Nazis on the Triborough Bridge?

by Edward Koch and Rafael Medoff

Controversy recently erupted in New York City over the awarding of a huge construction contract to a British architect who had associated with an anti-Israel group. Jewish leaders and political figures at first called for cancellation of the contract, but later backed down after the architect, Richard Rogers, announced he is severing his ties with ‘Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine.’

One may legitimately wonder at the sincerity of such a foxhole conversion. The dramatic termination of Rogers’s anti-Israel affiliation would certainly have been more believable if a $1.7-billion construction contract was not at stake. Be that as it may, the dispute raised important questions about the propriety of mixing business with politics.

If Rogers is a talented architect and his bid was competitive, does it really matter what he thinks of Israel?

Perhaps a lesson can be learned from a comparable quandary that faced New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia back in 1935.

That year, the city’s Bridge Authority purchased five hundreds tons of sheet steel to build the Triborough Bridge. The steel came from Germany. Nazi Germany.

The steel was evidently of good quality, and the price was cheaper than American steel. Why not go with the better deal? It wasn’t as if Nazis were going to be marching across the bridge.

La Guardia didn’t see it that way.

Since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power two and a half years earlier, La Guardia had been one of his most persistent and vociferous critics. Much to the consternation of the State Department, which was interested in maintaining good relations with Berlin, La Guardia denounced Hitler’s persecution of German Jews as the work of “a perverted maniac,” took part in a mock trial of Hitler at Madison Square Garden, and urged New Yorkers to refrain from purchasing German goods.

In July 1935, mobs of German pogromists, led by Nazi stormtroopers, had rampaged through the Jewish community of Berlin, shouting “The best Jew is a dead Jew” as they viciously beat Jewish passersby and smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops. More than three months had passed since those events, but La Guardia had not forgotten.

Although bedridden at Mount Sinai Hospital after a painful attack of sciatica, the feisty mayor swung into action when he heard about the steel contract. In a telegram to Bridge Authority chairman Nathan Burkan, the mayor announced that he did not want that “damned steel” in his city. “The only commodity we can import from Hitlerland now is hatred,” La Guardia declared, “and we don’t want any on our country.”

Technically, the Bridge Authority was an independent agency that did not require the mayor’s approval for its construction purchases, but the mayor found grounds to block the deal: he bore responsibility for New Yorkers’ safety, and could not vouch for the reliability of Hitler’s steel. As he wrote to Burkan: “I cannot be certain of its safety unless I first have every bit and piece of German made material tested before used. Verstehen Sie [Do you understand] ?”

La Guardia took his share of heat for his one-man campaign against Hitler Germany. Six thousand German-Americans held a rally in New York City and pledged to vote him out of office. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels threatened to bomb New York City. Secretary of State Cordell Hull complained that La Guardia’s actions were harming German-American relations.

The Little Flower was not fazed. “I run the subways and he runs the State Department–except when I abrogate a treaty or something,” he declared in classic La Guardia style.

Richard Rogers is not a Nazi, and the Jews of Israel are not the Jews of Hitler Germany. But the principle that Fiorello La Guardia defended in 1935 is just as valid today: as much as we would prefer to separate politics from business, sometimes world events force them together.

March 2006