New Book Explores America’s Flirt With Italian Fascism

Mauro Canali’s La scoperta dell’Italia examines the activity, impact, and perspectives of American correspondents in Italy from 1900 to 1945 and the beginnings of the modern tradition of international political journalism. 

In the wake of the Great War, a small group of American journalists crossed the Atlantic and settled in Italy, disrupting the established practice of North American news agencies to rely on resident English-speaking intellectuals as their sources for European news. 

Their number grew considerably with the outbreak of the war, the entry of the U.S. into the conflict, and during the peace conference. Numerous young people who moved to Europe hoping to establish themselves as writers and artists began to work for the American press. They rediscovered a world that older generations had left behind, enveloped in stories and memories that had been part of their upbringing. Some of them had fought in the war and were returning to Europe. 

These were the founders of modern journalism and the protagonists of what is now known as the golden age of foreign press. They experienced and chronicled the birth of a new era, saw century-old empires swept away and replaced by new nations and witnessed the formation of new European political ideologies: communism, Fascism, and Nazism.

American correspondents were baffled by the rise of Mussolini’s movement and had scant frame of reference to analyze it. Some related it to Italy’s recent past, others proposed audacious and rather imaginative comparisons between the Duce and modern American leaders. Still, others tried to picture an Italian archetype based on a superficial understanding of Italian history and on stereotypes of Italians that came from American popular culture and Italian immigration. Echoes of the victorious Bolshevik revolution was also evident in their writing. The “red scare” and the fear of global upheaval influenced the initial positive reaction to Mussolini.

As Ida Tarbell wrote, it was the March on Rome that made Mussolini newsworthy. Before then, the American press did not dedicate much space to Italian politics. Interviews of Mussolini were not considered important enough for publication. The March on Rome, the first serious strike against Western democracy, was described to American readers in a positive light. 

US press coverage of the Italian political crisis, which culminated with Mussolini’s seizure of power, was most definitely shaped by the pro-fascist Cortesi family. Salvatore Cortesi, the influential chief of the Associated Press’ Roman bureau and his son Arnaldo who wrote from Rome for the New York Times, gave American readers a harmless view of the fascist coup. It was described as an ordinary event by the country’s ruling government. No attention was given to the violence that surrounded it and the takeover was presented as the only solution that could end the post-war crisis in Italy. 

For years after, Mussolini enjoyed popularity in the American press. Correspondents and journalists who interviewed him praised his strong leadership, hyper-activism and the iron will with which he imposed discipline on Italian embedded anarchism. He was described in mythical terms, borrowed from the nationalist and conservative press, as the decisive figure who could defeat Italy’s Bolshevik masses. Slowly this myth took irreversible hold in American newspapers. 

Unpublished documents presented in this book reveal that highly respected American writers contributed to this process. For example, the passionate celebration of fascist foreign policy by Pulitzer prize winner Anne O’Hare McCormick, gains new light through the analysis of her 15-year long private correspondence with Mussolini. The key position of another Pulitzer prize recipient and devoted fascist, Arnaldo Cortesi as Rome correspondent for The New York Times, explains how during the 1920’s and a good part of the 1930s the important New York paper often became an instrument of fascist propaganda. 

Many American correspondents saw similarities between Mussolini and Theodore Roosevelt. Isaac Marcosson, who wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, called him “the Latin Roosevelt”. Lincoln Steffens wrote: “Imagine Theodore Roosevelt as aware in action of his place in the history of the United States and you will have Benito Mussolini in Italy.” Edward Price Bell, a key reporter for the Chicago Daily News, coined the term “transcendent human dynamo” to describe him. The same wrote Pierre Van Paassen for The Evening World; Irvin S. Cobb wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that Mussolini had a “remarkably vivid personality” and was doing “wonders in Italy.” Kent Cooper, the general manager of the AP described Mussolini as “the Great Man of the day!” after interviewing him and exclaimed, “May God bless and protect him and Italy.” 

These examples, largely neglected by most American historiography, help explain why someone like the young Hemingway and the “red” Louise Bryant were initially seduced by the Italian dictator’s charm. Even Ida Tarbell, who had placed under scrutiny American oil trusts, signed articles for the widely-read McCall’s in which she described Mussolini in embarrassingly celebratory terms. Lincoln Steffens called the fascist leader a “divine dictator,” and Samuel McClure confessed to having found him so “full of force & charm & kindliness” that his heart “beat hard for a long time after I left him.”, explicitly stating that in Mussolini’s Italy he had found “a new dawning civilization,” the “solution of democracy”. Tarbell, Steffens, and McClure deserve particular attention because at the turn of the century they were counted among the muckrakers – intellectuals and writers who exposed the ills of American capitalism. Yet, he was dazzled by Fascism and regime rewarded him generously for spreading fascist propaganda in the US.

The young Ernest Hemingway was also taken by Mussolini’s charm. He was granted an interview in 1922 resulting in three articles for the Toronto Daily Star. In the articles he predicted an imminent fascist takeover of power. The tone of Hemingway’s articles reveals that he was seduced by Mussolini’s personality who he described as a patriot defending Italy from the Bolshevik threat. Six months later, however, Hemingway’s opinions of Mussolini and fascism had changed drastically. He called the Duce the “great bluff of Europe” who “expressed small ideas with big words.”

Francis Scott Fitzgerald spent five months in Italy with his wife Zelda between 1924 and 1925. He understood immediately that fascism represented a new face of authoritarianism. Their Italian stay depressed the couple and Fitzgerald wrote, “Italy depressed us both beyond measure — a dead land where everything that could be done or said was done long ago — for whoever was deceived by the pseudo-activity under Mussolini is deceived by the spasmodic last jerk of a corpse.” The writer had the first-hand experience with fascist violence. One evening he was stopped by the carabinieri, roughed up, and thrown in prison for a few hours. He later wrote about the unpleasant experience in his well-known masterpiece Tender is the night.

Although it might have been easy for Mussolini to convince special correspondents that he was a wise, forward-thinking, energetic politician who loved his country and his people, the same was not always true with some of the journalists who were stationed in Rome and who had first-hand experience of the dictatorship’s oppressive nature. 

Permanent correspondents expressed differing opinions of the fascist regime. For example, Edward Price Bell published a flattering pamphlet, Italy’s Rebirth, after interviewing Mussolini. But his colleague George Seldes who covered Rome for the Chicago Tribune was almost thrown out of the country after being accused of investigating the Matteotti murder. 

Mussolini wielded tight control on American reporters. He wanted to ensure that his image and that of his government remain appealing to US readers. He wanted the loyalty of the Italian-American community, through which he could influence attitudes towards Italy in the federal government. 

The Italian embassy in the US also played a significant role in informing the Foreign Ministry of everything that by foreign correspondents wrote or said publicly about the fascist regime.

Documents in the Italian archive show clearly the methods used by the regime to secure the loyalty of foreign correspondents. For one thing, they were showered with attention: “news facilities are placed at their command; invitations extended by high officials to press conferences; free telephone and telegraph service is offered them, and occasionally some are selected for official and social honors.” Often these measures produced the desired results. Some fascist documents revealed how some journalists from important news organizations bowed to the regime. Articles signed by Thomas B. Morgan of the United Press, for example, almost appear to have been written directly by Mussolini’s press office. 

When indirect pressure was not sufficient, heavier measures were used. The Ministry of Popular Culture (Minculpop) restricted journalists’ movements, denied them the same services provided to other foreign correspondents, and even excluded them from press conferences of “visiting foreign potentate.” If the reporter continued to ignore Minculpop’s pressures, Mussolini himself, or the political police, stepped in with stronger retaliations; more than a few American journalists were forced to leave the country. In addition to the clamorous removals of George Seldes and David Darrah, during the late 1930s six other writers from organizations such as Chicago Daily News and the New York Herald Tribune preferred revealing to their readers the extent of fascist repression rather than bend to the ambiguous compromises suggested by the regime. 

As Edmond Taylor of the Chicago Tribune wrote, every journalist who works under the threat of censorship in a totalitarian state must inevitably face a moral dilemma – to avoid expulsion they had to become, in some way, “instrument of that regime’s foreign propaganda.” Many chose compromise and remained, even as “the greater the moral implications of the facts one has to suppress, the more painful the dilemma becomes.” Often reporters felt the unfortunate need to censor themselves to avoid expulsion by writing about the dictator’s routine and daily life under his regime. But while this apparently harmless neutral approach decreased the threat of dismissal, it also benefitted the regime by circulating overseas the perception that life and politics under the regime were normal, and that Italians did not oppose the government.

J.C. Oestreicher, head of overseas news for the Hearst Group in New York, described how one of his Rome reporters had to report on the Guernica bombing in a ridiculous article about Mussolini’s riding or swimming sports performances, or write about how trains ran on schedule. Oestreicher felt that that approach was better than being expelled, thereby leaving newspapers and agencies with no coverage when important events took place. Frank Gervasi felt the same way when he said that even though he observed widespread unrest and disapproval towards the fascist regime, he did not report it because by doing so would have meant expulsion. He was convinced that it was better “to await bigger news: an attempt on the Duce’s life, perhaps, the collapse of the regime, or the possibility, however remote, that an outraged Britain, still Queen of the Seas, might go to war to prevent a Fascist conquest of Ethiopia.” However, George Seldes bitterly recalls, waiting for the big event, hundreds of journalists in Rome voluntarily suppressed “the truth about black shirt terrorism, waiting for a big day”. 

Von Paassen also blamed the editors who encouraged their reporters to conceal the despicable aspects of the totalitarian government. He wrote that this kind of journalism leads to the ridiculous policy of reporting “on the style of hats or ties they wore, what their wives said when they returned from an assignment.” If this was the way to avoid expulsion, then the price was very high indeed as it sidetracked readers from the true nature of totalitarian systems which produced “human misery as naturally as rotten cheese breeds maggots.”

American public opinion of Mussolini was at its peak in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was seen as the man who “prevented a Communist revolution,” “made Italian railroad trains run on time,” “suppressed the Mafia,” and “the man who put a stop to all those crazy Italian politicians”. 

With rare exceptions, American newspapers treated Mussolini sympathetically or at least gave him a lot of free, uncritical publicity in their columns. Judgment was decidedly in his favor, making him a popular figure to the point that city streets were named after him. 

The relationship between the regime and the foreign press was more problematic when it came to Italian foreign policy. In 1933-34 Mussolini’s stance toward France and England became more aggressive eventually leading to the alliance with Hitler. His popularity in the US began to decline after the invasion of Ethiopia. 

The Ethiopian war was the last of Mussolini’s adventures that American correspondents in Rome followed without outright distaste. A few reporters – Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times, William W. Chaplin of Hearst’s Universal Service, John Whitaker of the New York Herald Tribune and Andreu Berding of the Associated Press – were actually presented the ‘croce di guerra al valore’ in appreciation of their reporting of the Italian cause.

Archival documents make clear that, starting in the mid-1930s, the fascist government felt that US correspondent’s loyalty was waning. 

With the Spanish civil war, the progressive convergence with Hitler’s regime and the enactment of race laws, an increasing number of US correspondents took distance from fascism. Documents reveal that the regime increased its surveillance of American journalists, and was especially hard on those who were critical towards its foreign policy. They were toughest towards those who were assigned to Rome after reporting on the Spanish civil war on the side of the “reds” and who did not hide their sympathies for the Loyalists: Herbert Matthews of the New York Times, Richard Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News, Richard Massock of the Associated Press, and John Whitaker and James Minifie of the Herald Tribune.

Police personal records on American journalists, which have never been analyzed by historians, are key to understand fascist control on foreign press. 

The extensive repressive system included tight control of correspondence, telephone communications, and an extensive network of informants infiltrated among foreign journalists. Informers were professionals colleagues as well as alleged friends and collected details regarding their habits, opinions, private lives, and informal conversations. 

For historians of that period, Canali’s book provides an in-depth recollection of the way in which Italian fascist propaganda operated in the international arena. It also brings these topics closer to our times, eliciting a reflection on the role and responsibility of the press in international affairs as well as in the way in which local and global cultures shape one another amidst insight, political pressure, and cultural myopia. While foreign press operates quite differently from the first decades of the 20th century, some of the dilemmas and challenges of the years may still resonate with today’s foreign correspondents. 

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