The World in Which Bernie Sanders Grew Up

Theodore Hamm on WWII-Era Brooklyn, the New Deal, and Commies Fightin' Fascists

Bernie Sanders’s older brother Larry recalls a playground located on the border between a Jewish area (then considered Flatbush) and an Irish one (Marine Park), creating tensions that resulted in kids of each group throwing rocks at their rivals. The quotidian turf war matched a larger conflict in the city during the late 1930s, pitting vocal Irish-Catholic supporters of Hitler against Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and other leading anti-fascists. Larry also remembers that one day when “Bernard” (as he calls him) was about one, girls at the playground urged him to push his little brother as high as he could go on the swing. The end result was the corner of the swing hitting Larry in the head, necessitating stitches. Larry has the scars to this day. The New Deal era left its marks on the Sanders family in many different ways.

On Monday, September 8, 1941—the day Bernie Sanders was born—the city’s newspapers announced the beginnings of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Closer to home, a trial at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse revealed that a Nazi infiltrator at the Carl I. Norden defense plant in Queens had stolen “America’s most prized aviation secret,” the “bomb-sight” technology used for precision strikes. Meanwhile, New Yorkers and fans of FDR across the nation mourned the passing of the president’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had died the previous day at the family estate in Hyde Park with her son and Eleanor by her side.

Mayor La Guardia, who since May of that year doubled as head of the Roosevelt administration’s Office of Civilian Defense, announced that the fuel rationing restrictions enforced in East Coast states over the preceding month would be ending soon. And Brooklyn district attorney Bill O’Dwyer—who had gained fame via his successful prosecutions of ringleaders of the ruthless Brownsville syndicate known as “Murder, Inc.”—mapped out his campaign strategy as the Democratic challenger to La Guardia that November. Promising a “constructive and vigorous campaign,” O’Dwyer identified the mayor’s “shortcomings and dangerous practices,” most particularly what he viewed as La Guardia’s dubious budget management. In the Irish-born O’Dwyer, Tammany now had a more formidable contender to La Guardia than in the previous two campaigns.

But the movements on battlefields and nuts and bolts of municipal politics were not the only concerns of the day. That evening, Mayor La Guardia would lead the parade of floats at the annual Coney Island Mardi-Gras celebration, a weeklong late summer fixture for nearly four decades. Photos the next day showed the cheerful Little Flower covered in confetti. Music enthusiasts also had eleven free WPA Music Projects concerts to choose from in Brooklyn parks that week. A group called the Neighborhood Band would perform classical numbers at Prospect Park, swing dance orchestras would play in Williamsburg, and the Negro Melody Singers would appear in both Bed-Stuy and Prospect Park.

As the Eagle announced, Orson Welles’ seminal film Citizen Kane would be making its Brooklyn debut later that week. The RKO Albee, a 3,000-seat movie palace in Downtown Brooklyn, would be screening the work “at popular prices” (unlike its “$2 Broadway run!”). Active in both the Federal Theatre Project and the Harlem-based National Negro Theater, Welles drew on the New York City left’s perspective in his withering critique of right-wing media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Meanwhile, the movie theater the Sanders family frequented on Nostrand and Kings Highway offered more middlebrow fare, with Abbott and Costello’s In the Navy lending comedic support to the encroaching U.S. entry into the war.

When the fall mayoral campaign fully kicked off in October, La Guardia contrasted his administration’s numerous achievements and dismissed his opponent as simply “the machine candidate.” Over the next month he never referred to O’Dwyer by name. At his launch event, the Little Flower reminded his supporters that he and Robert Moses were responsible for “92 new school buildings, 14 health centers,  25 hospital buildings, 325 playgrounds, 6 enclosed markets, 9 child health stations, 845 wading pools for children, 5 major bridges and hundreds of other improvements.” He also identified the ethos of his administration as “scientific,” a Progressive Era-watchword that stood in opposition to party machine corruption. O’Dwyer did, indeed, have the backing of the city’s two most powerful Democratic bosses, Brooklyn’s Frank Kelly and Ed Flynn of the Bronx, who was close to FDR and head of the Democratic National Committee.

O’Dwyer was also supported by Tammany’s leader, Christopher Sullivan, who had fallen out with FDR over the lack of New Deal patronage the organization had received. Along with the Irish party bosses, O’Dwyer positioned himself as an FDR ally (and by the end of the decade he would work quite closely with Eleanor Roosevelt). But there was little doubt which candidate the president supported. La Guardia, as FDR stated at a late October endorsement  announcement, had run “the most honest, and I believe, the most efficient municipal administration in my recollection.”

O’Dwyer, however, mounted a strong challenge. Like his predecessor, he linked La Guardia to Communists—but this time there was more substance to the allegation. Vito Marcantonio, La Guardia’s protégé and eventual successor as Congressman from East Harlem, led the Communist-allied wing of the American Labor Party, and the ALP once again backed the mayor. Fully supportive of U.S. entry into the war in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the CPUSA heartily endorsed La Guardia, a staunch anti-Nazi. Though he also supported the war effort, O’Dwyer nonetheless held appeal for the city’s large ranks of Irish supporters of Hitler and Italian sympathizers with Mussolini. Brooklyn was a center of vocal Irish-American support for the Nazis against Ireland’s longtime enemy England.

That October, Father Edward Curran, a devotee of far-right radio priest Father Coughlin, became pastor of St. Joseph, the Brooklyn diocese’s large Catholic parish in Prospect Heights; the diocese’s newspaper The Tablet was also a pro-Nazi organ that carried Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants on its front page. There were outspoken Coughlin supporters in Flatbush during the period as well. In July 1939, The Nation’s James Weschler provided a rundown of aggressive attempts by the Christian Front—which Weschler described as Irish Catholic Coughlinites drawn from the city’s “lower-middle class”—to intimidate the city’s Jewish residents. Weschler noted that hawkers sold Coughlin’s publication Social Justice outside of Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush.

When a teacher named Frances Cohen objected, the Coughlinites called her a Communist and shouted: “Lynch the Jew!” Moreover, the legendary gossip columnist Walter Winchell referred to the Front’s ringleader, John Cassidy, as the “Fuhrer of Flatbush.” Such hostilities continued in Flatbush through the early years of the war, causing the Brooklyn Eagle to editorialize in a November 1942 headline that the “Outbreak of Anti-Semitism [was] a Disgrace to Brooklyn.”

There’s no doubt that the Sanders family viewed anyone who supported Hitler with contempt. In 1921, at age 17, Larry and Bernie’s father Eliasz Gitman had left Stopnica (in modern-day Poland, near Krakow) and traveled via Belgium to the United States on a passenger ship called the Lapland. In 1927, Gitman became a naturalized US citizen under the name Elias Sanders. At a March 2016 presidential debate (in Flint, Michigan), Sanders stated, “Look, my father’s entire family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust.” He further recalled going shopping with his mother Dora as a young boy when they would see “people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they [had been] in Hitler’s concentration camp.” “Being Jewish,” Bernie explained in the mid-1980s, has “greatly influenced my intellectual and emotional development.”

As in many Jewish households during the period, Yiddish was commonly spoken in the Sanders home—and both Larry and Bernie would attend Hebrew School. One fellow Kings Highway area resident told Sanders biographer Harry Jaffe that their neighborhood was “essentially a shtetl.” In Bernie’s  immediate  surroundings,  Hitler was thus the enemy. Noisy and menacing, the pro-fascist supporters several blocks north in Flatbush were also distinctly in the minority.

For his part, O’Dwyer denounced the Christian Front, a group he had sought to crack down on as district attorney. During the campaign, the mayor and the DA blamed each other for not breaking up the Front’s street corner gatherings, of which there had been over one hundred in Brooklyn in the past year. La Guardia’s supporters tried to link O’Dwyer to the anti-Semitic agitators, causing the DA’s forces to refute that charge. O’Dwyer’s primary base of support indeed came from the Democratic Party’s mainstream ranks, the leaders of which were anti-fascists.

Governor Herbert Lehman—FDR’s successor and ally, as well as the state’s leading Jewish  politician—headlined a raucous rally for O’Dwyer  at  the  Brooklyn  Academy of Music on the eve of the election. Even as he blasted La Guardia (primarily over the mayor’s charge that the state’s highest court was doing the governor’s bidding), Lehman criticized the undercurrent of anti-Semitic and anti-Italian bigotry in the race. Other prominent New York Democrats spoke out against La Guardia as well. James Farley, FDR’s campaign guru and thus the era’s political kingmaker, spread word that the president had never offered a cabinet position to the mayor because the Little Flower lacked “gentlemanly instincts,” a thinly veiled ethnic smear.

In general, Democratic bosses viewed the race as an opportunity to reclaim City Hall. In its endorsement of the borough’s district attorney in  his  bid  to  become the city’s chief executive, the Brooklyn Eagle took aim at the incumbent mayor’s main line of attack, insisting that O’Dwyer’s work prosecuting the mob showed he was “not the tool of any machine.”

Sensing a tight race, La Guardia campaigned hard down the stretch. On Monday evening, October 27, the mayor made two campaign stops in order to rally Brooklyn’s Jewish voters. “All are equal as American citizens,” he told supporters at a Flatbush synagogue, adding that such a principle “can be accomplished in Europe—but only after we have crushed the Nazi philosophy, the Nazi regime and the Axis powers.” He then headed over to the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights, where he addressed an enthusiastic gathering of more than 5,000 Jewish war veterans. In a letter to the editor published three days before the election, Brooklyn Eagle reader Harry Weinberger assessed La Guardia’s first two terms. In Weinberger’s view, the mayor had been “honest and efficient”—and while he had on occasion been “dictatorial” in method, “his purpose at all times has been the betterment of the city and its inhabitants.” The letter ended with high praise for Robert Moses. The master builder, Weinberger wrote, had shown the nation “how to make parks, playgrounds and swimming places especially for the coming generation of the United States.”

At the eleventh hour, La Guardia—known as a scrappy candidate willing to play dirty, if necessary—sought to undercut O’Dwyer’s primary claim to fame. Since taking office as district attorney in 1940, O’Dwyer had initiated several high-profile prosecutions of the Murder, Inc. hit men who answered to the Brownsville mob bosses Lepke Buchalter and Albert Anastasia. But on the weekend before the election La Guardia released a report that had found widespread jury tampering by the Brooklyn Democratic Party machine—which now stood accused of placing “ringers” in grand juries in order to get connected underworld figures off the hook. The mayor charged that party boss Frank Kelly called the shots in the Brooklyn DA’s office, and that Kelly and O’Dwyer had formed “a rotten combination—Politics, Inc. and Crime, Inc.” Kelly and his machine counterparts responded by spreading false word that FDR was pulling back his support for La Guardia. On the Monday before Election Day, the president refuted that rumor, stating there was “not one word or vestige of truth” in it.

When the returns rolled in, the Little Flower had garnered a third term, but some bloom had come off the rose. Despite the flurry of grand public works projects built during his second term, the mayor prevailed by only 52–47 percent, dropping eight points from his 1937 margin. La Guardia’s winning margin was just over 132,000 votes (with almost the exact same total number of voters—2.2 million—as four years earlier). In Brooklyn, the mayor’s tally dropped by 116,000, but he still prevailed by over 90,000 votes, receiving 55 percent of the borough’s total ballots. Brooklyn also provided 40 percent of the over 435,000 citywide ALP votes for La Guardia. The Little Flower remained popular in the Sanders family’s Midwood district, taking nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Across the city, the mayor scored nearly three-quarters of the Jewish vote; but he experienced double-digit drops in his Irish and Italian support. (La Guardia remained popular with black voters.) Four years earlier, La Guardia had received 37 percent of the Irish vote, but now he tallied only 24 percent. That dip can be partially explained by the fact that O’Dwyer was afar stronger candidate than Mahoney, with the former garnering much stronger institutional support.

But the pro-Axis sympathies of many Irish and Italian voters were also clearly a factor in trimming the mayor’s sails.

In a speech aired by WNYC radio the day after the election, La Guardia looked ahead to his third term. Ominously, he warned:

The next four years are going to be hard, difficult years. Our country is facing a very serious situation, something that appears to have been overlooked during the last few weeks . . . We had a hard time during the past eight years. But to administer this city during the present emergency and perhaps other emergencies—and after this terrible war ends in Europe, to face the after-war condition—is going to require a great deal of thought, work, time, and effort.

Throughout the fourteen-minute address, the feisty mayor railed against the “party bosses” who tried to topple him, praised the “intelligent electorate” that backed him, and “forgave” the voters who went for his opponent. The Little Flower was certainly no shrinking violet. After trashing the “double-crossing”  Republican  Party  leaders in the Bronx and Queens who supported O’Dwyer, La Guardia thanked the American Labor Party for its “unselfish support.” This was the second time, he noted, that the ALP—“of which [he was] a member” along with “working men and women”—had given the city a “non-partisan, efficient, and honest administration.” Rather than take a vacation, the mayor was now “ready to get back to work.” La Guardia’s passion was palpable. And when he concluded by saying that he had “no interest in the world other than the welfare of the people of my city or the safety of my country,” the Little Flower’s sincerity was hard to deny.

Despite the dip at the polls, La Guardia remained a popular figure, and his public presence would grow throughout his third term. Sunday, December 7, 1941, is best known as what FDR called “a date which  will live   in infamy,” as a result of Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor. The president delivered that signature line when asking Congress to declare war on Japan, in a live radio speech to the nation the following afternoon. But it was La Guardia who first took to the airwaves late that Sunday afternoon at City Hall. Serving as both mayor of New York City and federal director of the Office of Civilian Defense, La Guardia addressed the city via WNYC, before speaking to the nation live on CBS, NBC, and other national radio networks. He stressed that although Japan’s assault—which the mayor blamed on Nazi “thugs and gangsters” steering the Axis nation’s war agenda—had occurred in distant Pacific waters, the Eastern seaboard needed to be on high alert. He sought “to assure all persons who have been sneering and jeering at defense [preparation] activities . . . that we will protect them now.” But the no-nonsense Major also informed that same crowd that “we expect cooperation and there will be no fooling.”

That same afternoon, in a move that reflected his anti-Japanese racism, the mayor ordered the NYPD to make sure that all of the city’s “Japanese subjects” stayed  in their homes “until their status is determined by our federal government.” Only 2,000 people of Japanese descent lived in the city; 1,100 had been born in Japan, the rest born in America. But La Guardia—along with FDR, California Attorney General Earl Warren, and other leading figures of the era—saw no distinction between a Japanese national living in the United States and a Japanese American. That stood in contrast to the prevailing  views  of  residents with German and Italian roots shared by the mayor and president.

La Guardia clarified his position regarding the loyalties of the two European groups in a speech four days after Pearl Harbor, on the day Germany and Italy officially declared war on the United States. Speaking from Tacoma, Washington, amid a tour of West Coast defense sites, La Guardia explained to a national radio audience that in his view there was a difference between longtime residents of German and Italian descent and “enemy alien subjects,” or members of the two nationalities living in America without U.S. citizenship. Among German Americans and Italian Americans, La Guardia averred, “there is but one loyalty—to the United States.” Overlooking support from within the two communities for both the Nazis and Mussolini on display in his hometown over the past few years, the mayor declared, “there was not the slightest sentimental or other feeling for the country of their ancestry.” To the enemy aliens from the European members of the Axis, La Guardia issued a welcome, albeit one that came with a warning: “There will be no fooling—no monkey business—or we will crack down, and crackdown hard.”

In a follow-up national radio address ten days later, La Guardia made similar statements about German and Italian nationals residing in the United States, reassuring them that as long as they remained law-abiding, there would “no interference in the normal pursuits of life.” After all, he said, neither group was responsible for the actions taken in their home countries—and any mistreatment of them would undermine American principles. But in the words of his leading biographer, “La Guardia pointedly kept the Japanese out of these concerns.” The reason he had not mentioned the Japanese in either radio speech, according to historian Thomas Kessner, was that La Guardia “did not intend for his words to apply to them.”

Over the next few years, the mayor and former head of the nation’s civilian defense fully supported the FDR administration’s internment of over 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent. When the West Coast camps began to close in 1944, La Guardia unsuccessfully fought against efforts to relocate several hundred detainees to New York City, then ordered the NYPD to closely surveil their actions once they arrived.60 A year earlier, after visiting the Gila River internment camp in Arizona, Eleanor Roosevelt had recommended ending the detainment policy; she also rejected the notion that a “Japanese American [is] any more Japanese than a German American is German, or an Italian American is Italian.” But neither the president nor the nation’s most prominent mayor were as levelheaded as the First Lady, thus leaving a permanent stain on their legacies.

The mayor became a fixture on the airwaves in his third term. Starting in January 1942, his weekly program Talk to the People aired on Sunday afternoons on WNYC (which at that time was owned by the city). The half-hour show quickly became a popular feature and by the end of the war claimed two million listeners. The mayor provided an eclectic mix of updates regarding civilian defense efforts, condemnations of wartime corruption, advice in response to listeners’ letters, music selections, recipes, and whatever else was on his mind. And he  did so with his distinctive voice, which sounded like a tenor saxophone that squeaked.

The Little Flower’s accent wasn’t specific to one ethnicity but instead a mélange of several. La Guardia indeed spoke multiple languages—including English, Yiddish, Italian, and German—and on the program he would read announcements in various tongues. Combined with the quirky delivery, the mayor’s free-form conversational style provided an aura of intimacy with his audience. Like so many other New Yorkers of the era, Larry Sanders distinctly recalls hearing La Guardia passionately read comic strips on the program during the newspaper strike of 1945. At the end of one Dick Tracy strip, the mayor interpreted the moral for young listeners. “Say, children, what does it all mean? It means dirty money never brings any luck. No, dirty money always brings sorrow, and sadness, and misery, and disgrace.”

As the comic strip example suggested, La Guardia viewed himself as both a leader and a teacher for the city. The local home front during wartime indeed required constant vigilance, causing the mayor to use his platform as a bully pulpit. For example, in a March 1943 broadcast addressing food shortages amid federal government rationing, La Guardia warned:

It is my determination to move speedily and vigorously— right now, in the beginning—against every sort of black marketing within the limits and the power of city government. I also intend to publicize, prosecute, and expose wherever possible every instance of profiteering. It is my belief that if we curb every attempt in the beginning, it will not be long before New York City will be baaad medicine and unwelcome territory for black marketeers, trash hogs, profiteers, and chiselers.

The mayor’s particular concern that day was the meat sold in the city’s butcher shops that had false FDA stamps on it; he vowed to send his administration’s health inspectors to investigate suppliers outside the city. Such everyday hardships experienced during the war were the central focus of La Guardia’s radio program. Having been replaced as director of civilian defense at the outset of 1942, the mayor’s radio program allowed him to continue providing essential information and updates regarding his administration’s work. The Little Flower’s presence in New Yorkers’ kitchens and living rooms every Sunday throughout the war was perhaps the most distinctive feature of his third term.

The war took its toll on federal funding for the city, meaning that the mayor’s final term saw far fewer public works projects completed than in his first eight years. The WPA ended on June 30, 1943, and a year later, the Public Works Administration (which  had  funded  construction of the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel) closed its doors. While major projects like the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel stalled, one large endeavor did commence: in 1943, construction began on Idlewild Airport (now JFK). For the most part, La Guardia and Moses spent the war years mapping out the future.

As promoted to the public, the duo’s blueprint included 6,600 acres of parks, sixty new schools, three new hospitals (as well as ten health centers), new buildings at CUNY campuses including Queens College and Brooklyn College, and some of the most controversial highway projects that Moses would later initiate, including the Cross-Bronx Expressway. In early 1943, FDR wrote a letter to La Guardia that conveyed the president’s hope that other cities “follow New York’s example” in their planning for the aftermath of the war. La Guardia, in turn, enthusiastically read the letter to his WNYC  listeners.

In the view of the president, the mayor, and the master builder, the New Deal was only on hiatus during the war. Although the era of public works was far from over, the WPA’s demise brought an end to large-scale federal government support for the arts in America. By early 1942, funding for the various WPA cultural initiatives had been redirected to the war effort. Many leading figures from those projects went to work for government agencies, including the Office of War Information. For example, in the middle of the war, actor and director John Houseman, who had been a leading figure in the New York City-based Federal Theater Project, oversaw the Voice of America’s vast radio network. The guidebooks remained quite popular for many years.

For decades to come, residents of New York State(like their counterparts across the nation) would be reminded of the WPA’s efforts each time they went to their local post office. Murals painted by leading artists of the era such as Ben Shahn, whose work titled The First Amendment remains on view at the Woodhaven post office in Queens, depicted American history from a left-wing perspective. Many of the giants of mid-century American arts and letters, from Dorothea Lange and Jackson Pollock to Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, had been sustained by the WPA.

New Deal funding demonstrated the prevailing view of the arts as not simply an elite realm but integral to American life. La Guardia most certainly shared that democratic conception. An enthusiast of classical music, the Little Flower flamboyantly conducted the City Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (Confident in his abilities, the mayor—and band conductor’s son—told the musicians to “just treat me like Toscanini,” invoking the legendary Italian conductor.) Musical training, the mayor believed, should be a central component of youth education. So too did FDR, who created the National Youth Administration in 1935. The NYA was under the auspices of the WPA for its first four years, after which it was moved into other agencies before it was finally disbanded in 1943. In addition to funding initiatives for elementary school through graduate students, the NYA provided vocational training and job placement for over four million young men and women aged 16 to 25.

In April 1942, La Guardia attended the final performance of the city’s NYA Orchestra, which was broadcast on WNYC. Afterwards, the mayor commended the dozen-member ensemble of adolescents for a “splendid concert, so musicianly [sic] performed—I’ve never heard Tchaikovsky’s Fifth better.” The Little Flower told the gathering and his radio audience that his “full enjoyment” of the concert was “somewhat marred by the thought that this splendid orchestra is to be discontinued.” What followed those statements uniquely encapsulated La Guardia’s worldview:

I know of no greater progress or more useful undertaking in the entire social security program of our president than the national youth program. It is the best investment our government has made in many, many years. After all, no one is shocked or complains that the government . . . has spent millions of dollars for the conservation of soil. Can there be any better investment than the conservation, advancement and progress of American music [than the youth orchestra]? It gives every student the opportunity of educational advancement regardless of the economic condition of the family. It is Americanism in its highest terms.

Rather than strictly the federal government’s pension program, “social security” was presented by the mayor here in much larger terms. Like FDR and Eleanor, La Guardia held a fundamentally optimistic vision of a future in which the government would actively nourish the soil of American life. Despite his prominent role in the nation’s civilian defense, the Little Flower saw no reason to put musical education on hold until after the war. As he insisted:

I don’t agree that music is a luxury. And in times of stress, in times of emergency, times of hardship and sorrow—music  is a necessity. What is more, we must not permit the war to stop the cultural life of our country.

Few, if any, American politicians have ever made a more forceful declaration in support of the arts.

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From Bernie’s Brooklyn by Theodore Hamm. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, OR Books. 

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Theodore Hamm
Theodore Hamm is editor of Frederick Douglass in Brooklyn. He writes about New York City politics and culture for The Indypendent and Jacobin. Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.





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