Anticommunism, Americanization, and Ethnic Identity: Italian Americans and the 1948 Parliamentary Elections in Italy

By Luconi, Stefano | The Historian, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Anticommunism, Americanization, and Ethnic Identity: Italian Americans and the 1948 Parliamentary Elections in Italy


Luconi, Stefano, The Historian


Italian Americans were one of the largest ethnic minorities in the United States in the late 1940s. According to the 19.50 census, the United States was home to 1,427,145 Italian immigrants and 3,143,405 American-born people of Italian parentage. Third-generation Italian Americans accounted for about two million persons, comprising nearly five percent of the total American population of Italian descent in 1950.(1) Most Italian immigrants came to the United States between 1881 and 1921, when the passing of restrictive American legislation ended the era of mass immigration. While the vast majority of Italian newcomers were laborers, full employment and high wages in World War II coupled with the 1944 GI Bill enabled many second-generation Italian Americans to pursue upward social mobility by the early postwar years.(2)

Many immigrants leaned politically toward the radical left, due to their working-class background and the social and economic discrimination they frequently experienced. Luigi Galleani, Arturo Giovannitti, Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Carlo Tresca, and Louis C. Fraina were only the most outstanding figures of much larger Anarchist, Socialist, and Communist Italian American networks. In 1941, Peter Cacchione became the first Communist elected to the New York City Council and retained his seat until his death in 1947. That year, radical American Labor Party Representative Vito Marcantonio of East Harlem, New York, refused to vote for American aid to the anti-Communist fight of the Greek and Turkish governments. Three years later, Marcantonio was the only congressman who opposed U.S. intervention in Korea on the grounds that it was an imperialistic venture.(3)

Nonetheless, most Italian Americans shared the anti-Communist consensus of American society in the late 1940s and 1950s. According to a 1952 survey, for instance, Italian Americans were 16 percent more favorable to the fiercely anti-Communist Senator Joseph R. McCarthy than unfavorable, second only to Irish Americans. By 1954, Italian Americans had become the most pro-McCarthy ethnic group in the United States.(4)

Some scholars believe that expediency contributed to Italian Americans' anticommunism in the postwar years. Before Pearl Harbor, a significant number of Italian Americans had been outspoken admirers of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Although they had little ideological commitment to Fascism, they basked in the glory of his achievements, considering them partial redress for the decades of ethnic intolerance that Italian immigrants and their offspring had endured in the United States. After Mussolini seemingly turned Italy into a great power, many Italian Americans took pride in their ancestry and freely identified themselves with Fascism.(5)

When Italy declared war on the United States on 11 December 1941, such blatant pro-Fascist sentiments caused their loyalty to the United States to be questioned, and scholars have suggested that many Italian Americans joined the Cold War crusade to regain social respectability. As Norman Graebner has argued, anticommunism became "the very essence of Americanism" for nationality groups uncertain about their acceptance in the United States.(6) Since patriotism had come to be identified with anticommunism by the late 1940s, immigrant minorities overemphasized their opposition to communism in the postwar years to demonstrate the demise of their ethnic identities, pledge their allegiance to their adoptive country, and claim their full-fledged Americanization in the eyes of the broader society.(7)

Generally overlooked in historical investigation, however, is the interaction of anticommunism, Americanization, and ethnic identity among Italian Americans. This article investigates such interaction by examining the involvement of Italian Americans in the 1948 parliamentary elections in Italy, which marked their major effort to support the Cold War strategy of the United States. …

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