The 1939-1940 World's Fair was held at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York, United States. World's fairs are large, international exhibitions (or "expos") that are designed to showcase the achievements of nations that take part. The term "world's fair" is the term most commonly used in the United States, while most of Europe and Asia use the term Exposition universalle, or "universal exhibition". The very first World's Fair was held in Prague in 1791 in Bohemia (what is now the Czech Republic). For the first 148 years, the World's fairs and world expositions were focussed on trade and technological advances and inventions, including the telephone (at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair).
However, from 1939, the theme of the fairs and expositions changed to focus more of cultural themes and social progress. As the first World's Fair to take place in this new era of theming, the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair's theme was "Building the World of Tomorrow". It took place over 1,202 acres (486 hectares) of land, and was the second-most expensive American world's fair of all time; the most expensive one being the 1904 St Louis' Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Between 1939 and 1940, over 44 million people visited the exhibitions.
The fair opened on April 30, 1939, on the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration. Among the events of the grand opening was the broadcasting of then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech on black-and-white televisions to viewers. Approximately 1,000 people watched the speech on 200 television sets throughout the New York metropolitan area.
With so much space for the fair to take place on, the fair was split into several differently-themed zones. There was the Communications and Business Systems Zone, the Community Interest Zone, the Government Zone, the Food Zone, the Production and Distribution Zone, the Transportation Zone and the Amusement Zone. The events that are the focus of this post all centre around the Government Zone, and specifically the British Pavillion.
The Government Zone featured 60 foreign governments, 21 of which had individual pavillions in the Zone. Some of these countries included Great Britain and the British Colonial Empire, France, Poland, the USSR and Czechoslovakia. The outbreak of World War 2, however, caused problems for many of the countries involved, even though the US did not enter the war until 1941. Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, only had their pavillions open for the 1939 season, as did the USSR. Most notably, however, were the events that took place in early July 1940 around the British Pavillion.
On July 2, 1940, someone called the British Pavillion to warn them that the area would be blown up. "Get everyone out before the bomb explodes," the unidentified caller advised. Officers immediately began searching, but nothing was found until July 4, when an electrician found a ticking bag made to look like a portable radio. The bomb was on a timer and so police officers very carefully removed it from the British Pavillion and carried it to an empty area (the Polish Pavillion, in fact). Police then attempted to defuse the bomb, but it went off around 4:45pm. The two officers attempting to defuse the bomb at the time were killed, and five other police officers were injured.
Later investigators estimated that the bomb was made up of 12 sticks of dynamite. There had been a theft of 39 sticks of dynamite in May of that year, so the assumption was that the two events were connected. But as for who might have been responsible, there were plenty of suspects but very little evidence to tie any of them to the crime. Chief among the suspects was the pro-fascist German American Bund. The Bund was formed in 1936 to promote Nazi ideology in the US, with pro-Nazi marches and camps for "German-American patriots" to learn shooting, camping, survivalism and eugenics. One former Bund member, Caesar Kroger, was arrested on July 5, 1940. He was found with several Lugers and maps of the US with prominent locations marked on them. However, the police could not find any evidence to tie either Kroger or the Bund to the bombing, beyond a Nazi flag allegedly found near the bomb site. Even so, Kroger (or Edward Kangesier, according to some sources) was deported back to Germany.
Other suspect groups the police looked into included the Communist Party, the Irish Republican Army and the extremist Christian Front. But one other theory that has gained some popularity in the years and decades since is that the bomb was actually planted by the British themselves, as part of a plot to garner sympathy for the British war effort at the time, hopefully bringing America into the war.
Bernard Whalen has done extensive research into the World's Fair bombing, and some of the evidence he gives to support this theory includes:
the ventilation room where the bomb had been hidden was not open to the public. Furthermore, the only people who would have known about it would have been people with inside knowledge of the British Pavillion, such as the British security staff (at the time of the bombing, the British Pavillion housed the Crown Jewels and an original copy of the Magna Carta).
the anonymous phone call warning of the bomb could theoretically have prevented any casualties while still causing panic and disruption, while pointing the finger at Nazi Germany.
The prime suspect in this theory was none other than William Stephenson, a British spy who is widely believed to have been the real-life inspiration for James Bond. Codenamed Intrepid, Stephenson was sent to New York by Winston Churchill on June 21, 1940. Stephenson's mission included gaining "the assurance of American participation in secret activities throughout the world in the closest possible collaboration with the British".
In the end, however, there is little more evidence for this theory than there is for the German American Bund theory. Today there is still a reward of $26,000 that was set up in 1940 and is now estimated to be worth around $500,000, but authorities are still no closer to uncovering the truth than they were 83 years ago. The most important thing to come out of this terrorist attack, however, is that it led to significant improvements in the equipment and safety protocols for the Bomb Squad, including the LaGuardia Pyke bomb carrier truck, to carry explosive devices away safely.
1939 New York World's Fair (Wikipedia)
"Who Planted a Bomb That Killed Two People at the 1940 New York World's Fair?" (Gizmodo - contains non-close-up pictures of dead bodies)
"Cold Case: Why A Bomb That Killed Two Cops in 1940 Remains a Source of Intrigue" (NYCity Lens - contains non-close-up picture of dead body)
"A Fake False Flag" (Hoover Institution)