As Italy turned from enemy to ostensible ally of the U.S. in World War II, Italian Americans endured anxious whiplash in the changing of their stateside status along with that of their home country.
In “Unto the Sons,” author Gay Talese bookends his family's Italian history with the antagonisms suffered by his immigrant father Joseph, as the allies swept northward from Sicily toward his hometown of Maida.
Joseph worked at being a good American, but was wracked with concern for his homeland.
Writes Talese: “On this flag-waving island where my father wished to be publicly perceived as a patriotic citizen, I instinctively understood and sympathized with his plight as a kind of emotional double agent.”
Talese's father owned a tailor shop in a Methodist town on the Jersey Shore and from his 1922 arrival at Ocean City, lived in relative isolation from which he, “comported himself with formality and caution, always concerned that one injudicious act, be it social or professional, consciously intended or inadvertent, could ostracize him from the community and perhaps even lead to his deportation.”
In the same way Rep. Vito Marcantonio became intimately involved with political affairs in Puerto Rico through his Puerto Rican constituency in Manhattan, he was necessarily engaged with the fast-evolving affairs of wartime Italy because of their impact on the large number of Italian-Americans he represented.
In a July 1942 radio address Marcantonio said he felt it necessary to address “the persistent activities of certain groups in our country who malign the loyalty and dispute the patriotism of Americans of Italian descent, by discriminating against them in industry, by denying them equal opportunity with other loyal Americans, and by regarding them with suspicion because of the sound of their names.”
Those “self-styled superpatriots” indulging in alien-bating, said Marcantonio, were “playing Hitler's game in America.
“The contributions of Americans of Italian extraction in blood, toil, and wealth is the devastating answer to those who seek to discriminate against them,” the East Harlemite proclaimed.
During the war, Joseph was compelled – as were many small business owners – to support the war effort. The tailor shop, Talese recalled, became overrun with military men needing chevrons and new military stripes sewn and that the work was done free of charge. As Italy warred with the U.S., Joseph's “sensitivity to his Italian accent” forced him to repress his emotions.
Making matters worse, Italian immigrants were classified by the U.S. government as “enemy aliens” and required to register as such.
“In the store,” wrote Talese, “even I at times perceived him as a citizen of questionable status, an alien surrounded by soldiers of occupation.”
|Gaetano "Gay" Talese.|
Once the Allies had chased the Nazis from their most significant Italian redoubts, Marcantonio sought to close the breach opened with the U.S. during the war.
As did Joseph Talese, Marc's primarily southern Italian constituents found their wartime communication with home villages and towns cut off.
A “New York Times” article of Feb. 15, 1944, with the headline, “Restoring Mail to Retaken Italy: Stimson Expects Personal Service This Week – Reply is Given to Marcantonio,” discussed his successful effort to remedy the situation.
The article reported on a letter from one Maj. Gen. Edwin M. Watson in reply to a plea, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by Representative Vito Marcantonio of New York.
“Mr. Marcantonio,” the article reads, “had cited the anxiety in this country endured by friends and relatives of Italians in the occupied areas and had asked for mail privileges subject to limitations of censorship for security.”
Marc's letter to FDR worked and soon mail between the U.S. and locales such as Bari, Brindisi, Catanzaro, Cosensa, Lecca, Matera, Potenza, Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Taranto was renewed.
The anxieties of Italian-Americans may have actually increased with the reestablishment of communications between Old World and New.
Talese remembered his father being short-tempered with him at the tailor shop: “[M]y mother later explained to me that my father had just received word from someone overseas who had connections with the Italian army that his youngest brother, Domenico, assigned to the Italian infantry, was listed as missing somewhere in the Balkans or Russia.
“Almost every night after I went to bed, I could overhear my father's whispered prayers as he knelt before the portrait of Saint Francis [de Paola], begging the monk to save his brothers from death or the fate that had befallen his brother, and pleading also for the protection of his mother and other family members who were now trapped in the war.”
“Unto the Sons,” concludes with Joseph destroying his young son's painstakingly built collection of model American bombers after the Allied bombardment of the Abbey of Monte Cassino – a sacred hilltop seminary occupied by the Nazis.
The pent-up anger, fueled by his father's fear for Italy in wartime, sparks a landmark episode in his son's life, marks a moment forever in red rage; an occurrence vivid enough for literary recounting 40 years later.
Complicating this conflicted relationship with the outside world was a schism over the war inside the Italian-American community itself.
In Talese's memoir, a relation of Joseph's from Maida, Nicolas Pileggi, was an anarchist and follower of the radical Carlo Tresca. Joseph the tailor rather approved of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's modernizing impact upon Italy and his effusive cultural pride. Family gatherings reflected the split:
“Here until dawn,” Talese writes, “over bottles of wine and bowls filled with cracked walnut shells, the merits and demerits of Mussolini were debated by these native sons of southern Italy and their kinsmen and friends just as happened around tables all around the United States. Mussolini had divided these Italian immigrants as their craggy villages and towns overseas had been divided for centuries, finding common ground only during earthquakes and other disasters.”
Marc found himself on one side of the divide and supporters of Mussolini, such as publisher Generoso Pope, on the other.
Gerald Meyer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” writes that, in the 1930s, Marcantonio's was a full-throated anti-Fascism, when Italian-Americans tended to equate anti-Fascism with anti-Italianism. Pope's influential “Il Progresso del Popolo” newspaper promoted Marc's 1936 congressional opponent and treated the Congressman “as a non person,” Meyer said.
“After his 1936 defeat,” writes Meyer, “until Italy's capitulation in 1943, he rarely publicly attacked Mussolini or Italian Fascism.”
But the silence was not total, according to Meyer's book. “At the launching of 'L'Unita del Popolo' Marcantonio denounced the “Fascist policies of Mr. Pope's papers,” which he claimed had “moved 600,000 Italian voters in this city into the camp of fascism.”
Post-war Italy's administration fell to the Allied Control Commission (ACC), which was set up by the American and British governments.
Marc was among those who felt the commission had ignored the needs of Italy's war-ravaged people and denied the country status an an ally. In a Sept. 21, 1944, speech from the House Well he said, “As an American, it is with a sense of shame that I must say promises to the people of Italy made in the Italian Armistice have not been kept.”
Under allied administration, he noted, Fascists were restored to public positions and famine had begun to grip the populace: “Children are dying in Italy of starvation. Women cannot come out of their homes because they have no clothing. They are in rags. Tuberculosis is in epidemic stage.”
Although the Italians had overthrown Mussolini and some 300,000 partisans were part of the anti-fascist push, Marcantonio noted, “Italy is treated neither as an ally or as a friend. She is considered and called a co-belligerent. This twilight status of co-belligerency has meant what? It has meant starvation, hunger, black market, and the continuance of an ACC and Military Government which has been a complete failure in the field of relief and which has negated every promise in the Moscow declaration.”
Marc said he had proposed a resolution declaring Italy an ally that was, in that moment, “buried somewhere in the Foreign Affairs Committee.” The solution, he concluded was simple: “[W]ithdraw the military from Italy, and give to Italy the right to live as a free nation and as democratic nation.”
On Feb. 10, 1945, “The Times” reported, “Bill Plans Aid to Italy: Marcantonio Calls for Full Recognition as an Ally.”
Marcantonio told the House that the ACC had blocked United States efforts to increase the food supply to that country. “In Italy children are dying for want of food,” he charged once more.
After the war, Marcantonio's interest in Italy remained acute. The war was now one over policy fought on the home front.
For example, in 1941, Italian-American labor leaders formed the Italian-American Labor Council (IALC) and set winning the war against the Axis, including Italy, as a top priority.
In 1943, a rift developed within the council between those who refused to work with communists politically and those who accepted them. The first group broke off and became the American Committee for Italian Democracy within the IALC and the latter group formed the Free Italy Labor Council.
An April 14, 1948, “New York Times” article trumpeted the headline, “Labor Here Calls for a Free Italy: Anti-Communists Appeal to Voters Abroad – Rival Group Gets Marcantonio's Aid.”
Some 200 labor leaders of Italian origin asked for defeat of the communists in the upcoming Italian elections and vigilance against neo-Fascism. The resulting communique was shared with newspapers throughout southern Italy.
The press conference was presided by Luigi Antonini, an important leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and president of the anti-communist IALC. Antonini was a one-time ally of Marcantonio's. The two men split over the very same issue of communist collaboration.
The article reports that the IALC provided a $50,000 cash infusion to anti-communist parties in the first election after the war, which offered clear-cut capitalist and communist options.
Marcantonio, it further noted, was slated to be main speaker at a rally convened by the Committee for a Free Election Italy against “the interference in Italian elections.”
That interference was raised in a March 25, 1948 speech to the House: “Speak about interference and free elections! The state Department informs the Italian people that unless they vote the De Gasperi [conservative] ticket they are not going to get any aid. It was an official statement. Then our own Department of Justice informs the Italian people that if any of them ever hope to migrate here they can never come to the United States if they voted for the Popular Democratic Front [Fronte Popolare: a coalition of communist and socialist parties].”
As to exactly who in Italy was benefiting from U.S. aid, Marcantonio had an opinion.
The recipients were the Pirelli rubber company, the Moncatini chemical company, Fiat, “the automobile crowd that sustained Mussolini with their money and influence... Yet you stand up here and you tell the American people: 'This is a defense of America, this is a crusade against communism.' Yes, you now stand here and would make the Italian worker and peasant believe that you are helping them.”
The driving force behind Italy's reconstruction, Marc said, was international capital which, through the ACC, was delivering Italy to the very people that had ruined it.
Marc addressed his opposition to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Italy, saying it would establish a satellite to the Wall Street economy and wrest control of the Italian people's economic destiny from their own hands.
Marcantonio said the European Recovery Program, as the plan was dubbed, “means the freedom of the big trusts to exploit, to gather more and more and more profit from the backs of these people who are today striving to continue their march toward a better world...”