Historical Context

1939: The World’s Fair
by Conrad

There were two worlds in the year of 1939. One was the world of reality. In this world, the democracies, most notably Great Britain and France, were struggling to keep Hitler from starting the Second World War. The Treaty of Versailles and the Munich Agreement gave Hitler the excuses necessary to begin a non-violent takeover of various small territories in Europe, and the “great democracies” took actions to appease him. Although some influential people tried to convince the world that the democracies needed to take a stand (namely, Churchill stated Britain’s need to start building up its military forces in preemption against Hitler), others held on to the hope for peace and chose to take the path of appeasement.

The other world was one of fantasy. This world was the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and it represented the future that America wanted for the world. The World’s Fair was a transformative world that gradually became more influenced by the events of the real world. It started as an attempt by American government officials to distract the American people from the horrors of the world in Europe by showing a future of unity and of peace. In this world, there was no Hitler, and there was no war. It was peaceful gathering of all of the world’s countries, and each pavilion showed off the strengths of the country it represented. There were also pavilions dedicated not to specific countries, but to organizations like the League of Nations. However, as time passed and as certain events unfolded in the real world, the World’s Fair inevitably began to change to reflect the state of the struggle in Europe. By the end of 1939, war had invaded America’s fantasy. It caused the people to realize that if they wanted the future that they initially envisioned, they would have to do something about it.

Because of Hitler’s belligerent intentions, it was inevitable that the two worlds would collide. A country could not exist in both worlds and remain stable. If a country took part in the fair, it would have to cut ties with the world of reality and fully invest in the world of fantasy. However, Hitler’s actions made this difficult for most countries, and impossible for others. Some countries realized that, despite the lure of the fantasy in America, there was a real problem to deal with in Europe, and they chose to return their focus towards a solution to that problem. This contest between the worlds over participating countries caused the collision of the World’s Fair and the European reality.

The events in Europe stemmed from the Treaty of Versailles from World War I. It was considered “unfair” and was the basis for most of Hitler’s non-violent strategy. By making it seem as though the world owed something to Germany, Hitler convinced Britain and France to take a stance of appeasement. He continued to expand based on the excuse that the Germanic peoples needed to be reunited under one Germany, and Britain and France, for the most part, allowed it to happen. A prime example of appeasement in Europe was the Munich Agreement. Although Germany lost World War I and had to give up certain territories as a result, the Munich Agreement was an agreement in which Britain and France handed over Czechoslovakia to Hitler on a silver platter. It was considered “one of the greatest betrayals of history.” However, when Hitler broke the agreement by taking areas of Czechoslovakia that had not been agreed upon in the agreement (areas of the country with a largely non-German population), the attitude of appeasement began to crumble. Churchill had always strongly disagreed with appeasement, but the British people and government did not pay him much attention. With the takeover of Czechoslovakia, more of the British population began to realize that perhaps appeasement was not the correct path. Even Chamberlain, the main supporter of appeasement in Europe, had begun to show that he had had enough. The seizure of Czechoslovakia was a personal insult to Chamberlain, and although he did not immediately drop the attitude of appeasement, he certainly started to realize that Hitler was not a man of his word. The trust that Chamberlain once had in Hitler was gone.

Despite this betrayal, Chamberlain did not think to go to war. The hope of peace was always at the forefront in his mind. In the eyes of many observers, Chamberlain and (by extension) Britain may have looked weak. Elmer Davis says that London was Hitler’s biggest asset. He describes London as “head and heart of England, huge, rich, and appallingly vulnerable.” He says that the English have proven that they will “ransom London at any price-so long as the price is paid by others.” Indeed, whether to continue appeasing Hitler or to go to war became a dividing issue in Britain. The government was divided on what to do, and one could see that Great Britain was maybe not so great after all. The best example of division in the British government was the series of events that led to the birth of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The lack of clear communication and strong leadership, the talks and agreements made behind the backs of higher officials, and the overall disunity of Britain and France caused them to lose the Soviet Union as an ally. On the other hand, Hitler’s envoys were centered on himself. They had clear goals, and if there was any confusion, all they had to do was consult Hitler on what to do. Dictatorships by nature have a united government as long as the head is strong enough, and Hitler was certainly strong enough.

While the events of the real world unfolded, a different world was being born across the Atlantic. The World’s Fair of 1939 in New York was labeled “The World of Tomorrow.” Countries from all over the world were invited to attend the fair and build a pavilion representing their countries. America’s pavilions boasted its industrial prowess, and other countries’ pavilions also used the fair to show the world their strengths, their uniqueness, and to show their pride in their countries. The gathering of all these countries into a single “world” represented by the fair implies a message of peace and, given the fact that the fair was held in America with large American pavilions, a strong American presence in the world of peace.

Despite the happenings in the real world, Japan and Italy agreed to participate in the fantasy world. Not only did they participate in the fair, they did it as though there was nothing wrong with the state of the world and as though their alliances against the democracies in Europe meant nothing to America. Japan and Italy both put on their respective masks as if to show the American people that everything in the world was fine. Japan repeatedly mentioned their friendship and good will to America through the press, and Italian representatives stated that they hoped for understanding between themselves and America to come out of the fair. Visitors at the fair could see the Japanese pavilion, which was a temple with a tea room, set in a traditional Japanese garden. Italy constructed a fountain with a statue of the goddess Roma standing at the top. However, no one would see the German pavilion. Japan and Italy may have agreed to put on the façade of friendship in the world of fantasy, but Hitler would not. In a public appearance during the early stages of the fair, Mayor LaGuardia spoke rather vehemently against Hitler. Their fight was personal, and while Hitler’s Germany was never told that they could not attend the fair, the hostilities between LaGuardia and Hitler made it clear that neither one wanted to be in the company of the other for very long. Eventually, Germany stated that they would not, in fact, attend the World’s Fair. The German statement was that they were not attending due to economic issues. While this is technically true, there is a deeper meaning behind Hitler’s refusal to enter the World’s Fair. Hitler was busy with the events of the real world, and he had his own plans for his own “World of Tomorrow.” He didn’t want to attend the fair that symbolized the unification of the world’s countries, especially since America, a democracy, was clearly represented as the leader of that fantasy. Although this may have been part of America’s vision for the future (a future without Hitler and Nazis), this action became the first crack in the glass that separated the two worlds. It would eventually lead to the destruction of the American fantasy.

However, one crack in the glass isn’t enough for the world of fantasy to realize what is happening on the other side. The fact remained that Japan and Italy were being cordial. Even when Hitler invaded Prague, the public was unsure of what would happen to the Czech pavilion, but the press soon released the information that Czechoslovakia would retain its pavilion. Although this was also a small crack in the separator between the worlds, fair officials covered it up quickly. Newspaper coverage on the Czech pavilion would have made people realize that something was going on across the ocean, but the fact that the pavilion stayed probably put them back at ease. The fantasy lived on.

Thus, Hitler remained focused on the world of the real, and with the absence of his pavilion (and the events surrounding the Czech pavilion) at the World’s Fair, the inhabitants of the fantasy world have had their first peek into the world of reality. It wasn’t until Britain and France failed to secure a pact with the Soviet Union that the world really began to crumble. Back in the world of reality, in August 1939, negotiations were underway to secure the Soviet Union as an ally. Hitler wanted Poland, and he needed a Soviet alliance for his invasion to go smoothly. Whether Britain and France were too preoccupied with Hitler or they simply didn’t recognize the importance of a Soviet alliance, they did not prepare themselves for negotiations. Apparently there was “no sense of urgency about the talks in Moscow but rather a characteristic British arrogance toward the Russians.” Furthermore, “the mission had not even been discussed in the French cabinet,” which shows how highly the British and French prioritized this alliance. Even worse, the negotiators who were sent to Moscow were given no plenipotentiary powers. On the other hand, Ribbentrop, the envoy from Germany, came fully prepared. Although the Soviet Union would have rather joined forces with Britain and France, Stalin had to think about what was best for his own country. Britain and France could not bring anything to the table. Despite knowing that passage rights through Poland would be a huge issue, neither country came with any intention of making any actual concessions. Germany simply asked that the Soviet Union not interfere when the time came to invade Poland. Stalin chose what seemed to be the safest bet at the time. “The Soviet government wanted to buy time, keep clear of the fighting, and see the war brought to an early end… Stalin… thought he could do business with Hitler, or at least put off the inevitable confrontation until the Soviet Union was stronger.” The Soviet negotiators gave Britain and France plenty of time, but a decision had to be made, and Hitler seemed to be the best bet.

When the Soviet-Nazi pact was signed, Britain and France were shocked. And on the other side of the planet, the wall between fantasy and reality was about to shatter. Even those who didn’t read the newspapers would notice the sudden withdrawal from the fair of the Soviet pavilion. If it were only the Soviet pavilion, perhaps the fair officials could have played it off as they did with the Czech pavilion or with the German pavilion. Perhaps they could have covered it up by saying that the Soviet Union had no right to exist in their world. However, it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that left the fair. Norway and Denmark claimed that they could not return to the fair in 1940. Finland stated that it hoped to participate, but “hope” implies uncertainty. Japan and Italy also stated that they “may withdraw at any time through escape clauses in their renewal contracts…” The world of fantasy was collapsing due to influences from the world of reality.

The American people were given a taste of a world of peace and unity. The World’s Fair started well, and America was given another reason to be proud of itself. However, this fantasy wouldn’t become reality unless America was willing to do something about it. Walter Lippmann wrote,
“The American people will move forward again, and feel once more the exhilaration and the confidence that have made them what they are, when they allow themselves to become conscious of their greatness, conscious not only of their incomparable inheritance but of the splendor of their destiny. Then the things that seem difficult will seem easy, and the willingness to be equal to their mission will restore their confidence and make whole their will.”

The World’s Fair was a world of fantasy preoccupied by the world of reality, and as a result, the American people learned that they could no longer keep the mindset of a small country with small responsibility. The World of Tomorrow could become reality, but not while Americans hid inside it from Hitler. Because America didn’t take action, the fantasy world crumbled as countries left to take care of real business. In order to turn the World’s Fair into the new world of reality, America first needed to stand up and take control of the current world of reality. However, the World’s Fair served its purpose. Because it acted as a reflection of current events in the world, it gave the American public a good physical representation of what was going on, and it acted as a good test run. Americans now had an idea of what they could accomplish if they were to try hard enough, and they knew what they would have to do (or at least who they would have to stop) if they wanted that world to come back.


“Munich Concession Termed Betrayal.” New York Times 14 Oct. 1938.

“’English Soft Soap’ Mr. Hearst’s Reply to Mr. Churchill.” London Times 24 Oct 1938.

Aster, Sidney. “Appeasement Cremated.” 1939: The Making of the Second World War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974.

Aster, Sidney. “A Bloodless Triumph.” 1939: The Making of the Second World War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974. 36-37.

Davis, Elmer. “The Road From Munich.” Harper’s Magazine Mar. 1939: 41.

Carley, Michael J. “Molotov Is Suspicios.” 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II. Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 1999.

“Japan’s Good-Will Broadcast to Fair.” New York Times 3 Apr. 1939.

“Italy Plans Increase in Services in Connection With the Fair.” New York Times 8 Jul. 1938.

“Japan Dedicates Pavilion With 1,500-Year-Old ‘Flame of Friendship.’” New York Times 3 Jun. 1939.

“Italy’s Pavilion.” New York Times 10 May 1939.

“Fair Enough: LaGuardia’s Words.” New York Times 8 Mar. 1937.

“Reich Withdraws from World’s Fair.” New York Times 27 Apr. 1938.

“‘Freedom Pavilion’ at Fair Planned to Celebrate the Pre-Nazi Culture.” New York Times 13 Jan. 1939: n. pag. Web. After the withdrawal of the Nazi pavilion, fair officials tried to build a pavilion that celebrated ‘Germany Yesterday and Tomorrow’ by building a Pre-Nazi pavilion. The pavilion would not actually be completed, but the action gives a general idea of the hostility between America and Germany at the time.

“Czech Fair Center is Now an Orphan.” New York Times 17 Mar. 1939.

“Fair Defies Nazis on Czech Pavilion.” New York Times 14 Apr. 1939.

Carley, Michael J. “Molotov Is Suspicios.” 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II. Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 1999, 186.

“London Staggered.” New York Times 22 Aug. 1939: n. pag. Web. “Anger and stupefaction were the first reactions here. They were all the more intense because neither of the Western governments appeared to have had any inkling of what was impending.”

“Russia Quits Fair; Finns to Stay; Reds to Raze $4,000,000 of Pavilion.” New York Times 2 Dec. 1939.

“Gale Sweeps Fair, Tearing Big Piece From the Trylon.” New York Times 29 Oct. 1939.

“Italy Again Signs Contract for Fair.” New York Times 15 May 1940.