Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th-century general in Italian unification, once said to his troops while on the battlefield: “He who still has faith in Italy, let him follow me.”
In spite of their native country being at war with the United States and its alliance with other dictatorial regimes like Germany and Japan, thousands of Italians and Italian-Americans rallied together on this Columbus Day at the Metropolitan Opera House in a spirit of pride and anti-fascism.
Attorney General Francis Biddle announced during the celebration that 600,000 Italian immigrants currently residing in the U.S. would be removed from the “enemy alien” list starting Monday, Oct. 19. Italians will be able to travel anywhere in the country with travel permits, will no longer be required to carry certificates of identification, and can possess cameras and firearms except where local regulations forbid. In short, the “enemy alien” label will no longer exist.
There has been speculation that it has been a matter of “fixed policy,” according to the New York Times, to try to split the Axis powers by holding the door open to the Italian people in a divide-and-conquer strategy. But government officials have not verified such claims.
Italy’s declaration of war against the United States did not stop the speakers at the rally from praising the loyalty, the anti-totalitarian sentiments and the war efforts of the 6 million Americans with Italian heritage.
“The people of Italy are just as much at war with their contemptible fascist government as we are,” New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who is of Italian descent, said in his address to the rally. La Guardia went on to characterize President Roosevelt as “the new explorer setting forth to bring freedom to the oppressed people of Europe,” citing imagery similar to the famous voyager, Christopher Columbus, the federal holiday’s namesake.
In a reply to the president’s statement that encouraged harmony among all ethnicities within the U.S., an audience-endorsed message stated: “It is Mussolini and his gang of Quislings, and not the masses of the Italian people, who are the enemy in this war.” Many political leaders made it a point to paint the Italian people in a positive light.
According to Lieutenant Governor Charles Poletti of New York, the patriotism of Italian-Americans and their “devotion to democratic ideals” can best be seen in the records of this war. He stated that 10 percent of American soldiers under arms – about 500,000 out of 5 million –were Italian-American men. Also, according to figures derived from the “alien enemy identification program” and FBI investigations, only 228 foreign Italians have been interned as opposed to 1,228 German immigrants. Over 2,100 Japanese and Japanese-Americans have been interned. This was enough to statistically prove in the minds of U.S. government officials that Italian immigration does not pose a threat to national security.
Assistant Secretary of State A. A. Berle Jr. reassured those of Italian heritage that regardless of the present circumstances, they should not be ashamed of their Italian traditions even as their country has been “betrayed by her shoddy crew of Fascist leaders.”
Although most speakers kept their messages optimistic in the midst of the celebration, Governor Herbert H. Lehman of New York reminded all in a sobering address that “there is no place in this country for dual allegiance.”
The Italian-American Labor Council’s motto for the event was “American Victory is Italy’s Freedom.” President Roosevelt connected with this in his Columbus Day message, expressing his faith in the Italian people and the power of American liberty.
“Our cause is not only liberty for ourselves, but liberation for others,” he said. “In unity, we shall find strength to win.”
“U.S. ITALIANS AIDED: Biddle Announces Lifting of the ‘Alien Enemy’ Stigma on Monday.” The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 1.
“ITALY’S RULERS DENOUNCED: Italian-American Rally Fills the Metropolitan Opera House.” The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 13.
“LIBERTY AT STAKE, PRESIDENT ASSERTS.” The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 12.
“HE WHO HAS FAITH IN ITALY.” The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 22.
“Roosevelt Pays Tribute to Columbus.” The Washington Post, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 3.
“Loyalty of Italian-Americans Lauded at Columbus Day Rally.” The New York Times, Oct. 13, 1942, p. 13.
“EXPLAINS BENEFITS TO ITALIAN ALIENS.” The New York Times, Oct. 14, 1942, p. 27.