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Fascism Abroad – Memory

Luconi 3

Italian Fascists in the USA: a conversation with Stefano Luconi

(University of Padua)

Italian fascism played a relevant role in the USA before the Second World War. In part, this was due to the US being the destination for a high flow of immigrants, a good number of whom were Italian.

Although the US government implemented restrictions on immigration during the 1920s(the Quota Act in 1921 and the National Origins Act in 1924), North American cities had populous Italian communities, which offered the Italian fascists an opportunity to propound their propaganda to Italians and Americans alike.

Stefano Luconi (University of Padua) introduces us to the quality, protagonists and reception of Italian fascists’ campaign in the US.

Interview by Tamara Colacicco

Many scholars such as Nicola Labanca, have outlined that from 1928 Fascism tried to structure its foreign propaganda by according pre-eminence to a moderate line of thought – a line followed by men such as Dino Grandi and Piero Parini (secretary of the Fasci italiani all’estero in the 1920s). What was the impact of this line of thought in the context of the propaganda addressed to the USA?

First of all, in my opinion the thesis that fascism undertook a moderate line in 1928 needs qualifications. In the specific case of the United States such an alleged turn must be postponed at least to 1929, when Mussolini dissolved the Fascist League of North America (FLNA). Yet this moderate line was primarily cosmetic to the benefit of American public opinion. Notwithstanding the disbandment of the FLNA, radical fascism was born again in 1930, when Domenico Trombetta founded a new political organization called the ‘Lictor Federation’. The Italian Ambassador in the USA, Giacomo De Martino, tried to distance himself from the ‘Lictor Federation’. But the regime was involved in the establishment of the organization. It was not by chance that Il Grido della Stirpe – an Italian-language weekly printed in New York and Trombetta’s mouthpiece – was economically supported by the Italian government almost until the outbreak of the war with the United States in December 1941. Additional evidence for the survival of radical fascism was the birth of new Fasci in New Jersey and in New York in 1934. Moreover, in the same year, both the ‘Fascist Party of Pennsylvania’ and the ‘American Union of Fascists’ were established. The ‘Fascist Party of Pennsylvania’ was created by Filippo Bocchini, an ex-anarchist, who initially became a nationalist and eventually a follower of Mussolini. The ‘American Union of Fascists’ was founded by Paul Castorina, an Italian auto mechanic from New York. We know that Castorina held a Fasci membership card dated 1936, namely more than six years after the dissolution of FLNA. Therefore, in spite of their formal disbandment, the Fasci never disappeared from the United States during the 1930s. There is evidence that, when the racial laws were passed in Italy in 1938, in California the Fasci connected with other political organizations such as the ‘Order Sons of Italy’ and the Nazi ‘German-American Bund’. Last but not least, on a more general level, Parini was not as moderate as conventional wisdom suggests. His 1932 conflict with the Italian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Antonio Chiramonte Bordonaro, over the appointment of the secretary of the London fascio shows that Parini did not yielded to the alleged 1928 ‘normalisation’ and that radicalism shaped the fascist experience abroad not only in the United States.

A significant feature of fascist propaganda was the spread of the Italian language and culture and the diffusion of many other cultural enterprises. This is what historiography has called ‘cultural diplomacy’; however the propaganda included other initiatives such as public celebrations of Italian political relevant events, like the March on Rome. What features had a major role in promoting the propaganda in North America?

As Matteo Pretelli has recently demonstrated (La via fascista alla democrazia americana, Viterbo, Sette Città, 2012), cultural diplomacy was the regime’s preferred strategy in the United States, especially in the 1930s. Events such as public rallies and parades had been significantly scaled down since the late 1920s. The disbandment of the FLNA may be seen as the more relevant demonstration of this tendency. Mussolini dissolved the FLNA because he did not want to antagonize the U.S. government and American public opinion in the wake of a number of journalistic investigations into the Italian immigrants’ fascist connections. The most famous inquiry was undertaken by Marcus Duffield and came out in Harper’s Magazine in November 1929. Casting light to Italian Americans’ attachment to their native country, these exposés risked undermining Mussolini’s efforts to turn Italian Americans into a political lobby that could be mobilized in order to push the White House and Congress into adopting a policy of appeasement toward the fascist regime. In addition, a few scholars have outlined the fascists’ attempt to follow a strategy of cultural diplomacy. We have talked about Matteo Pretelli. We could also mention Tommaso Caiazza (‘Pratiche e limiti della penetrazione fascista nelle comunità italoamericane: il caso della comunità di San Francisco,’ Altreitalie, n. 45, 2012). Moreover, both Pretelli and Caiazza have demonstrated that, in spite of its attempts, fascism eventually failed to achieve the goals it intended to pursue by means of cultural diplomacy.

The USA hosted the most populous Little Italies in the world, which were mostly composed of uneducated Italians. On the other hand, events such as conferences hold by Luigi Villari were especially addressed to élites of intellectuals. Did fascist propaganda in North America gain more followers in cultural contexts such as universities or among the less educated members of Little Italies?

The cultural propaganda achieved many followers among the American intellectuals. We should mention Nicholas Murray Butler, Breckinridge Long, and Richard Washburn Child at least. Nicholas Murray Butler was the Chancellor of Columbia University. He was one of the major admirers of Fascist Italy in the United States and backed the regime in several ways. For instance, his support was pivotal to the establishment of the ‘Casa Italiana’ at Columbia University. The ‘Casa Italiana’ played a central role in fascist cultural propaganda in the United States and was led by prominent Italian intellectuals such as Dino Bigongiari and Giuseppe Prezzolini.Child and Long served as U.S. ambassadors in Rome. Child also translated Mussolini’s autobiography (My Autobiography) into English. The autobiography of the Duce was also published by instalments in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1928. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt considered Mussolini a gentlemen and he expressed the wish to meet him several times. So Mussolini had several admirers within the U.S. establishment. As a result, the dictator managed to secure a policy ofappeasementfrom Washington and kept it until he declared war on France in June 1940. Many U.S. citizens, legislators and government officials saw Mussolini as a bulwark against the spread of bolshevism in Europe. They also deluded themselves into believing that he could even restrain Nazi extremism. Other factors, however, shaped the stand of most members of the Italian-American community. On the one hand, many ethnic leaders were afraid of being identified with fascism. They aimed at social and economic accommodation into their adoptive country and feared that suspicions of dual allegiance would eventually crash their dreams of assimilation. On the other, the rank-and-file Italian Americans embraced fascism. For instance, they financially supported Mussolini’s colonial venture against Ethiopia in 1935-1936. Yet their support resulted from ethnic redress rather than from ideological commitment. After suffering discrimination and bigotry for decades on the grounds that they allegedly belonged to an ‘inferior’ people, Italian immigrants and their children basked in the glory of the supposed accomplishments of fascism. The proclamation of the Empire in 1936 apparently made Italy into a great power that inspired awe worldwide and many Italian Americans thought that their social standing would consequently improve in U.S. society, too.

As we briefly said Luigi Villari – son of the famous historian Pasquale Villari – played a prominent role in foreign fascist propaganda. Mussolini trusted him and held him in high esteem . How did the American public opinion see Villari? Did the Americans change their opinion on him after the Abyssinian war in 1935?

The thesis that American public opinion and U.S. institutions turned on fascism in the aftermath of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia needs reassessment. After all, Congress tabled the Pittman-McReynolds Bill by which Franklin D. Roosevelt could have hindered Mussolini’s military campaign in eastern Africa by restricting the export of petrol, trucks, and scrap iron and other materials. Moreover in mid May 1940, Roosevelt still proposed to make concessions to Mussolini in order to keep Italy neutral in the Second World War. As for Luigi Villari, he was viewed with great admiration and esteem by the U.S. public. Of course, his father’s celebrity played an important role in his positive reception. Luigi Villari played a significant role in fascist propaganda campaigns. He helped Mussolini spread a sweetened and hagiographic interpretation of fascism. Regarding his specific personal contribution the book The Awakening of Italy (New York, 1927) was very significant.

Stefano Luconi specialises in Italian emigration to the United States and teaches U.S. History at the universities of Florence, Naples L’Orientale and Padua. He is a member of the editorial committees of Forum Italicum, Italian American Review and Archivio Storico dell’Emigrazione Italiana. His publications include La “diplomazia parallela”: Il regime fascista e la mobilitazione politica degli italo-americani (Milan: Angeli, 2000); From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001); L’ombra lunga del fascio: canali di propaganda per gli “italiani d’America” (Milan: M&B Publishing, 2004) with Guido Tintori, and Le relazioni tra Italia e Stati Uniti: Dal Risorgimento alle conseguenze dell’11 settembre (Rome: Carocci, 2012) with Lucia Ducci and Matteo Pretelli.

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This entry was posted on April 29, 2014 by in Memory.
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