La Guardia, Fiorello

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Fiorello La Guardia

Born December 11, 1882

New York, New York

Died September 20, 1947

Bronx, New York

New York City mayor, national director of Civilian Defense

A highly successful three-term mayor of New York City from 1933 to 1945, Fiorello La Guardia was director of the nation's civilian defense programs at the beginning of World War II (193945) and provided leadership to the nation's largest city throughout the war. He brought organization and rapid growth to such programs as air raid warning systems, scrap metal drives, and Victory gardens. Under his direction more than eight thousand community civil defense organizations, consisting of more than five million volunteers, were loosely linked into a national network within only weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A worldly start

Fiorello Henry La Guardia was born on December 11, 1882, in New York City. His father, Achille La Guardia, was an army bandmaster and his mother, Irene Coen, a homemaker. After an illness, Achille was discharged from the army and Fiorello was raised in Arizona until at age sixteen, in 1898, he and his mother moved to Budapest, Hungary. At eighteen years of age, Fiorello was selected to a post with the American consular service. While working in continental Europe, he acquired fluency in five languages. Wanting to return to the United States, Fiorello returned to New York. There he obtained work as an interpreter for the U.S. Immigration Service at Ellis Island, where new immigrants arrived from foreign lands. While working at Ellis Island, Fiorello took law courses at New York University Law School. He was admitted to the New York bar (legal association) in 1910.

Fiorello La Guardia had an interest in politics. In 1914 he ran as a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress but lost. Undeterred, he ran again in 1916 and won representing lower Manhattan. With two brief interruptions, La Guardia would serve in Congress until 1932. One interruption came during World War I (191418) in 1917, when he and four other congressmen joined the military. La Guardia was stationed in Fogia, Italy, where he flew fighter planes and worked in undercover operations. He ended his service with the rank of a major.

Upon returning from war, he resumed his congressional career and married Thea Almerigiotti in 1919. They had a daughter. However, both his wife and daughter soon died of tuberculosis (an infectious lung disease). The deaths made a major mark on La Guardia, who took up the cause of improving the lives of the poor since tuberculosis thrived in the slums and industrial sweatshops. La Guardia crusaded against big business, the wealthy, and racists.

In Congress, La Guardia joined a group of progressives who favored the use of governmental power to improve the nation's economic and social conditions. He campaigned for industrial regulations and against racist immigration policies. He also supported equal rights for women, child labor laws, and opposed Prohibition (the movement to prohibit the sale and use of alcoholic beverages). He cosponsored the NorrisLa Guardia Act of 1932 increasing labor's ability to conduct strikes. The act limited the ability of courts to interfere with strikes, boycotts, or picketing by organized labor.

A popular mayor

In 1929 La Guardia remarried, this time to his longtime secretary Marie Fisher. They would adopt two children. That same year he ran for mayor of New York but lost to a popular incumbent. Then in 1932 he lost his congressional seat to the Democratic landslide election that brought President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) into office. Political fortunes soon turned again in 1933 when the New York mayor resigned under charges of corruption. La Guardia was able to assemble the support of a coalition of diverse political groups to win the resulting election.

La Guardia entered the mayor's office in January 1934 with the Great Depression (192941) still at its worst. More than 230,000 workers were unemployed in New York and almost 20 percent were on relief. In his characteristically flashy manner, La Guardia tackled the lost public confidence in local government in which there was no public housing, few social and health services including old-age pensions and unemployment insurance, and declining public facilities including the city's roads and bridges. La Guardia introduced the use of appointed experts to solve the various problems. The city became transformed through the acquisition of substantial federal funding assistance. Under La Guardia sewer systems were improved; new bridges, tunnels, reservoirs, parks, schools, hospitals, highways, health centers, and public housing built. Also included was construction of La Guardia Airport. He even provided financial assistance for the arts and music. Much of the relief was funded by a new sales tax. Gaining a reputation as an honest and hardworking reformer, La Guardia modernized New York's government with improved city police and fire departments, expanded social welfare services, and clearance of slums.

His popularity and forcefulness made La Guardia a powerful mayor. Short and stout, standing at only 5 feet 2 inches, he was called "The Little Flower," a direct Italian translation of his first name. He made New York a leader in providing for the social welfare of its citizens and shaping federal policies toward cities. La Guardia was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors from 1936 to 1945. In 1939 New York hosted the World's Fair with the theme of the World of Tomorrow. His working relationship with President Roosevelt and his New Deal programs grew very close as he brought home a large amount of federal funds.

Civilian defense

In spring of 1941 with war approaching, Roosevelt appointed the highly popular and energetic La Guardia the director of the newly established Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). For the next year, La Guardia tried to serve in the OCD position as well as mayor of New York. As OCD director he created a large force of volunteers in all cities and towns to protect citizens and property from the possibilities of air raids or other wartime home front emergencies. OCD was also charged with coordinating scrap metal drives and encouraging conservation of food, such as through the tending of victory gardens by thousands of households. Besides his two important governmental wartime posts and serving as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, La Guardia also served as chairman of the Joint United States-Canadian Defense Board. In his civilian defense capacity, La Guardia would regularly attend Cabinet meetings. He also made regular shortwave radio broadcasts to Italy warning Italian citizens of the dangers of German dictator Adolf Hitler (18891945). La Guardia became one of the most familiar names in America.

A Fast Start for Civilian Defense

Though the target of much criticism while director of the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD), Fiorello La Guardia saw much progress made on home front preparedness for war during his time in that position. By the end of January 1942, only eight months after the OCD was created, some 8,478 local civilian defense councils were established in many towns and cities. There were also 334,666 auxiliary (assisting or providing help) police, 670,673 air raid wardens, and 265,580 medical staff. In all, more than five million volunteers worked in civilian defense. Civilian defense provided a productive avenue for citizens on the home front to contribute to the war effort.

One key responsibility of OCD under La Guardia was distributing important survival information to the public. In 1941 the OCD published Handbook for Air Raid Wardens. It also published the Handbook for First Aid in cooperation with the American Red Cross. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, OCD published What Can I Do? The Citizens' Handbook for War. La Guardia also encouraged local civilian defense organizations to publish guides. Two months before Pearl Harbor, a New York civilian defense organization published a handbook titled The Air Raid Protection (A.R.P.) Organization and the Queens Civilian Defense Volunteer Office in New York City published a one-page leaflet titled "What to Do in an Air Raid." The Civilian Defense Volunteer Office in

Forest Hills, New York, also published Block Organizations, which described how to organize local civilian defense volunteer organizations.

While tackling these diverse tasks, La Guardia came under fire from two directions. Much of the home front did not want to hear about going to war throughout most of 1941. Many New Yorkers thought La Guardia had spread himself too thin and should choose between being the New York City mayor and being OCD national director. As time passed, it became clearer he could not effectively do both. In the fall of 1941 La Guardia barely won reelection as mayor.

In addition, conflicts arose between President Roosevelt and La Guardia over the emphasis of certain programs within the OCD. In an effort to resolve this difference, the president appointed his wife, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962; see entry), as an assistant to La Guardia to address activities that La Guardia did not wish or have time in his busy schedule to personally tackle. While La Guardia focused on air raid warning systems, Eleanor began planning physical fitness centers and the creation of an arts council. Many in the conservative Congress thought this a waste of funding and a distraction from the more immediate war effort. Critics charged that these activities were not a part of the OCD mission to protect communities from air raids. Also, the personalities of La Guardia and Eleanor Roosevelt clashed. La Guardia had an energetic flair for the dramatic while Eleanor had a much quieter and calm manner.

La Guardia and Eleanor did have some effective moments together. On December 8, 1941, the day after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, La Guardia and Eleanor flew to the West Coast. Their intent was to better organize the OCD volunteer program while calming fears among citizens of further attacks.

However, the OCD remained under fire from Congress into 1942. First Eleanor and then La Guardia resigned from OCD in February 1942. La Guardia refocused on his duties as mayor of New York and guided home front activities in that major city. In addition, La Guardia still wanted a larger national war role. He lobbied Roosevelt for an appointment as general in the European theater, but Roosevelt declined. La Guardia was bitterly disappointed.

In 1946 La Guardia chose not to run for a fourth term as New York mayor. He felt that he had achieved most of what he had intended as mayor. La Guardia accepted a position as director of the new United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to help in postwar recovery in Europe and elsewhere. However, his health was failing owing to his energetic contributions to the home front war effort. He died in the Bronx, New York, on September 20, 1947.

For More Information


Eliott, Lawrence. Little Flower: The Life and Times of Fiorello La Guardia. New York: Morrow, 1983.

Kessner, Thomas. Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Lingeman, Richard R. Don't You Know There's a War On? The American Home Front, 19411945. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.