Wednesday, June 01, 2005

1945: Looking at Local Politics, World History and Popular Culture

1945: Looking at Local Politics,World History and Popular Culture

By Henry J. Stern
June 1, 2005

Of the 221 articles I have written since New York Civic was founded in February 2002, (not counting 53 Qs) the great majority have dealt with city and state government. The most widely-read single article, however, was not political; it was a tribute to our beloved Boomer, written in August 2004. The article generated about three hundred letters of condolence, as far as we know, the largest number of tributes to a departed golden retriever. You can link to the original article at Laramie Boomerang Stern, 1991-2004.

Thinking of Boomer raised the issue that our subscribers, now over 12,750, might enjoy, from time to time, reading about subjects other than politics. In that spirit, I am sometimes inclined to tell people stories, primarily historical and cultural, dealing with past events or customs. (Both my brothers were teachers.) In the television, motion picture and video game age in which we live, there is very little transmission of information outside of what is taught in school or what is derived from popular entertainment, which has become increasingly violent and degraded, reflecting the taste, or the lust, of the most economically desirable demographic.

Observe the contrast between the standards of political correctness, under which any less than complimentary reference to any group of people, or any reflection of attributes or qualities of any such group is forbidden, as opposed to popular culture (movies, television, music), under which the most outrageous and obscene references find a very substantial market, primarily among America's youth. In our culture, it is also permitted, in fact commonplace, for members of a group to refer to themselves and fellow-members in terms that are forbidden to others. This is not a judgment on this language, which does in fact convey its intended meaning. It is fascinating to hear this, which one can easily accomplish by walking on a city street or riding the subway, because it is at such variance with the conventions that apply to everyone else.

Our journey into politics begins today with the 1945 mayoral election, the first one I have any recollection of, and we will describe some events in that period. We wander from there to some customs of the time, now abandoned. One advantage of staying alive is that you have the opportunity to compare the present the past, and not merely in relation to the incredible advances in technology, reflected in communications, construction, medicine, air and space, and, sadly, weapons of mass destruction.

New York Civic is now in its fourth year, and this is the first mayoral election we have watched from a civic viewpoint. Rather than commenting at the moment at this year's somewhat desultory campaign, let us find greater comfort in looking at the past, when really important things happened. With a lifelong interest in current events, I followed the Second World War in great detail, with maps spread on the floor of our apartment in Inwood, upper Manhattan. When the war ended, the City of New York was preparing for the mayoral election of 1945, but not overly concerned with it.

During that fall campaign, I was ten and a pupil at JHS 52, Manhattan. (At that time, ten year olds were called pupils, students was a word reserved for collegians). The election was anticlimactic to the war, which had ended in Europe in May and in the Far East in August. At the time, people thought America was very fortunate to have invented and used the atom bomb, because Japan never would have surrendered otherwise, and millions of lives could have been lost if we tried to invade the islands. There was no question that if the Germans had gotten it first, the Jews would all have been murdered and all other Americans would have been enslaved.

Although Mayor LaGuardia is today regarded as New York's greatest 20th century mayor, his popularity was quite low at the end of his third term. The Republicans had no desire to nominate a progressive who had done little or nothing for them politically. Political enemies accumulate over time; there is a reason no New York City mayor has won a fourth term. Also, there was the Churchill reaction. Having led Britain to victory in World War II, Sir Winston was promptly defeated by Laborite Clement Attlee, a modest man who Churchill described as having every reason to be modest. Transfer of leadership at this time is not uncommon historically, President Lincoln was murdered at the close of the Civil War, and Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, having spent forty years in the Sinai wilderness seeking it.

When LaGuardia said he would not seek reelection, there was no apparent successor on hand. That is not unique; no mayor in recent years has supported his successor, with the exception of the Giuliani-Bloomberg transition. That did not stop Bloomberg, however, from removing practically everyone connected with Giuliani, good or bad. That action was reasonable, he had been elected and was entitled to his own administration.

We turn to some historical comments on the issues of succession and authority:
As King Louis XV of France, grandson of the Sun King, Louis XIV, is supposed to have said on his deathbed in 1774, "Apres moi, le deluge." Others have attributed this sage prediction to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. The Sun King, who reigned for 72 years (1643-1715), is also remembered for another one-liner, "L'etat, c'est moi." The American counterpart of Louis XIV's remark came from Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, who was a major political boss before World War II, back when bosses had real power. He said "I am the law" in 1937, and, like the French kings, he spoke the truth.

The Democrats had a strong candidate in 1945, District Attorney William O'Dwyer of Brooklyn, the Joe Hynes of his day. DA O'Dwyer had a reputation as a crime-fighter, though somewhat diminished by the death of one of his co-operating witnesses in a racketeering case, Abe Reles ("Kid Twist"), who mysteriously fell from a window in the Half Moon Hotel on Coney Island, while in protective custody. A witty mobster is said to have reacted to the news of the death of the canary with the comment, "He can sing, but he can't fly." O'Dwyer had been elected Brooklyn DA in 1941, and had resigned to go into military service.

Kings rule by dynastic succession, while in our democracy, we have elections. O'Dwyer, a popular Democrat, ran with the support of the American Labor Party, a radical group whose right-wing members had decamped to form the infant Liberal Party. The Liberals were right-wing in the sense that they did not want to be in a party which was Communist-dominated, so loyal to the Soviet Union that it supported the Hitler-Stalin pact, until Hitler broke it by invading Russia in June 1941. The early Liberals were old socialists from the trade union movement who joined with non-Communist academics from Columbia. Yes, there were some. Looking back from 2005, it may be hard to realize that, sixty years ago, there were real Communists who influenced American political parties, that many gangsters were Jewish, and that trade unions were regarded as a movement, advancing the rights of working people.

As is often the case among reformers and radicals, the elements opposing Tammany and its candidate, O'Dwyer, split in two factions, almost equal in size. The Republicans and Liberals supported Judge Jonah J. Goldstein, a progressive principally known as the leader of the Grand Street Boys Club, a group of wealthy and middle-class men, primarily Jewish, who had grown up on the Lower East Side, and were now engaged in charitable activities, including a settlement house. He was considered an honest man who had devoted himself to the public good. Goldstein was not, however, either rich, well known or charismatic.

Some LaGuardia supporters, probably including the Mayor himself, who had allied himself with the left wing of the ALP, had a different idea. Newbold Morris, of the aristocratic Morris family of what is now the Bronx, had served as president of the City Council in the LaGuardia administration, and had sought the mayoralty as an independent under the line of the No Deal party. Morris was a Yale graduate, and an ancestor, Lewis Morris, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (Both Morris Avenue and the Morrisania neighborhood reflect the family's importance.)

At the time, Morris was considered a WASP name. It was, which was why so many Jewish parents, not wishing their American-born boys to be named Moishe (for Moses), called them Morris. They also chose Monroe (for President James Monroe) and Milton (for the poet John Milton) as English style M-names. The child's Hebrew name would remain Moses, but the official American name on the birth certificate would be Morris.

As Jewish immigration to this country surged around the turn of the last century, so many boys were named Morris, Monroe and Milton that the three formerly Anglo-Saxon names came to be regarded as Jewish, rather than as Christian names like John and Thomas. At the end of the twentieth century, both Christians and non-orthodox Jews were calling their children anything they liked, and religious distinctions in names were considerably blurred.

Many years ago, first names were called Christian names, to distinguish them from surnames. In churches and at funerals, people are often called by their Christian names. In that earlier time, emphasis was also placed on a "Christian burial," which meant a burial with a funeral service including the recitation of prayers. This was in contrast with leaving the body of a dead Christian in the hands of infidels. The phrase was not meant to derogate a Jewish burial, but reflected the culture of the time in which, in this country, religion was identified with Christianity.

The founding fathers (now a sexist term) of the United States were, in fact, white, male Christians, the great majority of them Protestants. Christianity was, after all, their religion, and they did have strong convictions which they expressed in those historic documents, although their views were not necessarily sectarian. Despite the contemporary atheization of history, and the attempts by others to gild all American life with religiosity and exclude nonbelievers from the American community, by and large the separation of church and state has been one of the successes of the American experiment.

Getting back to 1945, with the opposition sundered, O'Dwyer's victory was seen as certain, and Tammany Hall and the other Democratic machines lusted for a return to the trough after twelve years of Republican and Fusion rule, which meant relative starvation for organizations whose income was based in part on kickbacks from the salary of city employees. Other funds came from the sale of public offices, particularly judgeships, rebates on contracts with city agency, and permission to erect buildings of a certain size and shape. One thing young people do not realize in 2005 is how relatively honest city government has been for the last twelve years, and how that contrasts not only with the days of boss rule in the city, but with New York State government, both the executive and the legislative branches, today.

The results were never in doubt:
O'Dwyer: Democrat- 867,426 American Labor- 257,929 Total 1,125,355
Goldstein: Republican- 301,144; Liberal- 122,316 City Fusion- 8141 Total 431,601
Morris: No Deal- 408,408

and three splinter parties on the left:
Joseph Glass, Socialist 9,304
Farrell Dobbs, Trotskyite 3,656
Max Schactman, Workers 585

The era of fusion and reform was over. The Democratic machine had taken control of city government, which it had lost in 1933. But Parks Commissioner Robert Moses was immediately reappointed, and, with the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945 and the retirement of Mayor LaGuardia in December 1945, Moses became more powerful than ever, and would remain in office for another 23 years before he was overthrown by Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Let us know how you feel about this more discursive journey through public events.
The internet IS interactive, but it only works if you use it.

Henry J. Stern

New York Civic
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