Section 1

New York Before Pearl Harbor, 1933–41

Bundles for Britain pinback button. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bella C. Landauer.

Bundles for Britain pinback button. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Bella C. Landauer.

Throughout the 1930s, Americans debated whether or not the United States should enter the war. That discussion raged most intensely in New York City. This section begins with the “War of Opinions,” showcasing the many and varied viewpoints that New Yorkers expressed on the wars abroad. Individuals and organizations aided victims and mobilized to support or oppose intervention. This display of photographs, fliers, artwork, books, and comic books captures their activities.

Cyclotron, 1938.

Cyclotron, 1938. Division of Medicine & Science, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution.

The second part of “New York Before Pearl Harbor” focuses on the Manhattan Project, the nationwide scientific effort that started here and that culminated in 1945 with the atomic bomb. The centerpiece of the display is a large portion of the cyclotron, a type of atom smasher, used in 1939 by scientists at Columbia University to confirm the German discovery of nuclear fission. A touch-screen video map shows ten Manhattan sites where Manhattan Project work took place.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph. [Burning and damaged ships, Pearl Harbor], December 7, 1941. National Archives (80-G-33058)

Official U.S. Navy Photograph. [Burning and damaged ships, Pearl Harbor], December 7, 1941. National Archives (80-G-33058).

The bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the United States into war. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia immediately invoked security measures, and thousands of New Yorkers enlisted in the Armed Forces or volunteered for civilian defense. Thomas Hart Benton’s painting, Casualty—from his Year of Peril series, which he painted as a call to arms just weeks after the attack—viscerally communicates the transition from peace to war that Americans experienced in December 1941.

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