Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers
During World War II
by John Strausbaugh
Reviewed by Steven H. Jaffe
In recent years writers and historians have turned their attention to New York City’s experience in World War II. Contributions to the field have included Lorraine B. Diehl’s Over Here! New York City During World War II (2010), Richard Goldstein’s Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II (2010), my own New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (2012), and Kenneth T. Jackson’s WWII & NYC (2012), the latter accompanying an exhibition of the same name at the New-York Historical Society. Other scholars have tackled specific aspects of the story, including the crucial military role of the city’s port (over 3 million GIs and 63 million tons of materiel departed from the harbor’s piers to the North African and European fronts), and the volatile political, ethnic, religious, and economic tensions that vexed relations between New York’s Jewish, German, Irish, Italian, and African-American communities before and during the war.
Victory City will appeal especially to the kind of reader who likes to float along through a capacious nonfiction narrative, encountering a large and shifting cast of characters, many of whom appear repeatedly in starring or cameo roles. Strausbaugh skillfully interweaves figures as diverse as the writer Dorothy Thompson, Hitler’s Harvard-educated confidant Ernst Hanfstaengl, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, Harlem dancer Frankie Manning, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, pacifist Ralph DiGia, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, American spymaster William “Wild Bill” Donovan, German spy Herman Lang, Soviet spy David Greenglass, and many other long-term and transient New Yorkers. Many of his characterizations are both pithy and accurate: he notes, for example, that while “[Mayor] La Guardia shouted and screamed, [President] Roosevelt smiled and schemed.”
Strausbaugh has written Victory City for a mass trade readership, and while he doesn’t dig as deeply into the city’s underlying socio-economic, political, and cultural dynamics as an academic historian might, his central message is persuasive enough. “While Washington was the nation’s political capital, New York was the capital in just about every other way that mattered,” he writes of the prewar era, and the war itself only magnified the city’s national and global importance — not least by tightening the bonds tying New York’s politicians, bankers, corporate executives, lawyers, advertisers, publishers, broadcasters, and labor leaders to the national state. With Allied Europe’s capital cities exhausted by the war’s end, New York’s concentrated power, wealth, and influence — on formidable display in the harbor’s port facilities and shipping, on Wall Street and Madison Avenue, in Times Square and Rockefeller Center — made it the natural home for the United Nations. The coming of the UN foreshadowed how Gotham, already the world’s most populous city and the “capital of everything,” would become even more so in the fifteen or so years following the war.
Victory City also reminds us of the darker aspects of this history, some of which seem all too familiar in our current political climate. Pervasive racism burdened the experiences of African-American New Yorkers throughout the war, helping to spark the destructive Harlem riot of 1943. Anti-Semitism impeded efforts to rescue Europe’s Jews from the Nazi Holocaust, even after news of Hitler’s Final Solution became common knowledge in New York and Washington in late 1942. And in our era of corporate irresponsibility and impunity, it is still shocking to read how some of New York’s most powerful companies — J. P. Morgan-affiliated banks, the Rockefeller family’s Chase National Bank, Standard Oil of New Jersey, ITT, and others — continued to do lucrative business with German firms and the Third Reich itself, even as 400,000 American servicemen and women gave their lives fighting the Axis between 1941 and 1945.
A book this long, however, also poses some challenges. Impatient or time-challenged readers, for example, should be forewarned: Hitler doesn’t invade Poland until page 133, and the Japanese don’t bomb Pearl Harbor until page 243. Strausbaugh rightly understands that the city’s wartime story is untellable without a prefatory account of New York’s complicated Depression-era political, racial, and ethnic tensions, and of the outsize role played by New Yorkers in shaping Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, eventually, Washington’s war effort. But at times one wishes that the author or his editor had embraced a more rigorous principle of selection; early chapters often feel as if Victory City is aspiring to narrate the city’s entire history from World War I onward. Some pieces of this prelude —paragraphs on Franklin Roosevelt’s early life, the mayoralty of Jimmy Walker, and strange weather conditions in the summer of 1934 — seem unnecessary rather than essential to the topic.
On the other hand, given the book’s evident ambition to be comprehensive, it is fair to point out a few neglected subjects. Victory City includes little or nothing on the fury that pitted Harlem’s African Americans and Italian Americans against each other over Mussolini’s brutal occupation of Ethiopia, or the large role that the Spanish Civil War played in the city’s political and cultural life during the late 1930s, or the persistent Nazi preoccupation with trying to destroy New York from the air. (Apropos of the latter point, as late as 1945, Berlin’s propaganda convinced New Yorkers that the city might be vulnerable to airborne German “robots, buzz bombs, [and] rockets,” although such an attack was really beyond the Third Reich’s capabilities.)
Other aspects of the story could have been amplified. For example, while Strausbaugh provides capsule biographies of dozens of New York-affiliated celebrities, we learn less about how ordinary New Yorkers experienced the war’s traumas, pressures, and opportunities, even though some of them are still alive to tell their own tales, or have produced their own written and oral accounts. And though New York certainly did become de facto “World Capital” following the war, Victory City bypasses the opportunity to discuss a more ironic long-term consequence: namely, how Washington’s massive nationwide military spending — sparked by World War II and continuing through the Cold War — helped to drew industries and taxpayers away from New York, contributing to the economic erosion that triggered the city’s “urban crisis” during the 1960s and its near-bankruptcy in 1975.
But none of this should deter an interested reader from tackling Victory City. The sheer quantity and diversity of the stories Strausbaugh weaves together, and his ability to keep his narrative flowing from espionage cases to boxing matches to anti-Nazi comic books to German American Bund rallies to Lindy hops and more, will make Victory City a must-read for many New York history buffs.
Steven H. Jaffe is a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, and the author of several books on New York City history, including Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics (New York University Press and Museum of the City of New York, 2018).