The powerful New York City Parks Commissioner (1934-60) Robert Moses makes a convenient foil.

Last week a friend at work brought this small blurb about World War monuments and Robert Moses to my attention. The vignette is a capsule summary of why there are so few World War Two monuments in New York City, in contrast to the significant number of memorials to the First World War. Though he does site other factors, the author in a nutshell blames Robert Moses. This led my friend and me to quip that when one wants to blame anything gone wrong in New York City, blame that once seemingly all-powerful builder and planner. Moses makes a great target; he held significant authority over huge public works projects for decades and was not afraid to use that influence. Thirty six years after his death, New Yorkers still very much live in the city and state that he gave us.

By the time Robert Moses became Parks Commissioner in 1934 New Yorkers had built hundreds of monuments large and small. Kevin C. Fitzpatrick chronicles these memorials in his recent book World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War. By the time Moses came to power the Treaty of Versailles had taken place fifteen long years previously. Gone were the romantic notions of fighting for civilization and to end war. Hitler was by now in power in Germany, and Stalin was firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union. Besides, the Depression was full on and even if people wanted to build monuments to the Great War dead there was little money to do so. When World War Two ended in 1945 Moses was adamant that there be no repeat of the cacophony of doughboy memorials we still see today in our parks. Each borough was to get one public monument. Of these, the only one actually built was the Brooklyn War Memorial in Cadman Plaza, something my students studied and wrote about last year. Whether this was good or bad depends on one’s perspective.

Moses indeed played a strong hand in all this. He had a vision for the city, state and region and wanted no obstacles that might intrude on that. Nothing would be built in his parks if he didn’t want it there. Still, the paucity of memorials was as much demographic and cultural as it was political. The soldiers, sailors and marines of 1941-45 were away much longer than the doughboys of 1917-18. When they came home they wanted to get on with their lives. There were four times more American in uniform–16 million vs 4 million–during the Second World War than in the First. They had seen killing and devastation on a scale that Americans had not witnessed in the trenches of France. Sixty million people had been killed around the world. The Second World War ushered in the Atomic Age and the Cold War. The veterans new full well it hadn’t been a “good war.” On the personal level, unlike their doughboy fathers, they had the GI Bill when they came home to attend school and get an education. Upon graduation, they had low interest loans that allowed them the opportunity to own their patch of grass in the suburbs. The question really is not why there were so few monuments built in the decade or so after the Second World War, it’s why there were any at all.

(image/New York Public Library)