Strausbaugh, John. Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers during World War II. (New York: Twelve, 2018). 497pp. $30. ISBN 1455567485
Reviewed by Michael L. Levine
Victory City tells what it was like to live in New York during the Great Depression and World War II. The book may not break new scholarly ground, but it succeeds admirably in bringing a time and place to life and as such can serve as an inviting introduction to students for whom the New Deal and World War II may seem quite remote. Students today are as far removed from the New Deal as those in the thirties were from the Mexican War.
Reading Victory City is a bit like coming across a yellowing newspaper in an old trunk. In that regard John Strausbaugh exercises a deft touch in selecting compelling details. Consider: During the Depression three out of ten Brooklyn doctors lost phone service for nonpayment of bills. Doctors, mind you! How did ordinary families get by? Meanwhile some of New York’s largest corporations and banks got by– hedging their bets by investing in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy
We are reminded that during the thirties and forties New York was home as almost no place else to tremendous concentrations of a wide range of ethnic groups. Of particular interest is Strausbaugh’s take on the world’s largest Jewish city. When it came to political confidence in the thirties and forties, the Jewish population in New York seemed less assertive and more uncertain than we might imagine. To retaliate for Hitler’s boycott of Jewish shops in Germany, Jewish New Yorkers called for a boycott of German-owned stores, including Macy’s. Although Macy’s was owned by the Strauses, a Jewish family, it had emigrated from Germany.
Along these lines consider that Arthur Sulzberger, an assimilated Jew, didn’t want his family’s paper, The New York Times, to be seen as Jewish. So, in the thirties, the paper “methodically,” to use Strausbaugh’s words, downplayed news about the persecution of Jews in Europe. Other American Jewish leaders also hesitated to speak out in favor of admitting Jewish refugees for fear of rousing the country’s many anti-Semites. During World War II Washington’s policy toward European Jews was based on the idea that a more aggressive effort to save the Jews from the Nazis would make it appear that the conflict was “a war for the Jews,” in which case Americans would be less willing to make sacrifices.
Strausbaugh also reminds us that while New York was a center of Jewry, it was also very much a German city. New Yorkers of German ancestry (numbering three quarters of million) may not have mostly been pro-Hitler, but Nazism unashamedly maintained a conspicuous presence throughout the metropolitan area. In the thirties, Fritz Kuhn’s German American Bund ran a summer camp on Long Island where youngsters uniformed like Hitler youth marched up and down streets named for Hitler, Goring and Goebbels. On German Day in 1938, the camp drew 40,000 visitors along with 2,000 Storm Trooper guards. The Long Island Railroad thoughtfully obliged by running a Camp Siegfried Special. In 1939 the Bund drew 22,000 to a rally at Madison Square Garden.
Strausbaugh points out that FDR drew the best and brightest—disproportionately New Yorkers—to Washington. If FDR was less concerned with an employee’s religion, gender and race than previous presidents, then some measure of credit must be given to his enlightened First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. These were the years when appreciative African Americans abandoned Lincoln’s GOP for the New Deal. But Strausbaugh points out that all was not well in the matter of race relations even in progressive Gotham. The 1943 Harlem Riots reflected the city’s oppressive and discriminatory housing and employment practices which made life for Africans Americans so difficult to endure.
A caution: Victory City may prove disconcerting at a time when “enemy of the people,” a vicious slogan calling to mind the brutal authoritarianism of the thirties, now finds renewed currency. When it comes to protecting civil rights and civil liberties—on guard!
Michael L. Levine holds a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. A long-time freelance editor and writer, he has staffed the A. Philip Randolph Institute and has served as editor-in-chief of National Productivity Review and as Associate Editor of Political Profiles, a multi-volume series featuring biographies of contemporary political leaders.
Featured image (a top): World War II Era Harlem courtesy of Cole Phelps at https://www.thecoli.com/threads/ww2-era-harlem-pics.209216/.