Matteo Pretelli (Writer, Professor, Historian)

Mussolini e gli Stati Uniti d'America: una prospettiva storica

Jan 02, 2017 1061 ITA ENG

As you all know, in our interviews we try to stay as far as we can from politics. It is a very sensitive topic, and We the Italians is completely impartial and unbiased, on both sides of the ocean. This is fundamental to understand the approach we are using regarding the topic of this interview, as to say the relation between Mussolini and the United States. To do this, we have met the most important scholar in this field, Prof. Matteo Pretelli, who has published several things about this. We welcome him, and we urge our readers to have the same unbiased approach: we are not praising any political position or personality, this is an historical analysis. Thanks

Prof. Pretelli, what is the history of the relationship between the fascist regime and the US government?

A very cordial relationship. During the 1920s, many Americans appreciated Mussolini for being an anti-communist and a man of order that could guarantee US investments overseas. Consequently, the US Republican administrations that led the country in the 1920s, as well as journalists and travelers stationed in Italy, praised the fascist regime. This all contributed to creating the myth of Mussolini “running trains on time” in Italy. Mussolini was not only able to positively renegotiate Italy's war debt towards the US, but he also secured a $100 million dollar loan from the US Bank JP Morgan. This loan was crucial to stabilizing the Italian Lira and, consequently, the Italian regime.

Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw Mussolini in a positive light, to an extent, hailing him as "an admirable gentleman." However, things changed by the time of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 when the relations between the two countries worsened. Yet, in the years afterwards, Roosevelt worked to split the Nazi-Fascist alliance in order to avoid that Mussolini would side with Hitler in a future war. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.

While in Italy in 1922, Mussolini came to power with a very marked political platform, telling the story of a strong, powerful, and white Italy, in the southern parts of the United States Italians were often considered not entirely white ... did Mussolini’s rise to power alter this discrimination?

The fact Italians were subjected to strong prejudice in the US was deemed by fascists a serious issue that required resolution. In the early 1930s, the Italian embassy protested against the release of films in which Italians were depicted as gangsters. During the invasion of Ethiopia, Mussolini's propaganda emphasized how Italians were exporting their Italian civilization to an African country in which slavery still existed. Italians did not strongly emphasize their whiteness against blackness of Ethiopians, rather they stressed how the “Italian race” (or “stirpe”) was per se superior even to other European “races,” such as the British or the French. Generally, all fascist propaganda was aimed to instill a strong sense of attachment to the “Italian race” in the Italians in the US. The “Italian race” was depicted as widely contributing to the world civilization. For instance, the labor of Italian migrants in the US was historically compared to discoveries of Italian sailors such as Christopher Columbus - all to stress the massive contributions of Italians wherever they settled.

Could the attacks towards Columbus nowadays be influenced by the comparison between Columbus and Mussolini back in those days?

I don't see much relation between these two things. Today, the US is a multicultural society where all the different ethnicities and races should be valued. This is why some Native Americans are trying to reject the myth of Christopher Columbus; they perceive him not as the man who “discovered” America, but rather as the one that contributed to the murder of many native populations.

On the contrary, many Italian Americans are proud of praising Columbus because in doing so, they are able to put Italians at the very beginning of the American history. This sense of pride was even stronger during the time of fascism, when Mussolini was seen as someone who was promoting the value of Italian ethnicity.

Is it true that the campaigns in Africa exacerbated the relationship between the Italian Americans and the African Americans, especially in Harlem, New York?

Yes, during the Ethiopian war many African Americans supported the resistant efforts of the Africans being attacked by the Italian troops, while many Italians endorsed Mussolini's invasion. This inevitably led to clashes between the two groups, including street riots in Harlem. Some Italian anti-fascists sided with African Americans in their protests against Il Duce imperialism.

How was fascism promoted and perceived within the numerous and populous Italian American communities?

Fascism was well received by the Italian American communities because migrants believed Mussolini restored Italy among the top countries in international politics. Of course, for many this worked against anti-Italian stereotypes, which they had been traditionally subjected to overseas. It is also important to stress how many fully identified fascism with Mussolini, the charismatic leader, as they had a bare knowledge of Fascist ideology. Generally, fascism was very good in propagandizing its positive image abroad through all means, including the ethnic press, radio, documentaries, and the envoy of propagandists overseas. 

Is there a trend to describe this perception, a time when we see a paradigm shift by the Italian Americans toward Mussolini and his policies?

Italian Americans adhered to and attempted to preserve strong pro-fascist feelings even during dramatic moments, such as the passage of Anti-Semitic legislation in Italy and the entry of Italy in WWII in June 1940. It is important to remember that Roosevelt lost many Italian American votes in 1940's Presidential Elections because of his "Stab in the Back Speech".

It was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and the US entrance into WWII that marked a definitive detachment of Italian Americans from fascist Italy because of the necessity to endorse the adopted land war effort. Hundreds of thousands of Italian Americans served in the US armed forces all over the world, and some served in Italy. Despite the fact that many experienced the hardship of having to fight against relatives and friends, the majority made it their duty to serve their country, the United States, in order to liberate the ancestral country from Fascists and Nazis.

What is the role of the Church in the spread and subsequent rejection of fascism in the Italian American community?

The Italian Catholic Church, in particular after the signature of the 1929 Lateran Pact between Mussolini and the Pope, positively supported Mussolini's interests in the United States. Catholic priests in the US propagandized the dictator’s efforts and supported the 1930s Fascist campaign overseas to foster the Italian language and culture in the young generations of Italian Americans. Mussolini, being an anti-communist, was good for the church as well.

According to you, what judgment could an average Italian American give on the fascist regime?

The scholar Stanislao Pugliese wrote that after the collapse of the fascist regime at the end of WWII, many Italian Americans looked at Mussolini's period with nostalgia as being for them a sort of "golden age" of the Italianità. During the Cold War, the Italian Americans were among the staunchest anti-communist ethnic communities in the US. Despite the fact that in the years after the war it was not possible to publicly talk about Mussolini, until a few years ago was quite easy to find T-shirts portraying the face of Il Duce in New York’s Little Italy stores on Mulberry Street.

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