When World War II broke out in 1939, New York was a cosmopolitan, heavily immigrant city, whose people had real stakes in the war and strongly held opinions about whether to intervene in the worldwide conflict. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the U.S. into the war, and New York became the principal port of embarkation for the warfront. The presence of troops, the inflow of refugees, the wartime industries, the dispatch of fleets, and the dissemination of news and propaganda from media outlets, changed New York, giving its customary commercial and creative bustle a military flavor. Likewise, the landscape of the city acquired a martial air, as defenses in the harbor were bolstered, old forts were updated, and the docks became high security zones.
WWII & NYC is an account of how New York and its metropolitan region contributed to victory. The exhibition also explores the captivating, sobering, and moving stories of how New Yorkers experienced and confronted the challenges of “total war.”
WWII & NYC opens in 1940, before the United States entered the war. New Yorkers held a variety of opinions on the war, and many argued for or against intervention at rallies and parades. At the same time, scientists at Columbia were engaged in the Manhattan Project, illustrated here by a large portion of a cyclotron, or atom smasher, used to confirm the German discovery of nuclear fission. The country was forced into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and New York quickly adapted.
In New York City, workers mobilized to assist in wartime production, from shipbuilding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to uniform manufacturing at Brooks Brothers. Families grew victory gardens and dealt with the challenges of rationing, and the objects on display, including ration cards, an air raid siren, and V-mail, demonstrate the changed nature of life during wartime. Soldiers funneled through the city on leave, on their way to training, and in staging camps. 900,000 New Yorkers served in the military during the war, at home and abroad; some of their stories are told through individual profiles, and in a twenty minute film shot by a Signal Corps member trained in Queens. The exhibit concludes with the Allies’ victory in 1945.
American troops began returning to New York harbor soon after the German surrender in May 1945. Two million New Yorkers flocked to Times Square upon the announcement of Japan’s surrender on August 14, 1945, signaling the war’s end. The celebrations were tempered with great losses, and the show ends with photographs, documents, and artwork that reflect the postwar transitions faced by the city and the country.
Installed throughout all floors of the New-York Historical Society, the exhibition features more than 400 images and objects, including artifacts, paintings, maps, photographs, posters, films, music, radio broadcasts, and newly recorded eyewitness accounts that document the most widespread, destructive, and consequential conflict in history. The exhibition draws upon extensive collections at the New-York Historical Society and on important loans from the US Navy, the Museum of WWII, Boston, the Smithsonian Institution, the Mariners’ Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions.
War for Civil Rights describes a “Double V” campaign waged by African Americans during the war, which argued that the black men and women who fought for victory over the Nazis abroad deserved full civil rights and victory over racism at home. The exhibit, comprised of photographs, posters, and other ephemera, focuses on three aspects of the Double V campaign in New York City: the Negro Freedom Rallies; the fight against Red Cross blood segregation; and the effort to integrate the Stuyvesant Town housing development.
GI Sketch Diary: Ben Brown’s World War II Drawings features the artwork of Bronx-raised Ben Brown, a corporal who fought in North Africa and in the bitter and bloody Italian campaign. Brown carried sketchbooks with him throughout his time on the front. The sketches seen in this exhibit—a fraction of the art Brown produced during the war— illustrates his experiences and the people and places he encountered.
Several World War II-related displays can be found in The Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History. Small objects from the home front, including jewelry, matchbooks, and games, are on view in cases embedded in the floor. Six video columns feature a slideshow of images, including battlefront photographs, recruitment posters, patriotic textiles, among others. And the monumental History Showcase exhibit displays wartime uniforms and related posters.
Visualizing Liberty and Democracy: The Four Freedoms, December 14, 2012 through January 1, 2013. Almost a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress in a State of the Union speech. The president spoke of threatened international security and articulated the hope for a new world order founded upon four essential human freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression; the freedom of worship; the freedom from want; and the freedom from fear. The Four Freedoms, as they immediately came to be known, provided a facile explanation to Americans about their country’s ultimate participation in the war. Yet by 1942, only one-third of the public was familiar with what they were. Unable to serve his country in other ways, the artist Norman Rockwell became driven to illustrate Roosevelt’s vision. The Manhattan-born, Vermont transplant specialized in commercially popular, sentimental scenes of small-town life, and his four paintings of each “freedom” were no exception. Rockwell’s series succeeded in making the American public visualize Roosevelt’s lofty rhetoric, and helped them to understand what the world was fighting for. Today, The Four Freedoms endure as four of Norman Rockwell’s most iconic works, and also offer a lesson in World War II ideology and propaganda.
A display in the Luce Center highlights the role of the New-York Historical Society during WWII. The exhibit includes information and objects from staff members who went to war; ephemera and photographs from wartime exhibitions; acquisitions collected during and after the war; and insight into the changes made throughout the museum to adapt to the war.
WWII & NYC was made possible, in part, by:
Bernard & Irene Schwartz
The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation
May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc.
Eric & Fiona Rudin
Jack & Susan Rudin
Elizabeth B. Dater & Wm. Mitchell Jennings, Jr.
Ruth & Harold Newman
Laurie & Sy Sternberg
The Weiler Family
This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department
of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.
The New-York Historical Society is grateful to New York City Councilmember
Gale A. Brewer for her support.
Support for the exhibition publication was generously provided by
Futhermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund