Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
As millions descend on Shanghai for the opening of the world's fair this weekend, we take a look back at New York's 1939 World's Fair, which opened on this date 71 years ago. The theme that year was 'The World of Tomorrow.'
Below is a home movie made from the Fair and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech to open the fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens.
The Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company created a time capsule for the Fair, which was buried 50 feet below Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The contents, pictured at right, included 35 everyday items, 75 types of fabric, seeds, metals, and plastics as well as millions of 'micro files' with literature, current events, and contemporary art. There is a full list here.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened New York's World Fair at Flushing Meadows
Special thanks to WNYC's archivist Andy Lanset.
Governor Lehman, Mayor LaGuardia, President Grover Whalen, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I have seen only a small fraction of the Fair; but even from the little I have seen, I am able to congratulate all of you who conceived and planned the Fair and all you men and women who built it.
From henceforth in our history the thirtieth day of April will have a dual significance: the Inauguration of the First President of the United States, which began the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, and the opening of the New York World's Fair of 1939.
Today, also, the cycle of sesquicentennial commemorations is complete. Two years ago, in Philadelphia and other communities, was celebrated the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which gave to us the form of Government under which we have lived ever since. Last year was celebrated in many States the ratification of the Constitution by the Original Thirteen States. On March fourth of this year the first meeting of the First Congress was commemorated at a distinguished gathering in the House of Representatives in the National Capitol. And two weeks ago, on April fourteenth, I went to Mount Vernon with the Cabinet in memory of that day, exactly one hundred and fifty years before, when General Washington was formally notified of his election as President.
The permanent Government of the United States had become a fact. The period of Revolution and the critical days that followed were over. The long future lay ahead.
In the framework of Government which had been devised, and in the early years of its administration, it is of enormous significance to us today that those early leaders successfully planned for such use of the Constitution as would fit it to a constantly expanding nation. That the original framework was capable of expansion from its application to thirteen states with less than four million people, to its newer application to forty-eight states with more than one hundred and thirty million people, is the best tribute to the vision of the Fathers. In this it stands unique in the whole history of the world, for no other form of Government has remained unchanged so long and seen, at the same time, any comparable expansion of population or of area.
It is significant that the astounding changes and advances in almost every phase of human life have made necessary so relatively few changes in the Constitution itself. All of the earlier Amendments may be accepted by us as a part of the original Constitution because that sacred Bill of Rights, which guaranteed and has maintained personal liberty through freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, was already popularly accepted by the inhabitants of thirteen states while the Constitution itself was in the process of ratification.
There followed the Amendments which put an end to the practice of human slavery, and a number of later Amendments which made our practice of Government more direct, including the extension of the franchise to the women of the nation. And we remember also that the only restrictive Amendment which deliberately took away one form of wholly personal liberty was, after a trial, an unhappy trial, of a few years, overwhelmingly repealed.
Only once has the permanence of the Constitution been threatened. It was threatened by an internal war brought about principally by the very fact of the expansion of American civilization across the continent—a threat that resulted eventually and happily in a closer union than ever before.
And of these later years—these very recent years—the history books of the next generation will set it forth that sectionalism and regional jealousies diminished, and that the people of every part of our land acquired a national solidarity of economic and social thought such as had never been seen before.
That has been accomplished, that it has been done, has been due first to our form of government itself, and, secondly, to a spirit of wise tolerance which, with few exceptions, has been our American rule. We in the United States, and, indeed, in all the Americas, North America, Central America and South America, we remember that our population stems from many races and kindreds and tongues. Often, I think, we Americans offer up a silent prayer that on the continent of Europe, from which the American hemisphere was principally colonized, the years to come will break down many barriers to intercourse between nations—barriers which may be historic, but which so greatly, through all the centuries, have led to strife and have hindered friendship and normal intercourse.
The United States stands today as a completely homogeneous nation, similar in its civilization from Coast to Coast and from North to South, united in a common purpose to work for the greatest good of the greatest number, united in the desire to move forward to better things in the use of its great resources of nature and its even greater resources of intelligent, educated manhood and womanhood, united in its desire to encourage peace and good will among all the nations of the earth.
Born of that unity of purpose, that knowledge of strength, that singleness of ideal, two great Expositions, one at each end of our Continent, mark this year in which we live. And it is fitting that they commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of our permanent government.
Opened two months ago, the Exposition on the magic island in San Francisco Bay presents to visitors from all the world a view of the amazing development of our own Far West and of our neighbors of the American continent and the nations of the Pacific and its Isles.
Here at the New York World's Fair of 1939 many nations are also represented -- indeed most of the nations of the world and the theme is "The World of Tomorrow."
This general, and I might almost say spontaneous, participation by other countries is a gesture of friendship and good will toward the United States for which I render most grateful thanks. It is not through the physical exhibits alone that this gesture has manifested itself. The magic of modern communications makes possible a continuing participation by word of mouth itself. Already, on Sunday afternoon radio programs, no fewer than 17 foreign nations have shown their good will to this country since the first of January this year.
In many instances the Chiefs of State of these nations, these nations who have taken part in the programs have spoken, and in every case the principal speaker has extended greetings to the President of the United States. And so in this place and at this time, as we open the New York World's Fair, I desire to thank all of them and to assure them that we, as a nation, heartily reciprocate all of their cordial sentiments.
All who come to this World's Fair in New York and to the Exposition in San Francisco will, I need not tell them, receive the heartiest of welcomes. They will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Yes, our wagon is still hitched to a star.
But it is a star of friendship, a star of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international good will, and, above all, a star of peace.
May the months to come carry us forward in the rays of that eternal hope.
And so, my friends, the time has come for me to announce with solemnity, perhaps, but with great happiness, a fact: I hereby dedicate the New York World's Fair of 1939, and I declare it open to all mankind.