Strausbaugh’s Victory City (Twelve, Dec.) looks at New York’s outsize role in the WWII years.
What made New York City so uniquely influential during WWII?
New York in the years before, during, and after WWII was achieving its zenith as the biggest, busiest, richest, most influential city in the world, not just in the country. It had long been the de facto capital of the United States in pretty much every meaningful way except for national politics. And during the 12 years FDR was in the White House, New Yorkers ran the nation as well. He packed the White House with so many New Yorkers it was a Gotham on the Potomac. And when the war’s over, it’s still the largest city in the world and the richest, but it’s also intact, which many other great cities were not—they’d been bombed to rubble. So the lights are on, the phones work, and it attracts the U.N. starting in 1946. And it’s the capital of the world for a while.
The theme of a united front around the war effort was not really accurate. Could you talk about the different factions in New York City at that time?
New York was the home of GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter, but it was also the national headquarters for the American Nazis, communists, anarchists, and socialists, the antiwar movement, the isolationist movement. It had the largest Jewish community in the world, the largest German community outside of Germany. More Irish people lived in New York City than in Dublin. I like to say the great metropolis rarely speaks with one voice about anything.
What surprised you the most while researching the book?
One thing was the extent of support for the fascists and the Nazis, not just in the German neighborhoods, but in a cross-section of New York society from Park Avenue’s wealthy blue bloods to Irish Catholic neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, going back as early as when Mussolini first came to town in the early 1920s. The other was the extent to which the Wall Street banks and the big corporations, headquartered in New York, played all sides during the war and supported Hitler and Mussolini, and in some ways the Japanese, at the same time they were supporting the Americans. It’s a beginning, I think, of the kind of amoral, apolitical, global financial world we live in today.
Is there a city now rising that you think will become another capital of the world?
There are giant cities, and they’re vastly influential. But I don’t think any one has primacy over all the others. It’s unnecessary now to have one central brain. It’s more like a giant octopus with brains in all its limbs.