Nobody ever went broke underestimating the nincompoopery of New York’s city council. Now along comes Upper West Side member Helen Rosenthal to crank up the stupid, declaring her appreciation of the vandalism last week of a statue depicting the globally famous photo of a U.S. sailor kissing a dental technician in Times Square to mark the end of the Second World War.
“I appreciate someone recognizing that a random man grabbing a random woman is completely inappropriate,” said Rosenthal—having a #MeToo moment as she prepares to run for city comptroller.
Presentism—judging past events solely by current standards—is usually mindless, opportunistic, and petty, but Rosenthal’s politicized ahistoricism is breathtaking even by these standards. The image, captured on August 14, 1945, by Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, brilliantly captured the joy that swept over Times Square, and the nation, as news arrived of Japan’s surrender, bringing to an end the most sanguinary conflict in human history.
The sailor, George Mendonsa, 95, died last week in a Rhode Island nursing home. His death prompted the vandalism that earned Rosenthal’s imprimatur. The dental tech, Greta Friedman—who fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1939 and whose parents subsequently were murdered in the Holocaust—died in Richmond, Virginia, in 2016. She was 92.
Eisenstaedt never identified the subjects of his classic photo, and no shortage of claimants came forward for the honor as the years passed. It is now generally agreed, though, that Mendonsa was the sailor and Friedman the woman in white. Both had fond memories of the event. They later connected and remained lifelong—Platonic—friends.
“It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” recalled Friedman in a 2005 interview. “It was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back [to war], I found out later. . . . The reason he grabbed someone dressed like a nurse was that he just felt very grateful to nurses who took care of the wounded.” In 2012, she told the Navy Times, “I can’t think of anybody who considered that as an assault,” she said. “It was a happy event.”
Mendonsa agreed: “There isn’t a Navy man alive who didn’t serve in World War II who hasn’t looked at that photo and said, ‘I wish I were that guy.’”
Mendonsa’s recollections, understandably, had existential overtones. He had already survived heavy Pacific combat as a crewman of the destroyer USS The Sullivans —named for the five Sullivan brothers killed when the cruiser USS Juneau was sunk off Guadalcanal in 1942. In other words, he had no illusions about what a full-scale invasion of Japan might mean for him. Nor did the hundreds of thousands of sailors, soldiers, and Marines staging for that invasion in August 1945. They had the battle for Okinawa the previous spring as a benchmark.
That event had cost America 49,000 casualties ashore, including 12,500 killed in action. The Navy absorbed 4,907 dead and 4,874 wounded while losing 36 warships, mostly to kamikaze suicide attacks. Again, all this was considered just a warmup to the invasion of Japan proper. Casualty estimates for Operation Downfall were at least 500,000 American servicemen killed and millions more wounded. So many Purple Heart medals were manufactured in preparation that the Army still has tens of thousands in store. Japanese fatalities were expected to surpass 5 million.
Then, suddenly, the potential death sentence was lifted—and an act of life-affirming exuberance occurred in Times Square. What a pinched view of history, of humanity, it takes to equate the spontaneous joy of that moment with sexual assault—let alone to score political points in the present.
Whether Rosenthal is aware of the ignorance she radiates or is merely taking advantage of a random news event is a matter for herself and her conscience. She should be aware, however, that serious people think that she looks ridiculous.
And by the way, vandalism of any sort always is to be condemned, never appreciated. Those who aspire to high office in New York shouldn’t have to be reminded of that.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images