Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
12 September 2012
Review by Brian Nussbaum, SUNY Albany
New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham
By Steven H. Jaffe
New York: Basic Books, 2012. Pp. xviii, 404. ISBN 978–0–465–03642–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 18th Century, 19th Century, 20th Century Print Version

Steven Jaffe's New York at War is a boon to anyone concerned with war in the context of urban areas or urban areas in the context of politics and war. It captures the diversity of the wars New York has weathered—some real, like the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, others metaphorical, like the Cold War and the "War on Terror."

Jaffe, a Harvard-trained historian,[1] considers how New York came to be the city it is today and a microcosm of American society's relationship with violence and conflict. The ties between economic interests and military conflict are evident across centuries of metropolitan history, as are the sometimes tragic reactions and overreactions of citizens and governments to external threats, real and imagined. The New York and New Yorkers that Jaffe presents illustrate attitudes, behaviors, and structural processes familiar to readers of military history.

New York at War is an excellent addition to the literature of military history, particularly regional military history, which has surprisingly neglected New York City, considering its outsized historical and economic impacts on the United States. Jaffe acknowledges that other scholars have well described individual episodes in New York's experience of war, but few have tried to synthesize these works into a broader picture. H.G. Wells once wrote "For many generations New York had taken no heed of war, save as a thing that happened far away, that affected prices and supplied the newspapers with exciting headlines and pictures. The New Yorkers felt that … war in their own land was an impossible thing."[2] Jaffe shows that such a perception—if it ever really existed—was badly mistaken. New York has been deeply involved in war and conflict since the first Dutch settlers arrived to a violent welcome from the indigenous Lenape people.

Jaffe's book will reward students and scholars not only of military history, but also of urban history and American history more generally, especially those who have tended to "cast war as a minor theme against the larger sweep of the city's rise in economic, social, political and cultural terms." Jaffe aims to correct that tendency, but short of "recast[ing] New York's history—inaccurately—as that of a perpetual armed camp" (xiii).

In successive chapters, Jaffe argues that war highlights New York's geopolitical significance and interdependency within the global economy, even in cases of seemingly remote conflicts. For example, he writes of the French Revolutionary wars that

As the French and British navies blockaded each other's ports and seized each other's ships, American shippers—New Yorkers prominent among them—stepped into the breach. New York-based brigs and schooners, their holds bulging with English manufactures, French West Indian sugar and molasses, and Hudson Valley flour, grain and lumber, were soon conveying highly profitable cargoes across the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean…. The war driven trade that was enriching them, New Yorkers understood, might end up imperiling their city; taking advantage of Europe's disorder might draw them into Europe's conflicts. If London or Paris felt sufficiently provoked, either the British or French navy might descend on New York to blockade it, attack it, or even occupy it. (114–15)

Jaffe draws on contemporary news accounts, government documents, memoirs, and other primary and secondary resources to lay out historical vignettes of metropolitan New York in times of war. These vary in depth, structure, and novelty. The first recreates the earliest conflict between the Native Americans of the region, the Lenape, and the Dutch settlers of what would become New Amsterdam. The story progresses through New York's history as a Dutch (later British) shipping hub, to the role of the city in the American Revolution and the great national schism of the Civil War. Moving into the twentieth century, Jaffe details the effect on the city of the two world wars: both brought with them intrigues, perceived "foreign" enemies, and fears of sabotage and subversion. Later, the Cold War introduced the peril of nuclear annihilation and Civil Defense programs in response to it. The final vignette examines "Urban Terrorism," spanning a century featuring such disparate groups as anarchists, jihadists, ethno-nationalists, and others.

Intriguing crosscutting themes emerge: ethnic, nationalist, and sectarian resentments, mistreatment of minorities, and various forms of civil unrest, including widespread political protests and outright rioting. The "bloody riots between gangs of Irish Catholics and native Protestants—and by both groups against constables and the state militia" (148) in the 1840s eerily foreshadow the Harlem Riot of 1943 over the shooting of a black serviceman by a white police officer: "furious mobs were smashing store windows, overturning burning cars, and hurling stones at police and firemen" (262).

The use of vignettes as a narrative strategy offers both broad historical insights and engaging anecdotal stories that evoke the emotions and sometimes jarring images of life in and around New York: for example, the Cold War-era stationing of Nike missiles behind barbed wire fences in unassuming bedroom communities like Huntington and Spring Valley on Long Island, and in Summit, New Jersey. Such details give a vivid sense of character and intimacy to the larger sweep of history.

The disjointed final chapter, "Urban Terrorism," is the book's weakest. It skips breathlessly from the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb's transiting of New York to the explosion of a Weathermen's bomb-making factory in the West Village, anarchist outrages around the turn of the twentieth century, and the 9/11 attacks—all with little temporal or thematic structure.[3] This, however, is a small failing in an overwhelming strong historical study.

The epilogue of New York at War contains a sentence that encapsulates its findings in eight words: "New York City and its people are resilient" (337). Indeed.

[1] He has worked in the historical non-profit sector at the New York Historical Society, the City University of New York Museum, and elsewhere.

[2] The War in the Air (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1908) 178.

[3] For a better, fuller, and very recent treatment of this material, see Thomas Reppetto, Battleground New York City: Countering Spies, Saboteurs, and Terrorists since 1861 (Washington: Potomac Books, 2012).

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