Italy took the plunge into the Second World War on June 10, 1940. President Roosevelt called it a “stab in the back.” We all know it didn’t end well.
If we could date the decline of Italian American culture this would be it. So much of our pride and self-respect is a reflection of Italy’s place in the world. Mussolini’s decision to march with Adolf Hitler was the final blow to our budding intellectual standing in the United States. It began with the invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 and worsened with Italy’s participation in the Spanish Civil War. But, those enterprises were Italian victories soon to move off the front page. Fascist Italy may have sullied its image but it was still respected. June 10th changed all that.
Although it would be another eighteen months until Italy and the United States were at war, Italian Americans found their cultural foundation crumbling. Many had hoped Mussolini smart enough to stay neutral in Germany’s folly. His military alliance with Hitler was only signed in May, 1939 – some three months before the invasion of Poland – yet Italy managed to avoid the fracas.
Could Italy have remained neutral? Could it have sided with Britain and France? Pure speculation.
Back in the USA, Italian American leaders were already divided between admirers of Fascist Italy and anti-fascists. They had been divided so for two decades of the Fascist era. [It should be noted that the most ardent Fascists were usually Italian veterans of the First World War who settled here – remember, Italy was our ally in that war.] Although there were some uniformed Fascist groups parading around, they paled in comparison to the German American Bund with its youth camps and mass rallies. The height of Italian American passion for Italy occurred in 1935 when Mussolini needed gold to finance his war in Abyssinia. I was told my American-born grandmother gave up her gold band for a steel one, as did thousands of other women.
The most astounding story from those pre-war years in America was of Capt. Pietro Garofalo (I assume an Italian veteran) who claimed to have shipped Fascist Italy 200 tons of copper in the form of one million copper postcards. It was his way around the U.S. sanctions during the Abyssinian War. At 50¢ a postcard, Garofalo had quite a large following! He was imprisoned after Pearl Harbor.
For the generation of college-educated Italian Americans who flowered in the 1930s expressing their love of heritage was walking a tightrope. They sprang from parents with barely a 6th grade education, a regional/peasant outlook, and customs dating to the Middle Ages. On the horizon, the Fascist revolution unfolded before them – a new Italy of technology, industrialization, and bold initiatives. But, they were living in a nation that rarely took Italian Americans seriously. They remained Americans first, with a cautious approach to the events in Italy.
This was the generation that created the first, and still the largest, Italian cultural center in the nation at Columbia University. These were the intellects who set our heritage on a higher plane in periodicals like Atlantica Magazine. We have 41 issues in our on-line Research Library at italic.org. You can relive the 1930s with them as they embark on a major transformation of Italian American culture, one that ultimately was not to be.
June 10, 1940 marked the beginning of the end of the Fascist experiment and the reversion of Italian American culture to its blue-collar roots. The latter process was completed by the 1970s. [Did I tell you that a new John Gotti gangster movie, starring Saturday Night Fever “guido” icon John Travolta, is premiering this week?]
Some may disagree with my timeline and interpretation, but the evidence is compelling. -JLM