Fiorello La Guardia was the mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. His term overlapped almost exactly with the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with Adolph Hitler’s years as German Führer. Both men, Roosevelt and Hitler, would profoundly affect New York and La Guardia’s years as its leader.
La Guardia did not look the part of a politician. He was short and round, with a high voice that he used to say exactly what was on his mind. His language was direct and informal. He liked the word “lousy.” He was confident, sometimes arrogant, determined, and honest. This last trait was particularly welcome in New York, which had had a long period of City Hall corruption going back decades and associated with Tammany Hall.
La Guardia’s parents were immigrants. His father was Italian, and his mother was Jewish. His first name meant “little flower.” He grew up in Arizona, where his musician father was a bandmaster with the U.S. Army. He moved to New York in his 20s and attended NYU’s law school at night. He was fluent in several languages and worked as an interpreter at Ellis Island, translating Croatian, German, and Italian. But he wanted a life in politics, and in 1916 he ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Except for a stint as a pilot in World War I, he held his Congressional seat for most of the next sixteen years. He was booted out, with many other Republicans, in the wave that carried Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House in 1932. The following year, he was elected mayor of New York City. He was 51 years old.
La Guardia was a Republican, but he strongly supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and, in fact, most of Roosevelt’s programs. After years in Congress, he did not shy away from international subjects, partly because he was hoping for national office himself, and partly because of what was happening on the world stage. He was enraged by the rise of fascism in Europe, and spoke out publicly against Hitler on many occasions, and against the Nazi organizations that had taken root in New York’s German neighborhood. He was part-Jewish, though not, as he liked to say, “enough to brag about.” (He went a little easier on Mussolini, who was popular among Italian Americans.)
A war veteran and pacifist, Mayor La Guardia originally hoped the U.S. would stay out of the growing conflicts in Europe. But by the late 1930s, he was convinced that the U.S. would have to help Europe resist the spread of fascism. He thought the neutrality laws, which outlawed American intervention, should be overturned. When President Roosevelt suggested the Lend-Lease program to provide essential material to Great Britain on a pay-later basis, La Guardia defended it in a February 1941 appearance before Congress.
Three months later, in May 1941, President Roosevelt asked La Guardia to become director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), and he accepted the unpaid position with the understanding that he would remain mayor of New York. To many onlookers, it seemed impossible to do both jobs well, but La Guardia said he would be in Washington, D.C., every Tuesday through Thursday to do the civil defense job, and otherwise in New York being mayor. He was sure it would work, and he had big plans for getting the nation ready for war. He wanted 50 million gas masks, one for every person living along the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic coastlines. He made national tours, speaking about what might be coming and how to prepare for it. In his role as mayor, he set civil defense procedures in place in New York that later gave the city the best-organized civil defense system in the country.
Until Pearl Harbor, however, many Americans thought La Guardia was an alarmist. Once the U.S. was at war, they were persuaded otherwise, and La Guardia was suddenly holding two more-than-full-time jobs. Eleanor Roosevelt was named co-director of the OCD, partly to take some of the weight off La Guardia’s shoulders. But civil defense needed a full-time leader, and La Guardia was replaced in this role a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. The city also needed a full-time mayor, and had just re-elected La Guardia to an unprecedented third term in office. He had plenty to do.
As the city’s chief executive during the war years, La Guardia used the full force of his personality and his office. In regular Sunday radio addresses, “Talks to the People,” he combined homespun advice and a “we-can-do-this” attitude. He worked hard to maintain the price ceilings set by the Office of Price Administration on essentials like food and rent, and scolded those who broke the rules. When gas rationing went into effect, he authorized the NYPD to crack down on people who were out for nothing more than a nice Sunday drive. He did his best to keep up morale in the city, once reading the Dick Tracy comics over the radio during a newspaper strike, so kids would know what was happening with a favorite character. But he wasn’t only folksy. He also persuaded FDR to intervene on the city’s behalf when the War Production Board favored industrial giants in the Midwest, South, and West with lucrative contracts at New York’s expense. New York’s many small manufacturers reaped the benefits.
La Guardia’s style was personal, hands-on. He was famous for appearing at fires to aid the Fire Department, and he once helped unpin a trapped firefighter. But he did not apply the personal touch to everyone equally. Like many products of immigrant New York, he was distant from black people. The 1943 Harlem riot changed his thinking somewhat. He committed more funds to Harlem than ever before, and set up a Committee on Unity to further “racial and religious harmony in our city.” His negative feelings toward the Japanese never saw such a change of heart, however. On the night of the Pearl Harbor attack, he assigned city detectives to help the FBI round up Japanese nationals and detain them on Ellis Island. He defended the internment camps where Japanese Americans were forced to live; prohibited Japanese Americans from marching in the 1942 “New York at War” parade; and protested against a 1944 plan to allow some Japanese Americans, considered no threat, to leave the camps and resettle in New York and other cities.
Most New Yorkers relied on La Guardia throughout the war, and trusted him. But they were not interested in seeing him run for a fourth term. The mayor left office on December 31, 1945, and died of pancreatic cancer nearly two years later.
Sources: Alyn Brodsky, The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003); H. Paul Jeffers, The Napoleon of New York (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002); Thomas Kessner, Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (New York: Penguin Books, 1989); Mike Wallace, Gotham II: A History of New York City from 1889 to 1945 (in progress; to be published by Oxford University Press).
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