Did Brits Kill New York City Cops to Get U.S. into WWII?

For 77 years the culprits behind a July 4, 1940, terror bombing at the New York World’s Fair have never been found. Is this the answer?

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The sequence of events appears to tell a damning story: On June 4, 1940, Nazi Germany shoved the last British troop off the Continent at Dunkirk. Adolf Hitler moved his forces into position for a final cross-Channel invasion and occupation of England. That same month the new British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, dispatched a shadowy figure, Sir William Stephenson—later most famous as the original of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Agent 007—to set up a spy shop for Britain’s MI6 in Midtown Manhattan. A hero of World War One and self-made multi-millionaire, Stephenson was on neutral ground in America, but he and Churchill shared the conviction that nothing was more important to their nation’s chances for survival than winning American support for the war against Hitler. Then, on July 4, 1940, with throngs of holiday visitors at the New York World’s Fair, a time bomb planted in the British Pavilion exploded, instantly killing two New York City policemen and badly mauling five others. Was Stephenson behind the blast in an attempt to frame Nazis and their American sympathizers? Were these officers sacrificed to win American sympathy and draw a reluctant United States into the Second World War?

This past Independence Day marked the seventy-seventh anniversary of the unsolved crime. “It’s a cold case, but still an open case,” New York City Police Lieutenant Bernard Whalen tells me. He has scrutinized the original bombing case files while researching two books he wrote on the history of the NYPD. “There was a massive investigation at the time. The FBI was involved.” No effort was spared—except to get at those he believes were likeliest to have knowledge of the bomb, the security staff of the British Pavilion itself.

Although the United States was officially neutral, in the midst of a world at war, it was fast becoming a shadowy battlefield. New York teemed with spies, political agitators, and foreign agents, many with violence in mind for their enemies, some desperate enough to go to any length to sway American public opinion. While Whalen won’t pin blame on any single possible culprit, he says after his own studies of the case, “You could draw the conclusion that it was an inside job.” At one point the NYPD suspected as much, but were stopped from getting to the bottom of the case.

Certainly, there was no better target at the time for a terror attack designed to cause large numbers of casualties and draw national public attention than the British Pavilion at the World’s Fair. It was in some respects the World Trade Center of its moment. Beginning in the spring and summer of 1939 and again in 1940, a total of 44,000,000 visitors—at a time when the population of the entire country was just 120,000,000 people—flocked to the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Three years in the making and spread across 1,216 acres of what had previously been an open-air garbage dump – the ash heap of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – the biggest exposition ever held cost $160 million to complete (equivalent to $2.3 billion today), not including a specially constructed elevated subway line and other new infrastructure, a phenomenal expenditure during the Great Depression. World’s Fair visitors saw “The World of Tomorrow,” the fair’s theme, including early television, self-driving cars, and robots, and strolled fairgrounds and pavilions dominated by futuristic icons and symbols, the Trylon and Perisphere, a 700-foot spire and an orb as wide as a city block through which visitors on a moving stairs viewed a model of the city of the future.

Sixty nations built national halls or set up exhibitions. Great Britain was there, with an original of the Magna Carta and the Crown Jewels on display; the Netherlands planted a million tulip bulbs and sent Vermeer’s ethereal “The Milkmaid” to the U.S. for the first time; and the Jewish Palestine pavilion stood as the first international structure of the proposed Jewish nation. The Soviet Union’s national pavilion, the fairground’s most grandiose, was dominated by a red marble tower, shorter only than the Trylon and topped by “The New Soviet Citizen,” a seventy-nine-foot-high gleaming steel statue of the ideal worker holding a red star. Despite their wars in Europe and Asia, Fascist Italy and the Empire of Japan were there. Among the major powers, only Germany stayed away.

Nobody let the Old World’s problems dampen the excitement about the future on Opening Day, April 30, 1939. President Roosevelt spoke in the grand Court of Peace before more than two hundred thousand people and millions more listening over the radio. America, he said, had “hitched her wagon to a star of good will.” Amid the utopian landscape, he declared, “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.”

That star shined only on small regions of the globe. Even before the fair opened, two independent nations represented there had been wiped off the map, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Anticipating war with Germany, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made the first visit to the United States by British royals ever, making sure to stop at the World’s Fair. Before the first season ended, World War II had indeed begun and before the fair’s second season got underway, Poland, Lithuania, and Finland were gone, and before it ended, so too were France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. With the second season’s opening day approaching, Stalin’s Soviet Union, allied in a marriage of convenience with Hitler’s Germany for now, shut and razed its pavilion.

World’s Fair goers nonetheless remained undaunted by the headlines emanating from a distant war. On the July 4, 1940, holiday, a huge crowd of close to 160,000 visitors circulated through the fairgrounds. In the afternoon at high tea time, some fifteen hundred people moved about inside the British Pavilion. An electrician noticed a small bag in an electrical control room on the upper floor. He could hear ticking coming from inside it.

Tensions overseas were boiling up in New York City streets and halls—sometimes leading to noisy protests and bloody fights. Many different groups and organizations carried out demonstrations, held rallies, and battled each other in the media and on the streets, on behalf and sometimes supported by Europe’s warring nations. Among various foreign agents and organizations, Stephenson’s new British Security Coordination alone enjoyed a protected status. Headquartered in offices labeled Passport Control at Rockefeller Center, his operation worked, illegally, with a sympathetic Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House to bolster American support for the British and also to attack German agents operating in the Western Hemisphere. One of Stephenson’s U.S. agents, Ian Fleming, later modeled his James Bond character on Stephenson, a man he described as “very tough, very rich, single-minded, patriotic, and a man of few words.” He had no hesitation about killing for his country’s survival, having done so as a fighter pilot in the First World War and having volunteered to assassinate Hitler in an eventually aborted plot before coming to America.

Many groups vied for popular support from Americans. Among them was the Hitlerite German American Bund, which maintained a bucolic, Nazi-inspired family camp on Long Island where attendees picnicked, learned to shoot, and studied racist biology. In New York City, Jewish toughs broke in and attacked Bund meetings. Christian rightwing extremists demonstrated, sold anti-Semitic newspapers and followed the popular radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who only thinly veiled his support for Hitler. Mainstream anti-interventionist organizations, with aviation hero Charles Lindbergh headlining, sponsored massive rallies with crowds that filled Madison Square Garden and spilled out into the surrounding avenues.

New York City police struggled to keep up with the battling groups that were at each other’s throats. Today Whalen says, “All these competing entities were in close confines of each other in New York. The most naïve of all was us, the New York Police Department.”

Bombs and bomb scares were recurrent events. In the two weeks before July 4, 1940, bombs had gone off at the German Library of Information, a Nazi propaganda service in the German Consulate building in the Battery, and at the offices of The Daily Worker newspaper, organ of the Communist Party, in its East 12th Street building. In the days just prior to the July 4th holiday, a threat had been phoned into the British Pavilion switchboard operator, warning her to “get out of the building. We’re going to blow it up.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Security thus was extra tight on Independence Day. However, according to Whalen, the Pavilion’s guard “wasn’t run-of-the-mill security.” All security staff were British staffers who had present or past British military affiliations, he says. City policemen remained outside.

Earlier that afternoon an electrician spotted what the New York Times described variously as a “buff-colored fiber satchel” and “a small overnight bag,” in a top-floor electrical utility room housing controls for the building’s rudimentary air conditioning system. Returning later, he looked more closely. The electrician heard ticking within and alerted security. Security guards carried the satchel past the line of people waiting to see the Magna Carta, then outside through the crowds moving between the neighboring national pavilions. They carried it behind the Polish Pavilion to a spot along a fence next to the Grand Central Parkway.

At home with his family for the holiday, Joseph Lynch of the NYPD’s six-man Bomb and Forgery Squad—as it was then known—got the call. He picked up his partner, Ferdinand Socha, and drove to the fairgrounds. At the time officers in the bomb squad had no equipment to test remotely for the presence of explosives and wore no protective gear. Wanting to see what they were dealing with, Lynch pulled out his pocket knife and sliced a hole into the bag. He looked inside at what was later calculated to be twelve sticks of dynamite attached to a timer. He said to Socha, “It’s the business.” Those were his last words. It exploded, tearing the two detectives apart and wounding five other officers, some of them seeking to hold back bystanders. Two of those policemen were critically injured.

The bomb blew a hole five feet-wide and four feet-deep in the ground and shattered windows in the Polish Pavilion more than one hundred feet away. Metal shards and clothing fragments were found scattered more than 75 yards off according to news reports.

The police spared no man to find the individuals and organization behind the attack. The FBI came in and added federal expertise to the investigation. “New York City turned virtually the full force of its police power…on the search for the bomber,” wrote the New York Times the next day. City police raced about town like stirred up hornets, rounding up more than 100 known political agitators. Initially, the focus was on London’s enemies. Officers picked up twenty-one “Bundists, Fascists or members of the Christian Front,” Father Coughlin’s supporters rallying at that same moment in Midtown Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. With Stalin presently in a nonaggression pact with Hitler, The Chicago Tribune wrote that attention focused “on the un-American and alien-minded groups here,” primarily Communist Party members, claiming the bombing might have been in retaliation for the earlier bombing. Some insisted Irish Republican Army nationalists were behind the blast. Others thought French nationals might have sought revenge for a British bombing attack on France’s navy intended to keep that country’s ships from falling into German hands. The police union immediately put up $1,000 and the City added $25,000 in reward money, equivalent to almost $450,000 today—money which remains unclaimed.

Although a German émigré and Bund member discovered in police searches to have illegal guns in his possession was arrested and eventually deported, nothing tied him to the blast. Given that few outside the pavilion would have even been aware of the tucked away utility room, though, police suspicion, says Whalen, soon settled on the electrician who reported the bomb in the first place. “They leaned on him pretty heavily,” he says. “If he did it, he’d have broken.”

Nobody suspected to be behind the World’s Fair bombing was ever arrested. No credible suspects were ever turned up. News coverage died down. Reports instead returned to the fair’s glittery events justifying the “World of Tomorrow” theme for millions of visitors. But the war of words over the world war being fought everywhere but the United States had taken a terrifyingly violent turn at home. Americans were now forced to pay attention to the war that they had hoped to ignore.

The failure to turn up even a suspect has led Whalen to question other possible motives individuals and groups might have had for carrying out a bombing. Much like today’s terror attacks, he thinks grabbing public attention—not revenge—was a likelier primary motive. He says, “If you were going to do something to garner world attention, you couldn’t pick a better target.” His suspicions of an “inside job,” though not involving the electrician, were aroused by reports he read in the police investigation files with, he says, “indications that police could not speak to security staff without permission, which was not freely granted. If I wanted to solve a crime, I wouldn’t impede investigators in any shape or form.” He says, “It could have just been the stuffy British attitude, but the authorities at the Pavilion were interfering” with police efforts to interview security staff members, according to the files he read. Even the U.S. government seems not to have followed up on leads. While he has seen file copies of FBI letterhead material about the investigation, his request to the FBI for files related to the bombing investigation came back empty. The FBI told him they had nothing.

Given Stephenson’s known willingness to carry out criminal acts on American soil to aid his cause, it’s not far-fetched to conclude his British Security Coordination was possibly behind the blast at his nation’s own World Fair pavilion. “You’d get a lot more sympathy [for the British cause],” Whalen speculates, “if brave guys were killed.” He won’t come down on one side or the other without definitive evidence, but says, “It’s as good a theory as any.”

Today a plaque memorializes officers Lynch and Socha in a garden alongside the Queens Museum, which had served as the New York Pavilion during the World’s Fair and which is today the last building remaining from the fair. According to Whalen, while those with knowledge of the bombing are likely long gone, the police keep a reminder of it, with a photograph of the reconstruction of the satchel made as part of the investigation. It hangs in the hallway outside the Chief of Detectives Office at New York City Police Department headquarters.

In the months following the July 4th blast, the former Bomb and Forgery Squad was heavily beefed up. For the first time, the squad could call upon a bomb containment and transport truck, the first of its kind and one that well might have saved Lynch and Socha. It remains available for use to this day.

The tragic impact of the bombing, though, lingers almost eight decades later. Now 87 years old, Easter Lynch Miles, eldest of Joseph Lynch’s five children, recalls that, at age 10, when she learned of her father’s death, “I grew up overnight.” Her mother, age 30 at the time, was left to raise five children on her own. The surviving members of the NYPD bomb squad contributed money to help feed the family. The British government sent Lynch’s wife a silver fruit bowl for her loss engraved with praise for his “gallantry.”

America lost, in part, its childhood with the World’s Fair bombing as well. If it was Stephenson’s British Security Coordination, they may have sacrificed Lynch and Socha to elicit American sympathy for their warring nation’s plight. The officers’ heroic deaths were among the first the U.S. would suffer before its definitive awakening to the harsh realities of the world war seventeen months later with the attack on Pearl Harbor.