New York City at war

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Between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Allied victory in 1945, New York City was a choke point for the nation’s war effort, and America’s enemies did everything they could to choke it. U-boats ventured so close to Manhattan that German sailors could see the skyline’s glow. Nazi spies prowled Times Square. The most vulnerable part of the city—and the most important—was the port: 650 miles of miraculously productive waterfront that dispatched 3 million troops and even more tons of matériel to the fight in Europe. With German sympathizers parading in swastikas on the East Side, how could the city keep the docks safe from a secret or not-so-secret attack?

As Richard Goldstein writes in Helluva Town, his new history of New York in World War II, the port owed its safety not least to a canny and highly unlikely calculation. In 1942, the Navy and the district attorney swallowed hard and asked the help of the real authority in the harbor: the Mafia. Lucky Luciano, then doing 30 to 50 years for running a prostitution ring, consented. It sounds like a plot from The Sopranos, but the payoff was real: with mobsters keeping an eye out for saboteurs, and Navy intelligence officers posing as longshoremen, the harbor suffered zero acts of sabotage during the war.

A hardheaded deal struck in a wiseguy’s cell is only one of the ways that being “Target Number One” brought out the furthest extremes in New York’s character. In some precincts, a puckish cosmopolitanism bloomed: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia entrusted the safety of German interests in the city to a unit of Jewish cops. A short taxi ride away, intolerance flared. Harlem erupted into a race riot in 1943 so violent that people who heard it thought Hitler’s bombers had arrived. A few years earlier, the feds had rounded up a dangerous right-wing Christian militia—in Brooklyn....

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