World War II

Columbus Day 1944: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s broadcasts to Italy during World War II

Mayor LaGuardia speaking at reviewing stand, at the Columbus Day Parade, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Between July 1942 and May 1945 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia delivered weekly radio broadcasts in Italian via shortwave radio to Italy. This was a secretive undertaking organized by the Office of War Information (OWI), designed to keep Italians informed of Allied activities during the war, and to offer encouragement and hope during the period of German occupation. The recently-digitized Italian and English transcripts of the broadcasts at the New York Municipal Archives (NYMA) open a window into issues facing Italy during the war and the Mayor’s unsparing views of Hitler and Mussolini. The audio recordings reside at the Library of Congress; however a few have been made available for listening. The talks of October 1944, seventy-five years ago, document a critical turning point for Italy in the war and in US–Italian relations. The Mayor had not broadcast for nine weeks, reflecting mounting Italian-American skepticism regarding the Allies’ treatment of Italy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was facing re-election and needed the Italian-American vote. By forging an alliance between rival groups in New York City and striking a deal with the British, President Roosevelt’s promise of aid and recognition to Italy succeeded in making Columbus Day 1944 an unprecedented success, ushering in the iconic Fifth Avenue parade and the return of the Italian flag. LaGuardia’s return to the airwaves in October 1944 captures the drama of these events.

Major LaGuardia with soldiers in Italy in 1918. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

LaGuardia already enjoyed a national reputation in Italy for his speeches. Roughly twenty-five years earlier, as an army captain during the First World War, he spoke in Italian at La Scala in Milan and at the Coliseum in Rome, encouraging Italians to support the war effort. These speeches are well-documented with much coverage in both the Italian and English press. The WWII broadcasts, in contrast, were a secretive undertaking, with background material provided to LaGuardia by the State Department on Italian fascism and anti-Semitism during the German occupation of Italy. Italian fascists had been broadcasting to Italian-Americans in the US and the US wanted Italians to hear anti-fascist sentiments from an American. Mayor LaGuardia, a vocal anti-fascist, was actively pursued by the newly-formed OWI in the spring of 1942. Correspondence uncovered at the Municipal Archives reveals the Mayor’s close working relationship with the officials of the OWI, then based in New York City. There was agreement that these broadcasts were not to be publicized.

LaGuardia would dictate his talks in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast. The pencil notes are his corrections, and the sketch is his as well. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The transmission was a complicated technical undertaking: LaGuardia would dictate his roughly fifteen-minute talk in Italian about one week in advance of each planned broadcast.  His OWI-employed translator, Elma Baccanelli, would then translate the talk into English and submit it to State Department censors for final approval. The final Italian transcript was then typed onto 5x8 cards and read by the Mayor on Saturday afternoon at the NBC studio in mid-town. It was sent by short-wave to BBC London and then converted to medium-wave for better reception in Italy. The talks were generally broadcast on Sunday nights around 9 pm in Italy.

The size of the audience is not known because it was illegal to listen, however, judging by the volume of letters he received (also at the NYMA), and the negative comments generated by the Nazi and Fascist press, his talks were listened to by many. I personally know this because of the many Italians I have met who remember listening to these broadcasts as children, often in a basement or a closet, and recall the experience with great emotion. These broadcasts were a lifeline of hope for the Italians. The language is simple and direct, a hallmark of LaGuardia, as he exhorts the Italians to resist the Germans, and he declares his unqualified love for Italy and confidence in an Allied victory. 

Some of the many letters Mayor LaGuardia received from Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

A note from Elma Baccanelli, LaGuardia’s translator, in August 1943 informing him that his directive to the Italian Navy to help end the stalemate was removed by State Department censors.

Early in the process LaGuardia formed a productive and trusting relationship with Elma Baccanelli, an Italian-American employed by the OWI. Notes from the Municipal Archives show that she gently offered wording suggestions and had the unpleasant task of informing the Mayor when his words were censored. There were three noteworthy episodes of censorship during the three years of broadcasting, and the correspondence with the State Department, the OWI, and even President Roosevelt, reveals a tension between classified war plans and the Mayor’s desire to speak directly and frankly to the Italian people. In general, the reasons for censorship focused on perceived or suggested “instructions for revolt,” which LaGuardia never seemed to understand given that it was wartime. Rather than acquiescing to the censors, the Mayor simply cancelled his planned broadcasts on these occasions, claiming “there was nothing left to say after all the cuts.”

Mayor Laguardia must have complained to friends in Washington about the censorship, because on September 7, 1943 President Roosevelt sent LaGuardia this short, cryptic note defending the censorship. On September 9th the main Allied invasion force landed in Salerno, Italy. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The broadcasts present a chronology of the war from the viewpoint of an Italian-American anti-fascist. His use of simple language and repeated themes of encouragement, persistence, and affinity with the partisans, provide some insight into his target audience. He was not speaking to the prominenti of German-occupied Milan or Turin (although they listened). He was directing his words to Allied-occupied Southern Italy, where most Italian-Americans had originated.

His talks encompassed three Columbus Day holidays (1942-1944). Each of these three holidays is acknowledged. However, it is the Columbus Day of 1944 that stands out as a turning point in the influence of Italian-Americans on US policy towards Italy. While the Mayor took issue with the censor’s rulings and had previously cancelled a few broadcasts in a huff, between August 6 and October 8, 1944 he went “on-strike” and did not give any talks.

In the August 6, 1944 transcript he expressed his frustration that Italy had not been recognized as an ally by the United Nations despite the liberation of Rome by the Allies on June 5, 1944:

Here in America there is a great desire for news of the Italian patriots. Really, what do you call them in Italy: patriots or partisans? In any case, this activity of the patriots in the occupied territory and everything they do is of the greatest interest to all the Americans. They know how difficult direct action is where the Nazis are, the great peril and risk the patriots face. Therefore- this great admiration.

While we are speaking of the great activity of the patriots—what are the diplomats doing? I think it is time for the Italian situation to be clarified and for the United States to recognize Italy’s position; so that the material, economic, and political reconstruction may begin. After all, are we not friends? I think we are friends. Therefore why not say so?

Perhaps next week I will not speak. You know that unless you have something to say, it is difficult to speak. Only the tenor at the opera sings to hear his own voice; I can speak only when I have really something to say.

This last sentence is not meant for you Italians: do I make myself clear?

Therefore until I have something definite…this is your friend La Guardia saying, Courage! Forward!

The English language draft of LaGuardia’s October 8, 1944 speech. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

During the nine weeks of radio silence, a series of events unfolded that broke the diplomatic log jam for Italy. President Roosevelt, facing re-election and increasingly aware of the dire economic situation in Italy, worked with leaders of the Italian-American community in New York, bridging the rivalries between the pro-fascist Generoso Pope, publisher of the major Italian-language newspaper, Il Progresso, and the anti-fascist Luigi Antonini, head of the Italian American Labor Council (IALC), to assure Italian-Americans that he would provide Italy with all possible aid.

The British were reluctantly willing to work with the US regarding Italy. Following the Quebec Conference of September 12-14, 1944, a Roosevelt-Churchill statement on Italy was issued on September 26, 1944 giving Italy diplomatic representation and access to limited United Nations Relief and Recovery Administration (UNRRA) aid. This was not enough to satisfy Italian-American demands. Roosevelt then personally intervened with the UNRRA General Assembly, meeting in Montreal, to grant Italy $50 million in supplies. Pope published the President’s letter granting these concessions in his newspaper. Antonini arranged for the IALC to present FDR with its Four Freedoms Award in gratitude for the efforts in Italy.

American G.I.s and local children in front of a wall painted with “Fiorello LaGuardia,” and a crown victory symbol, Pozzvoli, Italy, 1945. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope was named the grand marshal of the 1944 Columbus Day Parade in New York City, the first year of the march up Fifth Avenue, coinciding with his founding of the Columbus Citizen’s Foundation, the sponsor of every Columbus Day Parade since. US Attorney General Francis Biddle was designated as Roosevelt’s representative at the parade and for the first time since 1941, permission was granted for Italian and American flags to be displayed together at the event.

Yet, there was still more to do before the October 12th festivities began. Roosevelt’s office issued a special statement on October 4, 1944 listing the specific American actions aiding Italy (“Present Problems in Italy”). On October 10, he released another statement implementing a troop pay credits program and reiterating the pledge to provide basic economic requirements for Italy’s reconstruction. Finally, on October 26, 1944, the resumption of full diplomatic relations with Italy was announced with the appointment of Alexander Kirk as US Ambassador to Italy. Ironically, Roosevelt went on to win the election without a strong Italian-American vote.

Mayor LaGuardia marching at head of Columbus Day Parade, flanked and followed by policemen, October 12, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When LaGuardia returned to the airwaves on October 8, 1944, he was jubilant:

This is your friend LaGuardia speaking.

I have not spoken to you for nine weeks now. The last time, you will recall, I promised that I would not speak again unless I had something to say. I was really fed up that time. But now I can tell you that the statement made by our President and by Prime Minister Churchill on September 26 was just what I was waiting for. The statement says, among other things:

“We believe we should give encouragement to those Italians who are standing for political rebirth in Italy, and are completing the destruction of the evil fascist system. We wish to afford the Italians a greater opportunity to aid in the defeat of our common enemies…”

“The British High Commissioner in Italy will assume the additional title of Ambassador. The United States representative in Rome already holds that rank. The Italian government will be invited to appoint direct representatives to Washington and London.”

He goes on to say:

It is well to have ambassadors but the people cannot eat ambassadors, if the people are hungry. Therefore these promises must very soon be followed by relief.

And then again on October 15th:

I am happy that the events of the past week give me the opportunity to speak to you again today. Our President has announced that the Italian government will be credited in America for the dollar equivalent of the occupation lire issued in Italy and used by us and by our troops. This is the foundation of Italian credit in America. It will make easier the re-establishment of a commercial balance between the two countries.

And, concluding:

Thursday, October 12, 1944 we commemorated the discovery of America by our Christopher Columbus. It was truly a great day. The thoughts of the American people were turned towards Italy-towards poor, suffering Italy, and heartening statements were made by our President, our government, and various authoritative persons. They demonstrate clearly that Italy’s condition is well understood and that there is a real desire to help and remedy the sad plight in which she finds herself. These statements, made on Thursday, Columbus Day, will live forever and become part—either of our history or of our literature. If they are merely statements dressed up in fine language, they will live in literature.

LaGuardia continued speaking weekly until May 1945 when the Allies’ mission was complete and Italy was fully recognized by the UN. He then made sure Italy’s reconstruction continued when he assumed the role of Director General for UNRRA (1946-47) and personally supervised the delivered aid.

Katherine D. LaGuardia, MD, MPH

klaguardia@laguardiafoundation.org

Chair, Fiorello H. LaGuardia Foundation

Mayor LaGuardia surrounded by a crowd while visiting Rome, August 10, 1946. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sources:

Transcripts and Correspondence Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives, 3581-3582 (boxes 219 &220).

James E. Miller Prologue 1981: Politics of Relief: The Roosevelt Administration and the Reconstruction of Italy, 1943-44 (pp. 193-208)

US Department of State: United States and Italy, 1936-1946: Documentary Record