Sunday, January 27, 2013


Years ago when the only way to get to Europe was by steamer one had to go to the West Side piers in New York City to board the ship.  Many New Yorkers never went to the West Side except to travel abroad therefore, there was an old joke, if you went to the West Side  you should bring your passport.

Since every once in a while it’s nice to have a change of venue, the other day, back in New York, I got out my passport and went across the park to the New York Historical Society on Central Park West and 77th Street.   The attraction was the exhibition, “WWII & NYC”, a subject that interested me from several points of view.

When you walk into the show you hear this blast from the past, Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London in 1940.  His voice comes crackling out of a 1930’s or 40’s plastic radio like this one.

In the next gallery comes the real shocker.  A poster declaring “Support the Axis – The Pro American Rally”.  How could that be?  Well, it had only been 20 years since the World War I, “the war to end all wars” where 10 million soldiers died as well as millions of more civilians.  People wanted to get on with their lives and spend their money at home.  Ironically, in the end, the war boosted the economy which continued to boom for decades.  But next to the Pro American Rally poster I see another.  It says, “Stop them over there now – Smash the Axis”.  That, of course, was New York  before Pearl Harbor; after that eye opener, the entire country got behind the effort and joined the Allies abroad.

New York had the busiest harbor in the world even before WWII and it was closest to Europe so it naturally became the main port for embarkation of personnel and supplies heading for the European Theater.

I had not understood before why the development of the atomic bomb was known as the Manhattan Project when the bomb was built in Los Alamos, New Mexico, The site of a boys’ school that was literally taken over in total secrecy. It had no address and mail came to Santa Fe, New Mexico an hour or more away.

So why the Manhattan Project?  It turns out that the initial scientific study for the possibility of creating an atomic bomb began in New York at Columbia University.  The New York Times covered the logistics of moving into the Historical Society building the actual huge Cyclotron that had demonstrated the ability to accelerate particles and release atomic energy.

Librado Romero / NY Times

FDR had received several letters from Albert Einstein informing him that scientists in several countries were developing atomic energy as well as the possibility of a nuclear bomb.  Therefore, Einstein believed that it was important for the administration to establish lines of communications with these scientists and that this country put a greater effort into developing nuclear energy.  He also facilitated a meeting between FDR and at least one scientist who was a leader in the field.  It was after this that FDR authorized the work on the atomic bomb and sanctioned the Manhattan Project, which eventually spread to over 30 sites both in this country and abroad.

There are many personal stories in the exhibition but the one that is most graphically illustrated is in a 22-minute film by a pacifist who became convinced that he had to join the army and was appointed to a film-making unit.  On his own time he made a film that starts with images of maneuvers state-side and then moves on to his being stationed in London and finally to the front lines and landing at Normandy Beach.  There you see the true horrors of war in man to man combat.  In the end 60 million people lost their lives in the war.  Film became an important part of the propaganda war and after Pearl Harbor Hollywood joined in this effort.

To end on a lighter note, the most Iconic photograph of World War II was taken by the German-American photographer Alfred Eisenstadt who snapped this picture in Times Square.  A returning sailor grabbed the first nurse he saw and kissed her in gratitude for what the nurses had done for our armed forces during the war.

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