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'Victory City' review: John Strausbaugh's grand tour of New York City during World War II

A soldier says goodbye to his wife and

A soldier says goodbye to his wife and child in Pennsylvania Station before shipping out in 1943. A new book looks at New York and its residents during World War II. Credit: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images/Alfred Eisenstaedt

VICTORY CITY: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II, by John Strausbaugh. Twelve Books, 487 pp., $30.

Full of broad brush strokes and fine detail, John Strausbaugh’s new book is as capacious as the city and times it chronicles — World War II-era New York. Like its subject city, it can be maddeningly diffuse and hard to navigate. “Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II” is a series of loosely connected chapters without much forward momentum, dealing with everything from the output of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Manhattan Project to boxing and the role of Tin Pan Alley songwriters in the war effort. Its chapters teem with refugees, intellectuals, artists, mobsters, spies, soldiers, civil servants, athletes, actors and facts galore. Some 850,000 New Yorkers served in the war (New York State as a whole suffered 43,000 casualties), more than any American other city. Gotham was already home to the nation’s largest port and thousands of factories; it was a capital of culture and media with several major newspapers. 

Strausbaugh, a veteran historian of the city, covers a lot of back story — too much — before the actual shooting war starts. He details the rise of New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House and the ascendancy of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia and FDR would forge a tight bond that proved immensely beneficial to the city. (The stout, histrionic mayor knew how to work FDR: “He comes to Washington and tells me a sad story,” the president once said. “The tears run down my cheeks and the tears run down his cheeks and the first thing I know, he has wangled another fifty million dollars.”) Wracked by the Depression, New York benefitted from the financial lifeline extended by Washington as the Works Project Administration put thousands of city residents in jobs building and repairing hospitals, parks and bridges.

In the 1930s, the boroughs convulsed with a diversity of ideologies and ethnic groups. The Communist Party and its allies had a considerable presence. Isolationists preached their America First doctrines, urging FDR to steer clear of European entanglements, as the city’s journalists chronicled the rise of fascism. In 1934, The New York Post’s Dorothy Thompson was expelled from Germany on orders from Hitler.

The largest Jewish city in the world, the city was also home to a sizable pro-Nazi movement that thrived in Yorkville, Ridgewood and Bushwick, neighborhoods with large German populations. The most prominent (and notorious) organization was the German American Bund led by Fritz Kuhn. The Bund had its own summer camp in Yaphank called Camp Siegfried, where families flocked in the summer. One of the most famous Jewish refugees, Albert Einstein, also enjoyed a Long Island summer, renting a cottage on Little Peconic Bay in 1939.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, New York went on a war footing. Among the young men who donned uniform were Brooklyn’s Melvin Kaminsky — you know him as Mel Brooks — and one Leonard Schneider from Long Island, who would later perform stand-up comedy as Lenny Bruce. Lights were dimmed everywhere, “as though a giant switch had been thrown”; even the Statue of Liberty’s torch went out, all to discourage German U-boats, which wreaked havoc on shipping. Strausbaugh relates the story of one German sub that managed to land a quartet of saboteurs at Amagansett who went on to a Manhattan shopping spree. The operation was a failure.

Even as factories boomed, racial tensions rippled across the city. Of some 29,000 defense work jobs, black workers held only 142, Strausbaugh notes. Unemployment in Harlem surged. Black leaders were already fuming that Roosevelt refused to desegregate the armed services. In August of 1943, riots erupted in Harlem.

We read of Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio’s reluctance to enlist, which won him no favors with New Yorkers. Harlem-born Jerome David Salinger, future author of "A Catcher in the Rye," was called up in 1942 and later landed on Utah Beach in Normandy. Far Rockaway-born physicist Richard Feynman worked developing the nuclear bomb in Los Alamos; another New Yorker, David Greenglass, gathered intelligence and passed it along to Julius Rosenberg, who was in the employ of the Soviets.

“Victory City” offers a grand tour of facts great and small. Unlike other world cities — London, Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow — the five boroughs emerged unscathed from war. “New York was pristine,” Strausbaugh writes, “all lights blazing, all shops and offices and bars and restaurants open for business.” The war behind it, the city moved into the postwar era standing tall.

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