The Italian attack heralded the demise of the League of Nations and the beginning of World War II. As Italy was poised to wage war on Ethiopia, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull cabled a message to Benito Mussolini on August 18, 1935, calling on the two countries to resolve their disputes without resorting to armed conflict. Mussolini boastfully responded that as “Italy had mobilized a million men and had spent two billion lire,” it was too late.1 The US claimed neutrality despite fascist Italy’s violation of international law by attacking Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations, and the use of poison gas — one of the first uses of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). The US abandoned all of its commercial interests in Ethiopia, treaties signed over the years, extraterritorial rights to its consulate and, at home, a segment of its population, African-Americans, who identified with Ethiopia.
Addison Southard served from 1928–1936 until the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. John Spencer, an American advisor to the Ethiopian government, witnessed the dubious stand of the US during the invasion. As Italian forces approached Addis Ababa, the US embassy was closed and its personnel evacuated. After the Italians deliberately fomented looting in Addis Ababa, US Secretary Cordell Hull dispatched a telegram to Benito Mussolini insisting that fascist forces enter the city to avert total chaos. Spencer mused that the Italians must have had a good laugh over the US simplemindedness.2 The Italians were used to such preemptive attacks. According to historian Mario Fenyo, Mussolini, for example, instructed General Rodolfo Graziani to “initiate and conduct systematically a policy of terror and extermination” against Ethiopians.3
1 John H. Spencer, ibid., p. 206.
2 John H. Spencer, ibid., p. 66.
3 Abdul Karim Bangura. 2002. Mario Fenyo on the Third World. A reader, “Italians in Ethiopia,” New York, NY: Writers Club Press, p. 46.