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New-York Historical Society Presents NYC at War

by Jonathan Gondelman

Posted: Nov 29, 2012 01:24 PM

IrvingBoyerProspectPK
Irving Boyer's "Prospect Park", ca. 1942-44

 

The New-York Historical Society's exhibition "WWII and NYC", on view until May 27, 2013, presents an exhaustive portrait of our city between 1939 and 1945. The exhibition is organized roughly chronologically, with thematic elements (particularly the fight for civil rights and the development of wartime artists) appearing throughout. "WWII and NYC" does an admirable job of presenting both the broad picture of life in New York during the war while giving the nitty-gritty details their due. 

Visitors first encounter a section entitled “The War of Opinions,” which exhibits the attitudes held by New Yorkers prior to the war. “Save the Victims” displays pictures of British families left homeless after the London Blitz and includes a flier advertising the “Anti-Hitler Symposium” held at The New School. Students of political philosophy should keep an eye out for Leo Strauss among the exiled German academics in a photograph of The New School in Exile. The next section shows the agitations of those who would have preferred America stay outside of Europe's war, including the America Firsters, led by Charles Lindbergh.

New York City was home to sizable communities of Italian and German immigrants at this time, many of whom were still loyal to their homelands. The German American Bund, as late as 1939, held a rally at the old Madison Square Garden, in which the Bund co-opted George Washington's image and prestige as the backdrop to a color guard which held Nazi flags in grim Teutonic seriousness.

The last section portrays the strong anti-Axis sentiment in New York, with period posters urging support of the Lend-Lease Act which brought supplies to Great Britain; another entreats New Yorkers to send supplies to the beleaguered Chinese army. (The exhibition later notes that some American pilots, even before Pearl Harbor, volunteered for the Chinese air force).

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “war of opinions” ended. Italian and German New Yorkers of dubious loyalty were held on Ellis Island. The Bund's leadership was arrested at the start of the war, its figurehead having been indicted previously for embezzlement. Madison Square Garden, which the Bund had rented for their sad charade, later gave a pageant in support of European Jewry entitled “We Will Never Die.”

 

PennStation

Soldiers waiting in line at Pennsylvania Station, NYC, August 1942"

 WWII & NYC also finally answers the question of where the Manhattan Project got its name. The United State's attempt to split the atom began in the 1930's, with experiments utilizing the cyclotron (a primitive particle accelerator) housed at Columbia University. A letter from Einstein to President Roosevelt noted that the Germans were no longer exporting uranium from Czechoslovakia and urged that the United States secure its own source of uranium and begin funding atomic research. Initially named the Manhattan Engineering District, this project, later scattered over the entire country, kept its name in order to deter would-be spies as research moved to Los Alamos and the University of Chicago.

New York contributed to the war effort in another large way: the Brooklyn Navy Yard produced more battleships than the entire nation of Japan during the same period. The Yard's demand for labor helped lift New York out of the Depression and provided new job opportunities for women, while a civil rights march on Washington in June 1941, demanded more industrial employment for black workers. President Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802 officially banned racial discrimination in manufacturing jobs, but his order was more-or-less ignored and workers were forced to wear badges marked “C” for “colored” or “W” for “white.” A video playing in this section detailed the travails of black workers at the Navy Yard as prejudice gradually yielded to necessity and public pressure.

The harbor itself became the most important embarkation point in the United States; at the height of the war, a ship left New York harbor every fifteen minutes. Its size and importance made it an attractive target for German saboteurs and U-boat captains, and the exhibition details the career of U123, which surfaced in the harbor in January 1942 to find the city, even during wartime, lit up as it always had been. With lone ships silhouetted against the bright city, U123 wreaked havoc in the harbor until Mayor LaGuardia persuaded reluctant New Yorkers to institute blackout regulations.

Thomas Hart Benton's paintings, commissioned after Pearl Harbor for the purposes of boosting morale, are of particular interest. Benton either misunderstood his assignment or was too intransigent merely to follow orders and so turned in frightening, bizarrely colored paintings in his Year of Peril series. Embarkation (Prelude to Death) depicts soldiers boarding a transport bound for Europe. “Why would we want to remind soldiers that they might die?” asked a bureaucrat stymied by Benton's work. Another painting in the series, Casualty, depicts soldiers’ twisted bodies in hues of yellow, each of their faces frozen in a rictus of surprise as a blazing ship sinks behind them. Though insufficient as propaganda in the 1940's, the paintings, viewed now, have not lost any of their power.

 

ThomasHartBenton
"Why would we want to remind soldiers that they might die?" Thomas Hart Benton's offending painting.

"WWII & NYC" not only instructs and delights in equal measure but also contains a few surprises. The New-York Historical Society has planned companion events, such as an ongoing lecture series and a survey of WWII-themed film noir. With so much on offer in such an astounding show, one should visit early and visit often.

Pictures courtesy the N-YHS website. Visit www.nyhistory.org.

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