Not just the name behind the airport, Fiorello La Guardia, Mayor of New York (1933-1945) was one of the most effective and charismatic American politicians inthe years between the two World Wars. He was a multi-lingual and cosmopolitan figure, adept at navigating the diverse electoral coalitions of early twentieth century New York, and a politician who transcended party lines when occasion called for it.
La Guardia’s upbringing and experiences as a young adult were central to his later political career. He was born in New York City on December 11, 1882 to Italian immigrant parents. His father became a bandmaster with the United States Army, which required the family to move through a series of army postings, including a longer spell in Arizona. So important was this latter experience that La Guardia later claimed that “What I saw and heard and learned in my boyhood days in Arizona made lasting impressions on me.” After his father became ill, the family moved to Trieste in Austria-Hungary to live with his mother’s family. When his father died in 1901, La Guardia, aged eighteen, first took up a position at the American Consulate in Budapest and then shortly thereafter as a consular agent at Fiume. In 1906 La Guardia he returned to the United States, where he became an interpreter for the U. S. Bureau of Immigration at Ellis Island. During his later career, his talent for languages (in addition to English and Italian, he reportedly spoke German, Yiddish, Croatian, French, and Spanish) became a key part of his political persona: when his (Jewish) opponent for in the 1922 congressional election accused LaGuardia of being an anti-semite, he challenged him to a debate in Yiddish.
Fiorello La Guardia was determined to enter politics. The timing also seemed ripe, for the country was in throes of a vast reform wave known as the Progressivism, a political movement focused on economic regulation and political process reform. After obtaining a law degree from New York University, La Guardia entered politics as a Republican - a choice largely due to Theodore Roosevelt’s inspiring example. After serving as Deputy Attorney General of New York in 1915, La Guardia made a bid for Congress and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1916. His well-traveled and cosmopolitan background made him well-suited to representing the concerns of his diverse East Harlem electorate, which included Italian, Jewish and African-American constituents. In Congress, likely stemming from the Arizona experiences youth, La Guardia often identified and aligned with independent-minded Western Progressive figures there like Robert M. Follette and George W. Norris.
With the American entry into the First World War, La Guardia enlisted in the Air Service in the summer of 1917.
After having completed his service, La Guardia was re-elected to Congress in 1918 and then served as President of the Board of Aldermen in New York City. Following an unsuccessful bid to be mayor of New York (in which La Guardia was to be deeply disappointed by the lack of support from the Republican Party) he returned to his former Congressional seat during the 1924 elections. During the nineteen-twenties, La Guardia’s presence in Congress represented a bridge to the reform commitments of the Progressive Era. Historian Howard Zinn even referred to him as the “conscience of the twenties.” La Guardia advocated health insurance, aid to farmers, rent control, a shorter work week, the abolition of child labor, and progressive income tax. He opposed prohibition and immigration restriction. Alongside Senator George Norris, he oversaw the passage of the Norris-La Guardia bill, which restricted the courts’ powers intervene in nonviolent labor disputes.
The Fiorello H. La Guardia Papers, 1917-1945, copies of which are held at the RIAS (the originals are in the New York Public Library, are crucial to reconstructing LaGuardia’s efforts in channeling bipartisan, progressive reformism into the New Deal. Following the onset of the Great Depression and the beginning of the New Deal recovery program under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1933 Fiorello La Guardia achieved his long running goal of becoming the mayor of New York City. As mayor, La Guardia attacked corruption, placed the city’s finances on more stable foundations, expanded the city’s social welfare provisions, greatly increased the public works relief measures, and vastly improved the city’s infrastructure (especially in terms of transportation and parks). In pursuing these goals, La Guardia cultivated a cooperative and constructive working relationship with President Roosevelt, despite the fact that they represented opposing parties. La Guardia’s non-partisan approach to governance is best summed up in a quote attributed to him: “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets.” Through this approach New York City received robust New Deal support and funding through programs such as the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Indeed, a great deal of the city’s modern infrastructure (including La Guardia Airport) was established over the course of La Guardia’s more than decade-long tenure as mayor. It does need to be acknowledged that La Guardia’s political career had its darker sides. As a campaigner he could be a ruthless, near-demagogic figure, who would deploy all of his charismatic abilities to their full effect. La Guardia also worked alongside the powerful urban planner Robert Moses on the city’s infrastructure projects, and thus helped to empower an individual now wel-recognized as having been responsible for much of New York City’s long-running legacy of discriminatory living conditions for the city’s African American population.
By the end of the Second World War, La Guardia ended his final term as mayor in December 1945 and was to go on to serve as Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1946 before dying the following year. All told, La Guardia represented an important transitional figure in American political history. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described him: “Knowing Arizona as well as Ellis Island, he seemed destined to serve as the bridge between men in the European Social Democratic tradition … and men in the Progressive or Populist tradition … The result was further to define the lineaments of an authentic American radicalism.”