A little Sunday reading

The New York City Mayor’s Committee on Permanent War Memorial’s official rendering for the unrealized enduring monument.

Here is a little something to read over the remainder of one’s weekend: my piece at Roads to the Great War about the temporary Victory Arch built in Madison Square in the winter of 1919. This is the article I was alluding to last week when I posted the pictures of the return of the 27th Division. I have always found it interesting the way civic leaders built such ornate edifices knowing they would be used hard for a few short months or years and then torn down. Almost all of the facilities built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago for instance, were temporary assemblies built not of marble or granite but timber and plaster of Paris. The White City in all its majesty appeared poised to stand for centuries when in reality its wood and plaster would not have withstood more than one or two Chicago winters. At least we have the stories and photographs to remember them by.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections)


La Guardia & FDR, October 1936

Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt break ground on the “tube” connecting Manhattan and Queens one month prior to the 1936 national election. Members of Local 184 made Roosevelt an honorary member during the ceremony. After this long day, Roosevelt traveled north of the city to his home in Hyde Park. New Deal funds totaling $58,000,000 in 1930s dollars went into building the tunnel, which opened one month ahead of schedule in October 1940. Roosevelt was the first to drive across.

I wish the image quality were higher but there is surprisingly little documentation of this historical moment. Here we see Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Roosevelt at the groundbreaking for what we now call the Queens–Midtown Tunnel. The photograph is from the 3 October 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the day after the groundbreaking. I was not aware until I began co-teaching this course in January of the size and scope of the infrastructure projects built in New York City under the New Deal. Of course I was aware of such efforts as refurbishing Civil War battlefields, tidying parks, planting trees, building small-scale restrooms and picnic areas along byways. But large scale infrastructure is something on a whole other magnitude.

Municipal leaders outside Gotham believed the fix was in between Roosevelt and La Guardia. That is understandable given that Roosevelt had previously been the governor of New York and that he and Eleanor still owned a house on East 65th Street. The reality though was that New York City and State entered the New Deal process earlier than most locales because men like Herbert Lehman, Robert Moses, and Fiorello La Guardia were ready from the outset with plans. As the 1930s went on other municipalities caught up in real dollars.

This image we see here, grainy as it is, was taken about one month prior to the 1936 national campaign in which Roosevelt ran for re-election against Al Landon. La Guardia was a Progressive Republican supporting Roosevelt. Both men understood the power of publicity and the photo op. Roosevelt’s radio address was broadcast nationally. More than 100,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, turned out on 2 October 1936 to see Roosevelt speak, Mayor La Guardia, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and Senator Robert F. Wagner also sharing the stage. (Earlier the same day this photo was taken La Guardia and Roosevelt together attended Game 2 of the Yankees-Giants World Series at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, a game the Yankees won 18-4.) While many did not realize it at the time–though given his political instincts Roosevelt almost certainly did–the 1936 presidential election sealed the coalition of conservative white Southern Democrats, blue collar trade unionists, rural populists, African-Americans, and ethnic voters that largely held together until the tumult of the 1960s.

The return of the 27th Division

The Eagle captured the excitement of the Leviathan’s return while noting signs of the coming difficulty in securing the peace. The Mauretania returned this same day with another 3,500 men from the 27th Division.

A few minutes ago on this rainy Sunday morning I hit send and submitted something that hopefully will appear in an online venue toward the end of the month. I suppose this will give away the topic, but in my research I found these incredible images we see of men from the 27th “New York” Division returning from France 100 years ago this week. Nearly 15,000 of O’Ryan’s Roughnecks returned aboard the Leviathan and Mauretania on March 6, 1919. I always found it extraordinary the way the men packed in to these huge ocean liners by the thousands like this for the voyage home. During the Second World War Dwight Eisenhower and other military officials gave the men the choice of coming home the way the doughboys had a generation earlier, or staggering the launches with more crossings and thus fewer men to make the passage more comfortable. The thing was, that also meant more time in getting everyone back. Eager to get home and move on with their lives, the dogfaces chose the former virtually to a person.

Men of the 27th Division aboard the Leviathan arrive in New York Harbor, March 6, 1919. Arrivals such as this, with ships crammed stem to stern with doughboys, were almost a daily occurrence in winter 1919.

The Leviathan pulls in to New York Harbor on March 6, 1919. Dockworkers returned from strike to ensure the Leviathan and Mauretania’s safe arrival in the city with the men of the 27th.

(bottom images/Library of Congress)

Snow day

What is one to do when arriving at work and finding it closed for a snow day? Go to Panera Bread and get a little reading and work done.

This was me at 8:45 this morning after I got to work and discovered that my college was closed for the day.

When I arrived I pulled on the door to find it locked; then, I went around the corner to another entrance where the special officer told me of the snow day and closing. At first I was irritated with myself while retracing my steps down the street. So I went to Panera Bread, where I had a coffee and did some class work for 75 minutes before going to Trader Joe’s and stocking up on some things. The book here is Mason B. Williams’s City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York. As the title suggests the book examines the relationship between the American president and New York City mayor during the Great Depression and Second World War. I am about 1/3 of the way through and it is becoming one of those books that takes me in a different direction.

Co-teaching this course with its focus on Robert Moses over the Spring term has been a revelation; there are so many threads to pursue and I am learning something new literally every day.

Sunday morning coffee

A young girl’s poem written in winter 1939 in anticipation of the coming spring and opening of the World’s Fair. The poem appeared in the 21 February 1939 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

I hope everyone’s weekend has been good. Yesterday afternoon I tried to see They Shall Not Grow Old at a theater in Brooklyn but alas it was sold out. The man at the counter told me today’s one showing would also likely fill up, so I bought a ticket for this afternoon’s showing. I’ve spent the morning continuing with this week’s lesson plans. Among other things I intend to focus much on the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens. Basically it was two fairs, one in 1939 focusing on an optimistic “world of tomorrow” and another in 1940 that played out after the German and Soviet invasion of Poland and onset of the Second World War. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle dedicated a great deal of space to the fair in the lead-up to its opening on 30 April 1939 when President Roosevelt gave the dedication address. That coverage included things like this poem we read above.

Unscaffolding the Trylon and Perisphere

A 1939 World’s Fair guide shows off the Trylon and Perisphere after the scaffolding came down, February 22, 1939

I don’t have much to add but wanted to share this photograph I discovered this morning while preparing for next week’s classes. Here we see a young woman standing before the Trylon and Perisphere after the remainder of their scaffolding was taken off on 22 February 1939. The World’s Fair coincided with the sesquicentennial of George Washington’s First Inaugural; President Roosevelt opened the Fair on 30 April, 150 years to the day after Washington took the oath of office in Lower Manhattan at Federal Hall. In winter 1939 Robert Moses’s crews were working long shifts to prepare the fair grounds in Queens in time to ensure the event opened on time come spring. Presumably they took the scaffolding off on Washington’s Birthday intentionally to promote the upcoming fair and emphasize the tie-in to the first president.

(image/Associated Press)

Madame Chiang-Kai-shek’s 1943 charm offensive

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt host Madame Chiang-Kai-shek at Mount Vernon on George Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1943. The worldly, charming, and politically shrewd wife of the leader of the Chinese Nationalists was on a good will tour of the United States, officially to gain support for the war effort against the Japanese but also, more surreptitiously, for the Nationalist struggle against Mao’s Communists.

Here is an extraordinary moment in twentieth century.  The image depicts Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt with Madame Chiang Kai-shek at George Washington’s tomb at Mount Vernon on February 22, 1943, seventy-six years ago today. As early as 1943–more than fifteen months before the invasion of Normandy, five months before the Allied offensive on Sicily, with North Africa hanging in the balance and the Japanese still largely in control of the Pacific–President Roosevelt was already thinking of what a post-Second World War world might look like. Roosevelt believed that China would become one of the world’s Great Powers in the years immediately after the war. This was not an unreasonably assumption; then and now China was the world’s most populous nation. That alone made that nation a potent force. Roosevelt had nonetheless convinced himself that he was something of a China expert, basing his belief on the Delano family’s ties to the country dating back nearly a century. His grandfather had been active in what was euphemistically called the China Trade, which in addition to legitimate business activity essentially meant the sale of opium.

Roosevelt’s naïveté led to some unfortunate policy choices but one might forgive the president for his views on China, whose internal and external politics were exceedingly complicated. For one thing the Japanese had committed human rights violations there on an unprecedented scale. The Rape of Nanking, human experiments, and the imposition of slave labor were just some of their depredations. It is no wonder that President Roosevelt extended Lend-Lease aid to China to the extent that he did. Complicating it all however was the internal struggle between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists. That was the real struggle playing out there. And that is the reason Madame Chiang Kai-shek visited the United States in early 1943. On February 18 she addressed a joint session of Congress, becoming the first Chinese person and first-ever woman ever to do so. Four days later this photo was taken on George Washington’s birthday at his Mount Vernon tomb, where she placed a wreath at Washington’s tomb.

Six years after this photo was taken Mao’s forces won the Civil War against Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Roosevelt by that time had been gone for almost five years. Chiang Kai-shek lived until 1975 and his widow lived to be 106. She died in New York City in 2003.

(image/Mount Vernon)

Remembering John Patrick Diggins

Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, giving the 10th annual John Patrick Diggins Memorial lecture, CUNY Graduate Center, February 19, 2019

I can hear the snow melting as I type these words. I am leading a tour of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza for a colleague’s class later this morning. It should be warm enough but hopefully not too squishy out there. This past Tuesday I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear Andrew Delbanco, president of the Teagle Foundation and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, give the 10th annual John Patrick Diggins Memorial lecture. I took a class on the Cold War with Jack Diggins in Fall 2004, fifteen years ago. He died in 2009, the same year my own father died. That these things were now so long ago is extraordinary to contemplate.

Professor Delbanco spoke movingly about fugitive slaves prior to the American Civil War, basing his lecture on his new book The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Delbanco is not a historian per se but an English and American Studies professor. He brought a strong narrative drive to the topic, touching on the writing of Melville, Emerson, and Frederick Douglass to name just three. One thing that made the talk so affecting was the human detail. It is one thing to say that 750,000 or more people died in the Civil War; it is another to give a sense of the human drama of individual lives a voice. As the cynical but accurate saying goes: one death is a tragedy, but one million deaths is a statistic. Delbanco also infused a sense of humility into his talk, something that is too often lacking in the writing and presentation of history. Who among us can say what we would have done had we lived in another time and place? What will our own disenchants say about us and the decisions we made, individually and as a society? One must embrace complexity. I could not think of a more fitting talk in the memory of John P. Diggins.

Presidents Day 2019

I would love to have been able to visit Mount Vernon today but alas that was not feasible. I imagine they are having events today, and again this coming Friday on President Washington’s actual birthday. Inspired by yesterday’s post about Al Smith and his annual viewing of the retired firemen of Brooklyn, I’m leaving in a bit to visit the New York City Fire Museum in SOHO. Fire houses played a role in Washington and 4th of July observances from the time of the Early Republic until just a few recent decades ago. I’m up and out early because when I return I have to prepare for the week ahead, not least the laundry.

Enjoy your Presidents Day, everyone.

(image/Early twentieth century Edward Penfield poster via Library of Congress)

Washington’s Birthday 1928

New York governor Al Smith reviewed the Kings County Volunteer Firemen’s Association on Washington’s Birthday in 1928 in the leadup to the presidential race.

I was reading a good-natured online debate the other between a couple of people arguing the merits and demerits of American holidays. One of the running threads–indeed, the instigation of the discussion–was the idea of President’s Day itself. Some were averring that the holiday we are observing this weekend is now a second-tier observance, which is tough to argue against. It was not always the case however. President’s Day began as George Washington’s Birthday, and is still legally considered as such in many of the fifty states. Up until around the Second World War however Washington’s Birthday was still considered one of our most prestigious holidays, ranking below Christmas and Easter and on par with the 4th of July. It makes sense that Americans would have two secular holidays–one in winter and the other in summer–of such consequence. From the early days of the Republic through the mass immigration of the early twentieth century these holidays gave Americans a shared narrative. The 4th of July is still part of that narrative, but Washington’s Birthday–or even the more general “President’s Day–not so much.

Some of the men assembled to speak at Brooklyn Borough Hall were in their 90s. Later that day Governor Smith and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia spoke at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ Lodging House in Manhattan.

Here above we see a moment during which Washington’s Birthday was still very much part of our cultural fabric. In 1928 Governor Alfred E. Smith visited Brooklyn to review the organization of retired Kings County firemen. From the steps of Borough Hall he watched the procession of men, some in their 90s, as they hailed the man everyone knew would run for the presidency that coming November. The Eagle, whose offices were adjacent to Borough Hall, noted that “Only the Roman candles and fireworks of the old political campaigning [were] missing.” It was not just Brooklynites; firemen had come from throughout Long Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Philadelphia and Delaware to see and hear Smith.

The governor had been coming to this event throughout the 1920s. He had come down from Albany for a few days to appear at several events; after speaking to and lunching with the retired firemen in Brooklyn, Smith returned to Manhattan and dined at the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House on William Street. Lodging houses like the one Smith spoke at on Washington’s Birthday 1928 dated back to the days when Charles Loring Brace and Theodore Roosevelt Sr. created them prior to the Civil War. There with Smith at the lodging house was U.S. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. Smith’s message to the 1,200 assembled hardscrabble lads was to accept that life is difficult even under the best of circumstances. The governor and presidential aspirant understood difficulty, having been born a slum kid on the Lower East Side and toiling in the Fulton Fish Market before becoming a Tammany man and starting his rise.

(images/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)