined. It was bigger than the populations of the fourteen smallest states combined. Three of its five boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx—would rank among the eight most populous cities in the country. Almost 6 percent of all Americans lived within its five boroughs, 10 percent in the greater metropolitan area. It was also an extraordinarily diverse and cosmopolitan population. More Jews lived in New York than in any other city in the world, more blacks than in any other city in America, more Irish than in Dublin, more Germans than anywhere outside Germany, almost as many Italians as in Rome.
While Washington was the nation’s political capital, New York was the capital in just about every other way that mattered. Its port was the busiest in the world, shipping 40 percent of all imports and exports for the entire United States. It was the nation’s wholesale and retail merchandising hub. It was its powerhouse of banking and international finance. There were more Fortune 500 headquarters in Manhattan than anywhere in the country. Although it had no giant steel mills or automobile plants, New York’s tens of thousands of smaller factories employing a million workers made it the largest factory town in the world.
It was the nerve center of national media, headquarters of the national radio networks and the big national magazines. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, New Yorkers could read about it in a dozen English-language dailies: the Daily News, the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, the Sun, the Wall Street Journal, the Mirror, the New York Post, the Journal-American, the World-Telegram, the Brooklyn Eagle, the Daily Worker, and the new PM. The conservative Daily News was the largest-circulation paper in the country, selling two million copies a day during the week, four million on Sundays. The New York Times moved far fewer copies, but it was highly influential among the power elite in Washington as well as New York. There were also foreign-language dailies, including the Forward for Yiddish readers and Il Progresso Italo-Americano, and a number of weeklies, such as the archconservative Examiner, which, because it came out on Sundays, was the first New York paper to carry the Pearl Harbor news on Sunday, December 7, 1941.
Home to Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, Broadway and book publishing, the Harlem Renaissance and Greenwich Village bohemia, New York City was the culture engine for the nation. It even styled and made the clothes Americans wore.
New York’s political clout in Washington was at its height in this period. Having this massive population center in it gave New York State more electoral votes than any other—47 in 1940. Pennsylvania came second with 36. This made winning the state key in any presidential election—and the city, with half of the state’s voters, was key to winning the state. In the first half of the twentieth century, getting elected governor of New York was a very good way to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. From the mid-1880s to 1948 governors Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Dewey won their parties’ nominations, and three of them went to the White House.
It’s no exaggeration to say that from the day President Roosevelt took office in 1933 to the day he died in 1945, New Yorkers ran the country. Washington, D.C., was virtually Gotham-on-the-Potomac. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s family roots in New York reached back to the 1600s. Eleanor was born in the city, kept residences there throughout her life, and died there. Franklin was born and raised up the Hudson but lived in Manhattan on and off until moving into the White House. On arriving there he filled his administration with the best and brightest, the most powerful and influential people New York City had to offer: corporate leaders, judges, lawyers, bankers, academics, scientists, social workers, playwrights, composers, journalists, even advertising executives. Roosevelt’s right-hand man, many of his closest advisers, and his speechwriters all came down from New York. He put New Yorkers in his cabinet and on the Supreme Court, and he had New Yorkers running many of his agencies. New York intellectuals formed the core of his “brains trust.” New Yorkers played the principal roles in crafting the New Deal programs that gradually lifted the nation out of the Great Depression, and in guiding the nation’s efforts in the war, and in holding together the Grand Alliance of Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin to win the war. Some were salaried federal employees, others donated their time and skills as so-called dollar-a-year men, paid a symbolic salary of a dollar a year because U.S. law forbids the government from accepting the services of unpaid volunteers.
New York City’s participation in the war can be gauged by other metrics. Some 850,000 New York City residents served in the armed forces during the war, more than from any other American city. Tens of thousands of U.S. Navy officers, male and female, were trained in New York City, more than anywhere else. New York State suffered some forty-three thousand war casualties, more than any other. The giant Manhattan Project that produced the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was aptly named: it began in New York City and was led by an Upper West Side native, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers, from high school students to pensioners, volunteered as air raid wardens, as auxiliary police and firemen, as civilian sailors and pilots who patrolled the U-boat-infested Atlantic coast, and with the Red Cross, the USO (headquartered in New York), the Stage Door Canteen, and other support organizations. Thousands of black and female New Yorkers joined the war effort in defense plants and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in hospitals and offices, driving buses and cabs. Everyone who could bought war bonds, contributed to scrap drives, and tended hundreds of thousands of Victory Gardens. Even New York’s most notorious gangsters and mafiosi pitched in.
The giant, diverse city of New York rarely speaks with one mind on any topic, and World War II–era New Yorkers were no exception. Mussolini and Hitler had fans and supporters among all strata, from wealthy blue bloods to poor immigrants. Mayor La Guardia was one of the earliest and harshest American critics of Nazism, at the same time that the largest pro-Nazi group in America, the German American Bund, set up its headquarters in Manhattan. Several of the city’s large corporations and banks, even as their dollar-a-year men were assisting President Roosevelt in preparing for and then conducting the war, hedged their bets and invested in the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini.
The Communist Party in America was headquartered in Manhattan. Native New Yorkers figured prominently among the traitors who fed Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviet Union. Black New Yorkers were reticent to help free the rest of the world from oppression when they were oppressed at home, and their resentment boiled over into a midwar riot in Harlem. New York’s Jewish community was deeply divided over Roosevelt and the Allies’ lack of response to the Holocaust as it unfolded.
New York City was also home to some of the most organized, influential antiwar and isolationist groups of the 1930s. Public expression of antiwar sentiments all but vanished after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, obscuring the fact that for most of the period between World War I and World War II Americans had been overwhelmingly, almost unanimously against ever again getting involved in foreign wars. Before Pearl Harbor propelled America into the conflict, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Yorkers he’d gathered around him expended considerable effort slowly and gingerly prodding the nation toward intervention.
Any history of World War II and New York City’s role in it thus properly begins twenty years earlier.
Storm Clouds Gather
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
—“God Bless America,” Irving Berlin (1938)
Decades of Disaster
The period from 1914 through 1945 was a time of global death and destruction on a scale not seen in human history. The Great War was followed immediately by a worldwide influenza pandemic, then the Great Depression, horrific famine in the Soviet Union, and finally World War II and the Holocaust, ending with the apocalyptic specter of the A-bomb.
Some historians suggest that the Great War and World War II, which bookend the period, are best understood not as two wars at all but as a single long one, the twentieth century’s Thirty Years’ War, which flared from 1914 through 1918, smoldered through the next two decades, then roared back to full fury in 1939. The human race shocked itself with the scale and savagery of the first world war, a war that began by accident and then dragged on year after year with a terrible monotony, like a nightmare from which the world couldn’t wake. It left at least 50 million people dead or maimed and large swaths of Europe in desolate ruin. It introduced new or improved technologies of slaughter—the tank, the airplane, chemical warfare, the U-boat, the giant dreadnought. It erased the traditional line separating combatant and noncombatant; in the Great War, everyone was fair game, everyone was cannon fodder. It toppled the old political regimes of Europe, only to clear the ground for the radical politics of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.
The war was just sputtering to a close in the autumn of 1918 when influenza struck around the world, killing another 20 million to 40 million people by winter’s end. Some 675,000 Americans died from it, more than all American deaths of World Wars I and II combined.
The chaotic Versailles peace conference that followed the Great War opened in January 1919, in the midst of the pandemic. A British delegate likened it to “a riot in a parrot house.” The thousands of delegates and consultants disagreed about virtually everything. President Woodrow Wilson went with his hopelessly lofty ideas about a League of Nations and permanent world peace; the French wanted to reduce Germany to a weak and unthreatening neighbor; others wanted to maintain a relatively intact Germany as a buffer against bolshevism spreading out of Russia; and England continued its centuries-old policy of playing one continental power against another for its own security.
In the end, the “peace” conference only set the world on a course to further conflict. The victors redrew the map of Europe, carving away pieces of Germany, splitting up the Austro-Hungarian Empire, patching together new political entities, including Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which seemed almost designed by intent to be future sites of contention. Germany was forced to give up more than 10 percent of its territory and population. Both its military and its armaments industry were to be dismantled. The war had cost the country hundreds of billions of marks; the victors demanded gigantic reparations on top of that. Under threat of invasion, Germany agreed. As a final slap, the country was blockaded while the negotiations dragged on, and thousands of Germans died of starvation before it was over.
It all had a cataclysmic impact on the German people. Intensely proud and nationalistic, they now felt just as intensely humiliated and betrayed. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and the monarchy collapsed, replaced by a weak parliamentary democracy nominally presided over by a coalition of squabbling political entities, the Weimar Republic. Inflation that started during the war accelerated into surreal hyperinflation that lasted into the early 1920s. At war’s end 20 German marks equaled a British pound; by 1924 it had plummeted to 20 billion marks to the pound.
It was the average German citizen, the workers and the middle class, who suffered. The large industrialists and wealthy landowners actually benefited, because inflation wiped out their debts while sending the value of their properties soaring. Largely through a mighty influx of capital from America—principally Wall Street bankers and big corporations headquartered in Manhattan—the German economy stabilized by 1924, then went into a surge of fantastic growth, the halcyon time of Weimar art, culture, and decadent pleasures. The mood of the people relaxed. It helped that the rabble-rouser Adolf Hitler, who was jailed after his failed 1923 putsch, was forbidden to speak in public for several years.
But the world depression that followed the New York stock market crash of 1929 fell with particular force on Germany. Its industrial output was cut in half, banks failed, and millions of Germans were thrown into unemployment and wretched poverty. The republic was doomed. From the seething cauldron of extremist political movements vying to replace it, the industrialists chose to back Hitler and the National Socialists. Believing that they could maintain control over Hitler, they gave him the funding and the social prestige he needed to seize power in 1933, and then helped him build the military machine with which he intended to take back what Germany had lost in the Great War, and much more.
The outcome of World War I ultimately led Italy and Japan to join Germany in the Axis alliance. Benito Mussolini started out a fiery Socialist like his blacksmith father. When the Great War began, the Socialist Party condemned it as a squabble between the old monarchies and lobbied strenuously against Italy’s joining in. Mussolini broke with them, arguing that participating in the war and sharing in the spoils would give Italians a sense of national pride and unity they’d never felt. (Italy had been a nation for only some fifty years.) When the other victors at Versailles largely denied Italy any spoils, Italians felt as cheated and dishonored as Germans did. Mussolini seized the chance to pull irate war veterans and others into his new Fascist movement, which brought him to power in 1922. He quickly established his dictatorship. His admirer Adolf Hitler would follow his example in the next decade.
Japan emerged from the Great War, and its earlier victories over Russia and China, as a bona fide world power. But as an island nation it was hemmed in by the Western powers’ colonial interests in the Pacific and starved for the raw materials on which to build a modern economy and military. Hitler’s Germany faced similar shortages, and each saw territorial conquest as the solution. Starting in 1931, Japan’s program of military expansion into Manchuria, China, and French Indochina made a collision with the West inevitable. Hoping to curtail Japan’s empire building without military confrontation, Roosevelt would wage economic war, embargoing exports of fuel, steel, and iron, then freezing all Japanese assets in the United States. At that stage Japan, which had allied with Germany and Italy, could either shrink back or attack. It would choose to attack.
For its part, although U.S. involvement in the Great War had been relatively brief and the nation was more or less physically unscathed, the appalling, pointless barbarity of it was deeply demoralizing to most Americans and it left the entire nation, in a sense, shell-shocked. After Pearl Harbor, “isolationism” would become a dirty and shameful word, a taint it has carried ever since. Americans quickly and conveniently forgot that from the end of the Great War through most of the 1930s virtually all of them—95 percent in some national opinion polls—were isolationists. Left wing and right, feckless college kids and gray-bearded veterans, Charles Lindbergh and John Kennedy and Gerald Ford—they all agreed that if the world ever went to war again, the United States must not get involved. Even President Roosevelt’s wife was an isolationist. “How can we live through the things that we have lived through and complacently go on allowing the same causes over and over again to put us through these same horrible experiences?” Eleanor cried in a 1934 speech. “Anyone who thinks must think of the next war as they would of suicide.” In an antiwar march down Fifth Avenue shortly thereafter, protesters carried placards that read MRS. F.D.R. SAYS: “WAR IS SUICIDE!”
Isolationism was one symptom of a much broader reaction to the world war, a rejection not just of foreign wars but of foreign influences, foreign ideas, and foreigners themselves. Fear of “alien” influences ranging from communism and anarchism to Roman Catholicism surged. Severe new restrictions on immigration were enacted in 1921 and 1924, slamming Emma Lazarus’s “golden door” on the two largest groups of newcomers since the 1880s, southern Italians and eastern European Jews. (Lazarus herself was descended from Jewish immigrants.) Anti-Semitism, which had always percolated through American culture, rose to new levels in the 1920s and ’30s. The postwar years saw a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that played on Americans’ suspicions of anyone and anything nonwhite and non-Protestant.
Turning their backs on the world and its problems was very easy for Americans to do in the 1920s. While Europe lay in ruins and chaos, in America the 1920s was a decade of phenomenal economic growth. Industry surged as new technologies transformed everything from coal mining and the corporate office to automobile manufacturing (which shot up from just over half a million new cars a year in 1914 to more than five million in 1929). Productivity overall increased 70 percent. Millions of new homes were built in the 1920s, equipped with electricity and telephones.
In New York, Wall Street was borne aloft on winds of speculation and margin buying. The rich got richer and richer. But it was the spending of the masses that was revolutionary. Middle- and working-class consumers, egged on by vigorous advertising, spent like never before, using a new invention, the installment plan, to buy cars, furniture, clothing, Victrolas, washing machines, radios. The upward cycle of investment, production, and consumption seemed to have no ceiling. As newsman Eric Sevareid would later put it, America appeared to have found a “magic key to eternal prosperity.”
Even Prohibition, virtually the decade’s only gesture of austerity, incited giddy, mindless hedonism. In New York City, central casting could not have sent a better figurehead for the period than the hard-partying, hardly working, and breezily corrupt mayor Jimmy Walker, aka the Night Mayor. Son of one of Tammany’s more upright citizens, Jimmy started out a songwriter, a friend of George M. Cohan and Ira Gershwin, and married a Broadway chorus girl. Then he obeyed his father and went into politics. In the state assembly he came under Al Smith’s wing, and in January 1926 he entered the mayor’s office. For the next four years he played affable host to the city’s nonstop gaiety, more easily found in one of the better nightclubs or speakeasies than behind his desk.
The Roaring Twenties ended almost exactly on cue, in October 1929, with the total collapse of Wall Street. New York City was the epicenter from which shock waves of economic misery spread around the world in the following years. Before October 1929, national unemployment stood at around 3 percent. When Franklin Roosevelt took office in March 1933, it was around 25 percent. Of 130 million Americans, an astounding 34 million were without means of support.
In New York City, where it all began, the Great Depression came down like a sledgehammer. Half of the city’s manufacturing facilities closed in the first two years. The usually overcrowded and bustling port fell quiet. Unemployment in the city reached 33 percent by 1932, and almost two million New Yorkers went on relief. Thousands, unable to pay their rents, were thrown out of their homes. Many built their own shanty jungles, known as Hoovervilles, all over the city; the Great Lawn of Central Park was covered in tar-paper shacks.
At the start of the Depression, the City of New York maintained a single homeless shelter, the Municipal Lodging House on East 25th Street, with some nine hundred beds. When it became clear that this was woefully inadequate, the city opened two annexes, one in the long shed on the nearby Pier 73, with three thousand beds, and the other in the South Ferry terminal at the foot of Manhattan, with almost two thousand beds. Breadlines ten men deep and blocks long formed outside the Lodging House every day for the free hot lunches. (Only men lined up. Women and children were let right in.) Men lucky enough to get cots in the Lodging House were woken up at 4:30 in the morning. They raced one another out to various street corners around the city where, again if they were lucky, they might climb into a truck and be carried away for a day’s work, handing out circulars in the city or working on farms nearby.
In December 1930, some twenty-five thousand depositors gathered outside the Bronx branch of the Bank of the United States, withdrawing $2 million in one day. It was the fourth-largest bank in the country. When it failed, the first big bank in the city to do so, it started a run on other banks around the country. Three hundred banks failed within a month; more than ten thousand would be closed by 1933. A Brooklyn woman who had lost most of her savings when the Bank of the United States closed hung herself from a water pipe in her basement.
- On Sale
- Dec 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 384 pages