Monday, May 14, 2012

"New York at War" by Steven H. Jaffe (2012)

With the exception of the American Revolution, and later the Civil War Draft Riots, New York City has managed to escape the ravages of war. Yet, she has played a major part in every war since Henry Hudson first sailed up the Narrows and into the Hudson River in 1609. Author Steven Jaffe has done an admirable job of chronicling the history of war in the New York during the 4 centuries since then.

Beginning with Henry Hudson sending 5 men to explore the northern reaches of the lower Bay, during which sailor John Colman was killed by an arrow from one of the local Indian tribes, the book takes on the Indian Wars, before delving into the American Revolution. Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn, across Manhattan, is covered very well, as are the “hulks” in Wallabout Bay, the site of today’s Brooklyn Navy Yard. The “hulks” were the British prison ships, aboard which thousands perished from want of food, water, clothing and sheer cruelty on the part of the British.
The War of 1812 brought panic to the city, as it prepared for an invasion which never came. The forts which were built during this period made any thought of invading New York from the sea impossible 50 years later when the nation was torn by Civil War.

The Civil War seems almost lacking in the memories of New Yorkers, mainly because no battle was ever fought that far North. But the city teemed with danger during this period as Confederate sympathizers from Canada plotted to burn the city to the ground, destroying the manufacturing, and banking facilities, which enabled the North to cripple the South. That plot was unsuccessful, doing nowhere near the damage caused by the Draft Riots of 1863. Those riots were largely caused by the friction between freed African-Americans, and the newly arrived Irish, as they struggled for jobs. There was also an economic reason behind the riots. Poor white Irish citizens could not afford to pay a substitute to do their fighting, meaning that an unduly large number of the soldiers conscripted were Irish. These riots diverted thousands of troops from Gettysburg, and had the potential of causing the Union to lose the war.

The Spanish-American War was very much a "New York" war. Although there was no violence; or even riots; caused by the war, the war itself was largely the creation of New York newspapers and “yellow journalism.”

The First World War was a bit more complicated for the city. The warring powers were divided into 2 camps; the Allied Powers of England, France, Italy and Russia; and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. With the city composed of so many different nationalities, loyalties ran the gamut. The impact of the outbreak of war in Europe was so great, that the stock market was closed for 4 months in fear of a financial panic.

The Irish did not support Britain, hoping that a German victory would give Ireland its freedom. The Jewish population was divided politically. They were hard pressed to back the Allies, who included Russia; and the Czar who caused them to flee their native land; while at the same time many saw the war as the best chance to defeat the Ottoman Empire, thus establishing a Zionist Holy land in Palestine.

Militarily, New York was technically invaded by the Germans, who used early submarines to mine the mouth of the harbor off Coney Island and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. They were also able to cut the underwater cable connecting New York to Nova Scotia, and thus to Europe. 15 ships were sunk by the German submarines within miles of the beaches at Atlantic City and Coney Island. These actions left New York in a state of panic. Milkmen of German descent were not allowed to work their routes along the coast, lest they use the opportunity to signal German ships and submarines waiting off shore.

Even before the United Staes entered the war, the war came to New York. At 2 AM on July 30, 1916, a huge explosion took place when German saboteurs blew up a munitions depot. The explosion was felt, and heard, as far away as Maryland.

By 1920 class warfare invaded Wall Street, largely the result of the inequities between the working class socialists and their capitalist counterparts. The bomb was set off in a wagon full of dynamite and detonated at lunch hour.

World War Two bought back the German U-Boats, which sank ships 10 miles off Brighton Beach. And, with the advent of long range bombing, the city was constantly in a state of blackout. This part of the book rang so true, as my mother had told me all the stories from the war years.

The Harlem riots of 1964; and the later Black Panther movement; when coupled with the Vietnam War protests, had the city  virtually under siege for another decade. Policemen were assassinated in the streets, and plans were made to blow up everything from the Police Station in Lower Manhattan, to all of the major department stores. The goal was to “bring Saigon home”, so that the American people would understand the atrocities of war.

Crime soared throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, fueled largely by the drug trade. But, the 1990’s saw a new kind of threat taking place, just as the city seemed to be revitalizing.  Terrorism began to rear its head with the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center. By 2001, that goal had been accomplished.

Steven Jaffe has done a superb job of laying bare the myth that New York City has always been spared the ravages of war. On the contrary, although bombs did not fall on New York, for every conflict in which she has participated, the city has paid a price. And, remarkably, the city has survived,  and is currently in a state of renaissance, with new buildings going up, while crime and violence are going down.  An engaging read by a veteran  author, this is a book which will educate even the most native of New Yorkers.  For more on Mr. Jaffe, and some of his other work, see his comments posted below.

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