Anne Boyd Rioux is the author of three books, most recently “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of ‘Little Women’ and Why It Still Matters.”
New York City during World War II was an island of intrigue: It had spy rings, fascist sympathizers, U-boats lurking offshore. The most populous and diverse metropolis on the planet, it was home to more Jews than any other city in the world, more Germans than anywhere else outside Germany, nearly as many Italians as Rome and more African Americans than any other U.S. city. It also virtually ran the federal government, thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s practice of filling his administration and the numerous agencies he created with New York’s best and brightest. The city also contributed and trained more servicemen and women than any other American metropolis and was home to the world’s busiest port, the nation’s major media outlets and the early headquarters of the Manhattan Project, which would finally bring the war to its horrific conclusion.
In “Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II,” John Stausbaugh delivers both a macro- and microhistory of a city at war. Strausbaugh, the author of “The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, a History of Greenwich Village” and “City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War,” provides not only a broad social and cultural portrait of World War II New York but also a sweeping panorama of close-up scenes, short profiles and mini-narratives. He begins at the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows in 1939 and ends with the building of the United Nations headquarters on the East Side of Midtown Manhattan in 1948. In between, we witness tens of thousands gathering at Madison Square Garden for the largest pro-Nazi rally in the United States, Madison Avenue’s admen shifting from selling cars to selling the war, Wall Street banks funding the Nazi war machine and an off-course B-25 bomber crashing into the Empire State Building. Even the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner to the CIA, grew out of a secret New York espionage unit composed of FDR’s buddies.
On his radio program, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia gave conservation tips to New Yorkers hoping to make their sacrifices a model for the rest of the country, the New York Times ran full-page ads of Ben Hecht lambasting U.S. inaction in the face of Nazi atrocities against Jews, and the New York Daily News spread vicious rumors about members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) spreading venereal disease. As Strausbaugh puts it, “The hysteria about sexualized females spreading physical and moral corruption would play a large hand in the country’s wholesale retreat to ‘traditional,’ desexualized feminine ideals after the war.”
Strausbaugh brings a dizzying array of events to life through the individuals at their heart. We meet a zoot-suited Malcolm Little, who later changed his name to Malcolm X, creatively avoiding the draft and witnessing the 1943 Harlem riots; and cartoonist Theodor Geisel, better known later as Dr. Seuss, relying on racial stereotypes to depict war-time Japanese for the New York newspaper PM. We follow the life of Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany, who became one of the loudest anti-fascist voices of the era. There’s Fritz Kuhn, who led the largest pro-Nazi group in the United States and built a Hitler-inspired Aryan community on Long Island; and Irish Catholic Father Coughlin, who spread pro-fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-communist conspiracy theories in his nationally syndicated radio sermons. We encounter William Patrick Hitler (one of the Führer’s nephews), who came to the United States, served in the Navy, then virtually disappeared. Strausbaugh explains, “He moved to Patchogue out on Long Island under the assumed name William Stuart-Houston, married a German woman, quietly raised a family, and died in 1987.” There are also the hapless German would-be saboteurs who were dropped off by a U-boat, then went on a shopping spree at Macy’s, and the slew of spies (not only the Rosenbergs) passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. The parade of New York’s wartime characters seems unending and always fascinating.
Any one of the vignettes or mini-bios Strausbaugh presents could provide the material for an entire book — or a Hollywood film. Indeed, most already have. The profiles and stories in “Victory City” mostly have already been told. No matter. The book will delight armchair historians, providing an entertaining overview of the era and a gateway to more in-depth studies of the intriguing figures and stories. (The bibliography provides a useful list of such works.) Strausbaugh’s galloping prose makes “Victory City” a compulsively engaging read. If his attention to detail occasionally slows things down, never fear: The pace picks up again on this compelling ride through wartime New York and beyond.
By John Stausbaugh
Twelve. 487 pp. $30