Looking the 1939-1940 New York Worlds Fair in the context of World War II shows the globally famous event was fertile ground for acting out major tensions of the day. With the theme World of Tomorrow and presentations such as Mrs. Modern versus Mrs. Drudge in a dishwashing contest, organizers and sponsors clearly highlighted the conflict between the past and the future. Fair planners did not realize how great the problems of the Interwar era would build and ultimately be reflected in their exhibition. Though the decades prior to its grand opening were unstable, organizers wanted to keep the plaguing problems of World War I and the Great Depression firmly in the past. The 1939 Worlds Fair was supposed to look toward the futurethe World of Tomorrowand all the promises that science, technology, democracy and collective effort could bring. During the Fairs run, a second Great War began, totalitarian regimes gained strength throughout Europe, and entire nations were wiped off the map. World War IIs vast destruction made it difficult for Fairgoers to even imagine a future could come.
The fair remained open for two seasons as World War II began. The Fair was divided into seven zones, offering everything from synchronized swimming in the Amusement Zone to a model of the future highway system that would come to fruition with the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act (1956) in the Transportation Zone. One of the most popular spaces was the Government Zone, where states and countries funded self-created exhibits representing their local culture. Due to this focus on global diversity, it is no wonder the exposition felt the impact of incidents occurring beyond the United Statesso much so that the Fairs theme was changed to For Peace and Freedom for its 1940 season. The following timeline puts this slice of American cultural history into the larger global context of World War II, as seen through contemporary coverage from the New York Times.
March 15/16, 1939: Hitler seized Czechoslovakia.
The Munich Agreement of September 1938 gave Nazis control of Czechoslovakias border region known as the Sudetenland. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain lead the Munich Agreement in an attempt to appease Adolph Hitlers desire to reclaim historically Germanic land ceded after World War I in the Treaty of Versailles. Appeasement proved to be a failure. Months after reaching the agreement, the rest of Czechoslovakia fell under German rule.
“The rumble of German army caissons rolling into Prague echoed across the Flushing Meadows yesterday, where a $200,000 pavilion intended to house Czecho-Slovakias exhibit at the New York Worlds Fair is nearing completion. What will happen to the building, to the additional space reserved in the Hall of Nations by the Prague government and to the exhibits, some of which are already here, some en route and others on the docks at Hamburg, no one knew. The Worlds Fair now has a contract with a country that no longer exists
April 30, 1939: The first season of the New York Worlds Fair officially opened
August 23, 1939: German/Russian Non-Aggression Pact signed.
With this pact, also known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the German and Russian Empires agreed not to attack each other. A major consequence of this agreement was that Russia allowed Germany to gain more control throughout Central and Western Europe without having to face Soviet forces in the East (which would have made Germany, a landlocked country, fight a two-front war much earlier).
The anti-Nazi motion picture, Professor Mamlock. Which had been on exhibition at the Russian Pavilion at the Worlds Fair for about a month, has been withdrawn and a film entitled Lenin in 1917 has been substituted for it, it became known yesterday. Officials at the pavilion refused to confirm reports that the withdrawal was connected with the recent signing of a non-aggression pact by Germany and Russia Developments abroad colored the activities of several foreign pavilions at the Fair yesterday. The Polish exhibit, particularly affected, reported that it had received numerous requests by Americans for information concerning the Danzig situation. At the Rumanian pavilion it was reported that three Rumanian employes [sic] had received instructions to report to the Rumanian Consul, presumably in connection with the mobilization of defense forces that has been in progress in Rumania. As far as was learned no comparable notices have been received by British and French employes [sic] at the Fair. Germany has no exhibit and any action that may have been taken by the Berlin government therefore was not indicated.
September 1, 1939: Hitler invaded Poland and World War II officially began.
Aided by the Soviet Union and Slovakia, the invasion of Poland or the “September campaign” concluded with the surrender of Warsaw (Polands capital) on September 27. This incident, which was a direct breech of the Treaty of Versailles and World War I peace terms forced France, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand to declare war against Germany and her allies on September 3.
With bombs bursting in Poland yesterday, the impact of the general war that seemed to threaten Europe finally broke with full force in the international area of the Worlds Fair, which such a short time ago was dedicated with brave speeches of international peace and good-will. The first clear, sunny day since last Sunday drew a record Friday crowd to the Fair, and the foreign pavilions, particularly those of the nations likely to play leading roles in the struggle abroad, acted as magnets. Polands building was an almost morbid center of attraction, while crowds also flocked to the pavilions of England, France, Italy and Soviet Russia. Germany is not participating in the Fair
“After President Roosevelt had revealed yesterday that he was inviting foreign nations to participate in the Worlds Fair again in 1940, formal announcement was made last night by Harvey D. Gibson, new board chairman of the Fair corporation, that the exposition plans to continue next year. The Presidents message came through Mayor La Guardia to a Worlds Fair in which the war note again was dominant, with demonstrations by 10,000 Polish-Americans, a military parade by 5,000 United States veterans and a sample of mock warfare by the nations most modern troops. The message stressed the need for peace among nations and declared that the New York Worlds Fair is one of the many channels by which this continuing conception of peace may be made known
September 5, 1939: United States proclaimed neutrality while German troops crossed the Vistula River in Poland.
Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts throughout the 1930s as conflict built up throughout the Interwar period. A cash-and-carry provision was included in 1937, which allowed the United States to provide supplies to countries that could pay in cash and transport war goods and materiel themselvesas Great Britain controlled the Atlantic, she and her allies were the beneficiaries of this policy.
As of the invasion of Poland, this provision had expired, but President Roosevelt still invoked the Neutrality Act for the time being (despite reservations). A revised Neutrality Act was passed on November 4, which reinstated the cash-and-carry policy, indirectly allowing the U.S. to again aid Great Britain and those countries fighting against the Nazis.
“Next Thursday, as Congress convenes in Washington to discuss United States neutrality, and with the Inter-American neutrality conference in Panama only two days off, Secretary of State Cordell Hull will deliver an address at the Worlds Fair in the Court of Peace. Secretary Hull will come as the guest of the Pan American Union, which will celebrate Pan-American day at the Fair ”
October 31, 1939: The first season of the New York Worlds Fair came to a close
A year in which the World of Today seemed to be going from bad to worse might not have seemed a good year in which to hold a Worlds Fair celebrating the World of Tomorrow. But the New York Worlds Fair, which today ends its first season with a To be continued footnote, was well-timed. It showed how comfortable a dwelling place the earth could be if men could only learn to work together….The key to the World of Tomorrow, as shown on Flushing Meadows, was the application of science to mens work and play. In war and peace, prosperity and depression, scientific knowledge marches on But it was clear, even at the Fair, that mankind has lagged behind in what have been called the social inventions. Above all, we have not yet invented a cure for war or a panacea for those destructive economic policies which preceded the present conflict
November 30, 1939: Soviets attacked Finland.
Also known as the Winter War, the Soviet Union sought to extend its own control in Eastern Europe through this conflict. Due to the Non-Aggression Pact and the fact that Soviets not only provided no resistance but aided Germany in its invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union did not face challenges from Nazi Germany in claiming Finland. As a result of the attack, the League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union from the organization on December 14. This campaign finally concluded in March of 1940.
“Soviet Russia has withdrawn from the 1940 New York Worlds Fair, and its pavilion, which was both a magnet for visitors and a center of stormy controversy at the 1939 exposition, must be razed within ninety days, Fair officials announced yesterday Outside of confirmation of the withdrawal and discussion of the details, there were no explanations forthcoming either from Fair or Soviet officials. Fair administrative officials made no statement expressing regret or other sentiments, while Soviet spokesmen maintained a similar tacitunity [sic] ”
January 8, 1940: Rationing began in Britain.
Great Britain had to import large quantities of food and other supplies, which provided a potential advantage to hostile nations wanting to curb Britains power. In this instance, a food ration was put into place to prevent shortages.
“The British Pavilion at the New York Worlds Fair will reopen this year if Grover Whalen, president of the Fair Corporation, can figure out a way to save the British Government the $250,000 it would cost to operate it, it was understood today The question is whether the government can afford to spend that much money on its pavilion when it needs all its money for the war.”
An editorial in The Daily Telegraph warned that it would be penny wise and pound foolish to close the pavilion.
March 18, 1940: Mussolini and Hitler announced Italys formal alliance with Germany.
Having entered into the Pact of Steel a year earlier before the war officially began, the leaders of Italy and Germany met in the Brenner Pass along the border of Austria and Italy to reaffirm their commitment to aiding each other. Japan joined the Axis in September.
April 9, 1940: Germany invaded Norway and Denmark.
Hitler sought transportation advantages and supplies from this campaign. It marked the beginning of hot engagement with the Allied nations who provided limited forces and support to Norway. Germany prevailed, and the poor performance on the part of the Allies, particularly with respect to Great Britain, led to Winston Churchills rise to the position of Prime Minister in May 1940.
“Denmark, one of the most recent victims of an aggressor nation, again will participate at the Worlds Fair, Grover A. Whalen, president of the Fair Corporation, announced yesterday Mr. Whalen said the Danish Minister had given authorization for the announcement but could not give further details at the moment. The return of Denmark, which at the close of the 1939 season said it would not return because of the international situation, was also made known by Georg Bech, Danish Consul General in New York, who was appointed commissioner general to the exposition ”
“Norway, which left the family of nations represented at the Worlds Fair last year at the close of the season, will return tomorrow as an official participant, despite the invasion that routed King Haakon and turned his country into a chain of battlefields, it became known yesterday ”
May 10, 1940: Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland.
Also known as the Battle of France, this invasion marked the official end of the Phoney Wara label used to describe the lack of military action taken by the Western Allied powers against Nazi Germany after their declarations of war.
“The impossibility of isolating the world of tomorrow, as exemplified by the Worlds Fair, from the grimmest aspect of the world of today was further emphasized yesterday in a joint announcement by the commissioners General of the Allied nations. It revealed that simultaneous divine services would be held in their pavilions Sunday at 4 P.M., at which time prayers will be offered for the safety and comfort of their fellow-countrymen, both civil and military, who are suffering the vicissitudes of war. The decision was reached following a morning meeting with Grover A. Whalen, president of the Fair corporation. Nations which will take part are Australia, Belgium, Czecho-Slovakia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Norway and Poland. Luxembourg will share the observance in the Belgian building.”
May 11, 1940: The second season of the New York Worlds Fair opened
“Rededicated to a New World of peace and freedom, while the Old World is being racked by war and bondage, the New York Worlds Fair reopened yesterday for its second season as the greatest and most magnificent exposition in history. For 170 days and 170 nights, until the end of October, it will continue as a symbol of the culture and progress of democratic civilization, and of individual rights to the pursuit of life and happiness under free government, in contrast to the new dark age and human wretchedness brought upon mankind by dictatorship ”
May 26, 1940: British Army was driven from continental Europe, beginning the evacuation at Dunkirk in France.
Having been unable to stop the German advance into France, Allied forces evacuated the coastal position of Dunkirk, France over nine days. Over 300,000 soldiers were able to escape to Britain by June 3.
May 28, 1940: Belgium surrendered to Germany.
Just eighteen days after the Battle of France began, the Nazis gained control of Belgium.
“Worlds Fair visitors gathered in small silent groups in the Belgian pavilion yesterday and forgot their business of sightseeing as they commiserated with the score of Belgian nationals employed by the pavilion on the reports that their army had capitulated to the German war machine. Meanwhile, Belgian officials to the Fair withheld comment on the surrender by their King and awaited further news from abroad. Dr. Joseph Gevaert, Belgian commissioner general, said dejectedly: As far as we are concerned the war is over again. He declined to comment on the reported end of Belgian resistance other than to say that the pavilion would continue its exhibition as planned ”
June 10, 1940: Norway surrendered to Germany; Italy declared war on Britain and France.
As Germany gained more territory and control, Italy finally entered the war as a German ally.
As news of Italys entry into the war broke yesterday upon stunned though expectant officials of the Fairs foreign participation department all interest focused on whether the $4,000,000 Italian Pavilion would be closed, and, if so, how soon. Their question was only partly answered by a statement from Vice Admiral Giuseppe Cantu that in the absence of direct instructions from Rome the Italian Pavilion will remain open and continue to carry on its activities without any change whatsoever The effect at the Italian Pavilion, which employs a large percentage of native Italian Fascists as well as a number of Italian-Americans among its 150 uniformed guards, was electric. At the entrance to the commission office a guard, standing with arms crossed, barred visitors. He was informed that Italy had entered the war. Good, he snapped '”
June 14, 1940: Germans invaded Paris. By June 22, France surrendered, marking a huge victory for Nazi Germany and her allies.
“The Tricolor hung limply at half-staff outside the French Pavilion at the Worlds Fair yesterday, in solemn observance of the national day of mourning proclaimed by the conquered homeland Another French flag, on the France Overseas Building just across the Lagoon of Nations, flew at half-staff during the day too, but otherwise there were no visible signs at the Fair that the nations capitulation had become final. There were other signs, thoughwhispered expressions of sadness and sympathy by virtually every visitor to the pavilion. And as another touch of the irony that has spread through the foreign area at the Fair since last September, the war exhibit on the second floor remained on display ”
July 10, 1940: Battle of Britain began.
The German air force, or Luftwaffe, engaged in an aerial battle over Britain. Despite the sustained bombing campaign, German forces were ultimately unable to gain air superiority.
“From the thronged avenues of Flushing Meadows, where a huge, merrymaking crowd gave the Worlds Fair its third-best Sunday of the season, to the bomb-pitted, sober thoroughfares of London, went solemn prayers yesterday for the eventual triumph of England ‘over brute force, bad faith, oppression and persecution.’ Godfrey D. N. Haggard, British Consul General in New York; Stanley Howe, secretary to Mayor La Guardia, and the Rev. Dr. James P. DeWolfe, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, joined in a Prayers for Britain program, broadcast in the WMCA studio at the Johns-Manville exhibit building and transmitted to England by shortwave facilities of Station WRUL, Boston ”
September 16, 1940: U.S. Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act. This act led to the first peacetime draft in U.S. history.
“On the eve of the military draft registration at least half a million persons are expected at the Worlds Fair for I Am an American Day, a program designed to instill in every one who enters the World of Tomorrow an awareness and appreciation of the privileges of being an American. Plans for the patriotic celebration on Oct. 15 were announced yesterday by Harvey D. Gibson, chairman of the Fair board, and Basil OConnor, general chairman of the day, which is expected to transcend all special days at the Worlds Fair
October 27, 1940: The Fair came to a final close as war raged on
“As the mottled lights on the Perispheres cheek were turned off forever and the New York Worlds Fair stepped off into history, New Yorkersand the worldwitnessed last night the demise of the biggest, costliest, most ambitious undertaking ever attempted in the history of international expositions. On the tombstone of the Flushing giant should be carved something like this: Born, April 30, 1939. Passed away officially at midnight, Oct. 27, 1940. A short lifeand not always a merry one. And the obituary should tell, in stern, unflinching manner, of the bewildering, topsy-turvy, slightly daffybut, on the whole, usefullife that the Colossus of the Meadow lived ”
- New York Public Library, Biblion: Worlds Fair Contains digitized archival material from the 1939-1940 New York Worlds Fair, as well as stories and essays that synthesize these materials into an understandable narrative.
- Amateur and Corporate Films:
FairFilm.orgincludes an extensive collection of amateur films recorded during the New York Worlds Fair. It also contains a bibliography and several links to other sites with relevant photographs, essays and other resources.
To New Horizons (GM)documents the vision of the future promoted by General Motors through the corporations Futurama exhibit.
The Middleton Family at the New York Worlds Fair (Westinghouse)an almost feature-length drama produced by Westinghouse to show off the companys exhibit while also promoting the consumerist, capitalistic ideals of the average middle class American family against Communist thought.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for World War II