* Salvatore J. LaGumina is Professor of History, Nassau Community College, Garden City, New York.
Politics affects our lives intimately, and precisely because of that fact, it behooves us to study the ethnic components of the body politic. Even if there is truth in the conclusion drawn by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, that Italo-Americans have been slow and late in gaining important places in the consideration of party leaders, these authors readily acknowledge the tremendous importance ethnics play in the politics of New York City. Ethnic identity is a basic element in all political equations.
Specifically, our attention is drawn to the political experience of the Italo-Americans in the belief that knowledge of this history can serve not only to enlighten us as to the dynamics of the process, but even further, to expand our understanding of such controversial movements as, for example, “Black Power.” It is not inconceivable that the experiences of Italo-American politicians can be studied as models by other minority groups. Recently, Andrew Greeley, Director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, suggested that the study of ethnic backgrounds and differences may be the solution to the United States’ racial problems. A recognition that ethnic differences are important led Greeley to say: “This may, in the final analysis, be the ultimate contribution that our multiple melting pot is able to make to the rest of the world.”
Indeed, this phenomenon of Italian immigrants exploiting their ethnicity as the basis for political power has been recognized of late. For example, in 1958, El Imparcial “advised” Puerto Rican politicians in New York City to emulate the politics of Vito Marcantonio, as he represented his largely Italian constituency, if they wished to make a significant impact on politics. Advocates of “Black Power” continuously refer to the necessity for Negroes to acquire the kind of power ethnic groups have attained, if they are ever to be recognized as equal partners in American life. Only this continuing scholarly research further attests to the strength of ethnicity in politics. Michael Parenti, in a recent article entitled: “Ethnic Politics and the Persistence of Ethnic Identification,” cautions against the temptation to relegate ethnicity to the historical past. His study suggests that ethnics continue to vote as ethnics, despite apparently increasing assimilation.
In the case of Italo-Americans, ethnicity appears to remain very much alive today. Even when they decry it, foremost historians acknowledge its continuing influence in American culture. Recently, the renowned American historian, Thomas A. Bailey, had occasion to refer to ethnicity as a contributing factor in the perpetuation of myths in American history. He recognized that the hyphenates remain vocal “especially the Italian-Americans, who insist on having Columbus, rather than the Norsemen, discover America. The Italian are generally successful,” wrote Bailey, “except in Minnesota, where the Scandinavians, clinging to their questionable Kensington stone, have more votes.”
One has only to reflect on some of the political events during 1968 to appreciate the continuing role of ethnicity. In February, 1968, Italo-American Democratic Representative John H. Dent of Pennsylvania, challenged incumbent Senator Joseph S. Clark, hoping, among other things, to capitalize on his nationality, especially since Clark was said to have alienated Italian voters four year ago with intemperate remarks about the ethnicity of Justice Musmanno. Furthermore, the Democrats were also aware of the strength rendered their ticket by the inclusion of an ethnic (minority) representative. Although a Polish-American was eventually picked as the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate, the Italo-American, Mayor Joseph Alioto of San Francisco, received serious consideration.
Six Case Histories
In the present discussion, the case studies of Italian-American politicians will be limited to those individuals who represented New York in the Congress of the United States until 1960. Special attention will be paid to Vito Marcantonio, because a substantial portion of my research has focused on his career. In addition, he was the most radical of Italo-American politicians, thus offering an extreme example by which the thesis of ethnic viability in politics can be tested. If it cannot be seen in the extremes it is difficult to see it in the average.
New York had sent only six Italo-Americans to Congress until 1950, and never more than two simultaneously. The paucity of the number of Italo-America representatives becomes even more glaring, when analyzed against the significant fact that by 1950 Italians constituted the largest nationality in the city, and probably in the state.
Francis B. Spinola, a Democrat, was the first Italo-American Congressman from New York, and the first in American history. Although the son of Italian immigrants, and despite his unabashed pride in his Italian ancestry, Spinola could hardly be considered a representative of the Italo-American community. Born in Stony Brook, Long Island, in 1821, he gained fame as a brigadier-general during the Civil War. Subsequently, he held a string of public offices, including alderman and supervisor of New York City, New York State Assemblyman, State Senator, and United States Congressman from 1887 to 1891. Thus, his public career existed largely before the great tide of Italian immigration to this country. He could not, therefore, properly be called an Italo-American politician in the sense of reflecting the aspirations of a distinct immigrant minority striving to obtain a position of importance and prestige, and even a power base. During his Congressional tenure, Spinola displayed a warm disposition toward immigrants, taking to the floor of Congress to endorse the influx of honest and industrious immigrants, at a time when nativists were campaigning for their exclusion. Coming as it did at the threshold of massive Italian migration; it could be supposed that he was expressing genuine sympathy with the descendants of his forbears. Offsetting this impression, however, was his simultaneous failure to attribute priority to alleviating the problems of Italian immigrants. For example, although he was a member of a Special House Committee on Immigration, then conducting investigations regarding immigration problems in New York City (and this meant mostly Italian problems), he declined to attend the session. His explanation was that he had even more urgent duties to attend to in Washington—an unthinkable confession for one who placed the welfare of Italian Immigrants in the forefront.
Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the second Italo-American Congressman from New York, and the third in American history. Only Spinola and Anthony J. Caminetti of California (1891-1895), preceded him. If Spinola did not qualify as an authentic representative of the Italo-American community, Caminetti was even less deserving of it. He emerged neither as a champion of Italo-Americans, nor as a sympathetic friend of immigrants in general. Thus, in many ways, LaGuardia merited the title of the first truly Italo-American representative. As Arthur Mann wrote in his lively and penetrating biography of LaGuardia, the “Little Flower,” despite his bourgeoisie background, empathized with the Italian peasant masses that migrated to the United States. Early in his life, he came to identify himself as an American proud of his Italian descent. He spoke Italian, ate Italian food, and played Italian music. There could be little question as to his acceptance by the city’s Italo-American population.
During his Congressional career, LaGuardia represented two New York City districts: the 14th on the Lower East Side and the 20th in East Harlem. In all his congressional campaigns, he appealed to the “foreign vote” which was predominantly Italian in his districts. Thus, while campaigning in 1916, he promised Italo-Americans that Italy would regain Trieste. Reaction in Italo-American circles was vigorous. In 1921, the Italian newspaper, La Domenica Illustrata,12 declared: “How proud our Italian brothers should be to have the privilege of voting for such a man.” In LaGuardia, Italian immigrants possessed an undisputed Congressional champion of their cause. He forcefully condemned the quota system as bigoted, narrow-minded legislation. Energetically, he rebuked colleagues for displaying an Anglo-Saxon fixation, reminding them of the accomplishments of such Italians as Columbus. In a sardonic manner he utilized every opportunity to assail proponents of the National Origins Quota Act. LaGuardia emerged as the first Italo-American politician to successfully challenge the political reign of the Irish-Americans, and properly stands at the forefront of the process through which Americans of Italian descent have come of political age.
The third Italo-American Congressman from New York was James Lanzetta, who served two terms 1933-1934 and 1937-1938). Lanzetta also had the distinction of defeating LaGuardia in 1933. Subsequently, he lost the congressional seat in 1934 to Marcantonio, won it against Marcantonio in 1936, and lost to Marcantonio again in 1938 and 1940. Thus, he was one of a trio of Italo-Americans who represented East Harlem between 1921 and 1950. His two terms in Congress were undistinguished and unmemorable, especially when compared with the likes of the dynamic LaGuardia and the fiery Marcantonio. Nevertheless, he paid homage to his ethnicity. His victory over LaGuardia was partially based on ethnicity. The Democrats deliberately selected him in an attempt to split descent, neither had a monopoly on ethnic support. He had several assets which he brought to bear in the campaign against LaGuardia. He was born and raised in East Harlem, educated as an engineer and a lawyer, a practicing Catholic, and the recipient of support from Tammany Hall. Prior to his election to Congress, he held the elective position of Alderman. Although his record was inferior to that of LaGuardia, Lanzetta wisely expended efforts at making friends in East Harlem while LaGuardia remained busy in Washington. Important too were the inroads he made among younger Italo-Americans and the Puerto Ricans. In addition, the campaign was marked by violence, intimidation and fraud, unusual even for the tough East Harlem area. Even respected Democrat Judge Salvatore Cotillo acknowledged as much.
Although leaving little lasting political impact, Lanzetta nevertheless spoke in behalf of immigrants during his congressional tenure. He proposed to extend beyond the statutory limitation of seven years, the validity of intention applications filed by immigrants while complying with naturalization procedures. He also called for the automatic admission to citizenship of aliens who had resided in the United States for many years, but had been unable to meet education requirements for naturalization. These issues were of high importance to his Italian constituency.16
The fourth Italo-American Congressman from York was Vito Marcantonio, whose career will be discussed later in the article. Louis Capozzoli was the fifth New Yorker of Italian descent to serve in Congress (1940-1944). In many ways he qualified as a typical Italo-American politician. Born in Consenza, Italy, he immigrated to this country at the age of five. Although he came from humble, hard-working foil, he managed to study law and entered politics as a young man. Ethnicity heavily impregnated his political career. As a resident of the 13th Congressional District in the Lower East Side of New York City, he joined the Democratic Party when Tammany Hall enjoyed unquestioned influence. Indeed, Christopher Sullivan, Tammany leader, held the congressional seat of the district for three decades before his voluntary retirement in 1940. In giving up his congressional seat, Sullivan designated Capozzoli as the district’s nominee for Congress, a selection which was tantamount to election because of the area’s Democratic majority.
Evidence that ethnic considerations were the overriding factors in Capozzoli’s nomination is plentiful. Clearly, the Italians of the 13th Congressional District were successful in challenging the Irish for political control. It was nothing less than a political revolution for the leader of the illustrious Sullivan clan, a legendary power in the city, to surrender his congressional seat to the descendants of the Italian peninsula. Nor was the Italian community unaware of the significance of the action. Il Progresso Italo-Americano proudly acknowledged the nomination as a milestone in the political history of the Lower East Side: “When he was appointed the Democratic Congressional candidate of the 13th District a deep honor was bestowed not only upon himself, but upon the Americans of Italian extraction whom he represents.”
These developments constituted a recognition by Lower East Side political leaders, that the large Italo-American population in their midst could no longer be denied its share of political power. It is interesting to note that Capozzoli’s nomination was engineered by James DiSalvio, Democratic district leader. DiSalvio’s career itself is a classic example of the revolution then taking place. Earlier in his career, when he engaged in professional boxing, he was compelled to adopt the name of “Jimmy Kelly.” As one political veteran explained it: “In those days it had been advisable for boxers of Italian or Jewish extraction to transform themselves into descendants of the Emerald Isle.”
Equally important in the nomination of Capozzoli was the concern felt by the national Democratic Party leaders over the possibility of mass defection of Italo-Americans from Democratic ranks. This development had its roots in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s criticism of Mussolini for joining in the invasion of France in 1940. His remarks were interpreted as crude aspersions against the Italian character, with the result that Italo-Americans became probably the most anti-Roosevelt of all low-income groups.. Against this background, any move to assuage Italian feelings was welcome. The nomination of Capozzoli seemed to answer many problems for Democrats in the Lower East Side. Thus, it was with a great deal of relief that Sullivan read the election results, showing the party doing well in the Italian districts.
Capozzi made a few speeches in Congress, but when he did, he did not fail to pay his obligations to his ethnic compatriots. Accordingly, he condemned discrimination perpetrated against Italo-Americans in the employment picture of 1941. in 1942 he offered a bill to remove the “Enemy” designation attached to Italian aliens. In 1943 he broadcast messages to the Italian people, advising them to resist compliance with Hitler. And in 1944 he urged United Nations aid for Italy.
The sixth Italo-American Congressman from New York Was Anthony Tauriello of Buffalo, the first of his nationality to represent that area of New York in 1949-1952. here, too, ethnicity played an important role. Tauriello came from one of the most respected Italian Families of the state’s second largest city. He had exercised political influence among the city’s Italo-Americans for many years. By 1948, Buffalo’s political leaders were also compelled to grant the large Italian population a greater share in political power. Tauriello’s election was highly praised by the Italian-American press. Il Progresso Italo-Americano exclaimed “Osanna” that the Italian community of Buffalo now had its own representative in Washington, and observed that his election presaged the steady growth to new political heights for that city’s Italians.
Tauriello responded by rendering service to his ethnic followers during his one term in Congress. He spoke forcefully against critics of the Italian character, and was a strong supporter of a bill to repatriate American citizens of Italian origin who, while visiting Italy, had voted in the crucial Italian elections of 1948.
The Special Case of Vito Marcantonio
We now come to the fascinating career of Vito Marcantonio. An inveterate radical, an accomplished iconoclast, and a fiery exponent of socialist philosophy, Marcantonio might, on the one hand, appear to have been least influenced by purely ethnic considerations. Indeed, one’s instinctive reaction would be to associate him with the Puerto Ricans as the group upon which his political power depended. Those familiar with Negro politics in New York City would have difficulty in finding a more unyielding defender of Negro rights. Suffice it to not that W.E.B. DuBois, a foremost Negro scholar, gave eloquent testimony of Marcantonio’s uniqueness among men. There are instances also of Marcantonio’s criticism of some ethnic traits of Italians. Moreover, the Italian community itself could not be said to have been completely enamored of him. Thus, he was severely criticized by City Council President Vincent Impellitteri for opposing the 1948 Italo-American drive, which urged Italians to vote against Communist candidates in Italy. These incidents notwithstanding, the overwhelming evidence is that Marcantonio was a genuine champion of Italo-American rights and ringing proof of ethnic influence in American political life.
Ethnic influences constituted a major part of Marcantonio’s youth. His mother and grandfather were immigrants, his friends were Italian, his heroes were Italian, and his home was in the most Italian neighborhood in the United States. Like LaGuardia, he spoke Italian, ate Italian food, and regaled in Italian customs. As a young high school student, he showed deep concern for promoting Italian-American causes. Thus, he joined with other Italo-Americans in high school, and became the founder and leader of Circolo italiano, an organization designed to stimulate interest in Italian culture, while simultaneously working for Italian assimilation in the American social fabric. He continued his interest in Italian clubs in college, becoming president of Circolo Mazzini at New York University, and continuing as an enthusiast for the formation of an interscholastic organization of Italian clubs. So thorough was his ethnic identification, that he often performed in Italian plays while in school. As part of his extra-curricular activity, he became a citizenship education teacher in a project aimed at preparing Italian immigrants for active and responsible citizenship. When, on one occasion LaGuardia visited his high school in his capacity as President of the Board of aldermen, Marcantonio was selected as the student speaker of the day because of his ethnic background.
As a LaGuardia protégé, Marcantonio managed the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Political Association, which brought together a cross-section of Italians interested in promoting the political aspirations of their ethnic brothers. he was entrusted with the task of serving as LaGuardia’s “eyes and ears” in East Harlem, a job which included a great amount of work in dealing with Italian constituents. Displaying uncommon zeal as LaGuardia’s campaign manager, he mobilized Italo-Americans in support of LaGuardia’s candidacy, making the LaGuardia Association the most effective political machine in the city. When LaGuardia ran for mayor in 1933, Marcantonio, although no longer his campaign manager, played a significant role by energetically and effectively circulating nominating petitions in Italo-American neighborhoods throughout the city. It was the virtually unanimous support of this ethnic group, cutting across party lines, which was largely responsible for electing New York’s first Italo-American mayor. To Marcantonio, LaGuarida’s election was a necessary step to achieve political justice for the Italians of East Harlem. Moreover, it would demonstrate conclusively that Italians had passed the stage of factionalism, the result of a provincial attachment to regionalism, which had prevented unification earlier.
When Marcantonio ran for Congress, he exploited his ethnicity to the fullest. Although his opponent was also Italo-American, Marcantonio boasted of the endorsement from dozens of local Italian organizations and individuals, especially that of LaGuardia. With the possible exception of LaGuardia, no other Italo-American worked as indefatigably in the halls of Congress, with a substantial amount of his efforts directed toward the advancement of Italo-American interests. During his first term, he emerged as the foremost Congressional defender of aliens and immigrants against the backdrop of a huge anti-alien drive then under way. Intense interest in immigration restriction had become intertwined with pressing economic questions by the middle of the 1930’s. Indeed, that decade spawned some of the nation’s severest restriction bills, some of which gained approval, while others failed in large part because of the strenuous opposition led by men like Marcantonio.
Desperately seeking a scapegoat to account for the Great Depression, many Americans found it easy to place the responsibility on immigrants. The views of Congressman martin Dies of Texas expressed the attitude of dozens of other congressmen and millions of Americans, when he said: “If we had refused admission to the sixteen and one-half million foreign born living in this country today, we would have no unemployment problem to distress and harass us.” Against this kind of mentality, Marcantonio raised the strongest voice. Fully aware of his heritage as a representative of the second largest immigrant group, he understood that the Italo-Americans would be the foremost targets of discrimination, a problem intensified by their comparative aversion to naturalization. As a politician, he was also fully aware of the political significance in taking up the cudgels of immigrants. At the time he was the recipient of extensive communications from anxious Italo-Americans from East Harlem and throughout the city, imploring his assistance regarding clarification of naturalization statutes, applications for citizenship, aid in preventing deportation and other favors.
On every issues regarding the welfare of immigrants, Marcantonio was on the liberal side. In 1935 he assailed a bill, authorizing the deportation of aliens, as a “Vicious bill which presaged an avalanche of punitive alien and sedition bills aime at further persectution of immigrants.” He fought vigorously, and successfully, against another bill, designed to deport aliens who had entered the country illegally, but were otherwise of good character. He reminded his colleagues of the hardships such deportations would cause to native-born citizens, who were dependents of these individuals. Marcantonio succeeded in ending the official policy of making invidious distinctions between Northern and Southern Italians. He was instrumental in facilitating procedures for immigrants in numerous maters of technical detail. He fought doggedly against attempts to limit WPA benefits to citizens and legal aliens, again pointing out the injustice wich would befall the innocent American dependents involved. “Starve the father and you starve his American children,” he warned. Unfortunately, he was unable to stem the reactionary tide in this instance.
Marcantonio’s concern for the welfare of Italo-Americans was never more manifest than during the years of World War II, when they became the objects of deep suspicion by so many Americans. For the non-citizen Italians, the situation was even worse, since they were officially classified as “enemy aliens.” More than any other congressman, Marcantonio fought in their behalf, both inside and outside the halls of congress. To be sure, there were three other Italo-Americans serving in Congress during that period, and two of them (D’Alessandro and Capozzoli)spoke out forecefully in favor of their ethnic constituents, but none had the national following, the influence, or the ability Marcantonio possessed. He, therefore, emerged as the national legislature’s most consistent and conspicuous Italo-American spokesman. Eschewing the defensive, he objected to the denigration of Italo-Americn patriotism. Through diligent research, he sought out instances of acts of heroism by Italo-American servicemen, and brought these positive accomplishments to the attention of his colleagues. He cited the heartening resonse of Italians to war bond drives, and recounted episodes of wholehearted Italo-American participation in defense and war plans.
Unstintingly, he fought for the right of Italo-Americans to employment in defense plants, castigating discrimination against them as a practice akin to “playing Hitler’s game.” Facing the issue head on, he exposed maligners and detractors of Italo-american patriotism for fostering discrimination which prevented the full mobilization of American power. Nor did he stopwith speeches in Congress. He utilized the public media to instruct the public of italy’s enduring role in the history of democracy. Finally, he protested to Roosevelt himself repeatedly, until a degree of justice was rendered.
Marcantonio’s strong identification with Italo-Americans found him championing the cause of the land of their fathers. As Italy’s defeat appeared imminent in 1943, he organized a group of Italo-Americans, which exhorted Italians to complete the overthrow of the fascist yoke. Anticipating criticism and jokes at the expense of Italian, because of their poor battlefield performance against the Allies, he retorted that Italians would fight bravely for freedom, but not for tyranny. Once Italy surrendered, he worked vigorously for a quick peace treaty and the acceptance of italy as an ally, and the extension of generous aid to that country.
The revelation that Italy was compeleed to accept rigid terms unconditional surrender in September of 1943, found him joining with many Italo-Americans in condemning the pact. Simultaneously, he urged that Italian fighters be accepted as free men, rather than prisoners of war. His deep concer for the welfare of italy was reflected in a radio message in which he demonstrated that Italian contributions comprised a glorious chapter in American history, from the discovery of Columbus to the 500,000 world War II service men and women of Italian descent. As he summed it up: “they drill, hammer, forge, operate machinery, help turn out the ships, the planes, the tanks, and the ammunitions to win the war.”
In 1944, he denounce the occupation conditions which Italy was forced to accept. He then introduced a resolution, asking for a resumption of diplomatic relations with italy, as well as recognition of that country as a genuine ally, thus making her eligible for substantial aid. He rejected the “co-belligerency” status then prevailing, as a vague device which effectively prevented Italy from receiving much-needed lend-lease aid, and which was directly responsible for starvation, black marketeering, and military occupation.
Realizing that action on his resolution would not come soon, Marcantonio found other ways of bringing succor to the Italian people. He joined with other prominent Italo-Americans in asking President Roosevelt’s personal intervention in facilitating the exchange of mail between Americans of Italian extraction and their relatives in Sicily and occupied Italy. Practically all Italo-Americans had needy friends or relatives in Italy, and were, therefore, most anxious to send packages of clothing and other useful items. Since his congressional district housed more Italo-Americans than any other district, Marcantonio labored incessantly for the resumption of mail. He pleaded passionately before Congress and, together with other Italo-Americans, forwarded appeals to the President, which soon bore fruit with the resumption of mail early in 1944.
Marcantonio did not allow his resolution to remain pigeonholed. His persistent efforts led to hearings on his resolution before the House Committee on foreign Affairs in April, 1945. moreover, Italo-American circles were unanimous in supporting his resolution. Obtaining Italo-american dendoresemnt was no small accomplishment, when one considers the diversity, if not the antagonism, between Italo-American groups and the highly individualistic Italian mentality which normall militated against such united action. Thus, the hearings were a succession of witnesses from the Order of the Sons of Italy to prominent Italo-American leaders, traditionally critical of Marcantonio, calling for approval of his resolution. Marcantonio’s own testimony correlated congressional approval of the resolution with the welfare of the United nations’ coalition, which had successfully waged the war. Continued cooperation between the Allies was indispensable in the pursuit of a postwar peace. He also voiced vigorous opposition to Secretary of State Byrnes’ proposal to grant the city of Triestse Yugoslavia, as an action which would be in violation of ethnic, economic and geographic considerations. The upshot of the hearing was that the House Committee of Foreign Affairs unanimously reported favorably on Marcantonio’s resolution.
A study of Marcantonio’s activities in behalf of Italy and Italo-Americans during the war years is quite revealing. Often the subject of controversy because of his left-wing politics, and duly criticized for the same by many respected Italo-American leaders, nevertheless, when it came to the defense of the Italians, Marcantonio was second to none. On Capitol Hill, where policies affecting them were determined, he emerged as their leading champion. He was the first to call for a recognition of Italy, for its inclusion in the United Nations. He argued against imposing reparations on Italy, and prodded Administration officials to increase daily rations in the occupied country.
A committed left-winger, Marcantonio was not above urging political preference on the basis of ethnic identity. In 1943, for example, as leader of the left wing of the American Labor Party, then reigning as New York State’s powerful third party, he obtained ALP support for Democrat Judge Thomas Aurelio for a Supreme Court Judgeship, largely because of his insistence that the post go to an Italo-American. He maintained his support of Aurelio, despite revelations of the judge’s connections with underworld boss Frank Costello.
Sometimes his ethnic sensibilities found Marcantonio advocating policies inimical to the basic tenets of liberalism. While running for mayor of New York City in 1949, for example, he protested to the Roxy Theater against the showing of the film, The House of Strangers, as discrediting the name of Italo-Americans.
It is interesting to note that in the 1940’s, Marcantonio continued to win elections in the face of an increasingly persistent and notoriously bad press. Virtually all the major New York dailies and Il Progresso Italo-Americano opposed him. His ability to win repeatedly was due to his unstinting service to his constituents, for the most part, Italo-Americans. This support began to diminish in the late 1940’s as a result of extremely poor publicity and the strident anti-communist atmosphere. During the latter part of that decade, Puerto Ricans were entering the district in staggering numbers, and while he maintained unusually close relations with them, his strength at the polls was ebbing significantly. There was strong evidence that he was losing important support among East Harlem’s Italian population. In 1948 he received approximately 37 percent of the total vote. It must be remembered that 1948 was a crucial year for Italy and Italo-Americans.
The November congressional elections came only a few months after a tremendous letter-writing campaign by Italo Americans, urging their friends and relatives in Italy to vote against Communist candidates. The large Italo-American population in East Harlem was deeply and emotionally involved in this campaign, and it was natural for them to follow this advice back home.; Italo-American defection from Marcantonio’s ranks was confirmed by a survey of the district undertaken by his own canvassers. They reported numerous instances of voter resistance to Marcantonio, based solely on the Communist issue.
Even with these unfaborable circumstances, Marcantonio still remained a formidable power. Thus, when he ran for mayor in 1949 as the ALP nominee, both Democrats and Republicans expected him to attract a sizable vote. Marcantonio again tried to exploit his ethnicity. When the Brooklyn Eagle retracted to his complaint about a newspaper blackout on his campaign, saying: “It couldn’t happen to a nicer fish peddler,” Marcantonio immediately seized the comment as a base aspersion against all Italo-Americans. Democrats, in particular, expressed real concern over what appeared to be a “favorite son” candidate among the large New York Italo-America community. In fact, William O’Dwyer was forced to change his campaign strategy in the final weeks, resorting to a concerted effort to marshal Italian voters into the Democratic ranks. However, New York politics once again proved the viability of the democratic process, as O’Dwyer won with a commanding lead over his republican opponent, while Marcantonio was a distant third, with 356,000 votes, still bearing witness to the ALP’s drawing power. Nevertheless, the inexorable law of politics dictated that the days of that left-wing party were numbered. So, too, were Marcantonio’s.
Conclusions regarding Ethnicity and Politics
The careers of five of the six politicians examined demonstrated the results of the impact of ethnicity in politics. In these case studies, it became clear that the politicians exploited their ethnicity. But it was a two-way street. The Italian Americans were conscious of the exploitation; however, they also realized that their influence in American society could increase to the extent that they wielded political power. While there were not a few non-Italian congressmen who were responsive to the needs of the large Italian minorities in their districts, it was natural for Americans of Italian extraction to believe that their cause would best be served by political leaders of their own kind.
The rise of political leaders to important national position could alone instill a healthy pride in their ethnicity and a firm conviction in their ability to make meaningful contributions to their country. As one student of Italo-American life has observed, the ethnic basis of Italian-American participation in politics contained opposing potentialities. On the one hand, it could make for the conservation of Italian traits by allowing people to feel that they are being represented by fellow Italians and do not have to adjust individually to American political life. On the other hand, it could have important consequences in the direction of Americanization because of the ethnic group’s participation in American political life. Both consequences, in fact, do follow; however, the margin appears to be in the direction of Americanization.
1 Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT and Harvard University Press, 1964).
5 Michael Parenti, “Ethnic Politics and the Persistence of Ethnic Identifications,” American Political Science Review (September, 1957), 717-726.
6 Thomas A. Bailey, “The Myth Makers of American History,” The Journal of American History (June, 1968), Vol. XV, No.1, p.7.
7 Boston Globe, August 4, 1968, and Boston Herald Traveler, August 4, 1968. the study referred to is James F. and Constance S. Collins, Comments on the Republican Vice-Presidential Nomination 1968, n.d.; n.p.
9 Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1794-1949(Washington, 1950), p.1849. See also a short biographical account in Il Progresso Italo-Americano, June 30, 1940.
10 Congressional Record, 50th Cong., 2nd sess., Vol. 20, 999-1,000. for accounts of the Special House Committee investigation and the role of Italian, see The New York Times, July 28, 1888. there is no intention of criticizing Spinola of insensitivity, but to show rather that his primary concerns were in the realms of national defense and military affairs.
11 Arthur Mann, LaGuardia, A Fighter Against His Times, 1882-1947 (New York, 1950), pp.25, 26 and 28.
12 La Domenica Illustrata, July 30, 1921, found in Mann, LaGuardia, 134. Mann, p. 143, also refers to the pride expressed by the Italian paper Il Vaglio, as another example of the support rendered by Italian followers.
15 For an astute explanation of why LaGuardia lost the election, see Mann, LaGuardia, 318. the campaign violence is treated in Lowell M. Limpus and Burr W. Leyson, This Man LaGuardia (New York, 1938), 351. Cotillo’s observation is found in The New York Times, November 20, 1932.
16 The New York Times, April 4, 1934 and April 7, 1937; Congressional Record, 73td Cong., 2nd sess., Vol. 78, p. 3367; 75th Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 81 pp. 1179 and 4075.
20 For information on DiSalvio, see Louis Eisenstein and Elliot Rosenberg, A Stripe of Tammany’s Tiger (New York, 1966), p. 129. it is also interesting to note that the only potential challenge to Capozzoli among Democratic circles came from another Italo-American. See The New York Times, July 2, 1940.
21 Glazer and Moynihan, Beyond the melting Pot, p. 214, discuss the Italo-American attitude in the 1940 election. For Sullivan’s reaction to the election results, see The New York Times, November 6, 1940.
22 Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1s5 sess., Vol. 87, pp. 7523-7524; 77th Cong., 2nd sess., vol. 88, A3311; 78th Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 89, A160. See also the New York Times, September 20, 1944.
23 Congressional Record, 77th Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 87, pp. 7523-7524; 77th Cong., 2nd sess., Vol. 88, A3311; 78th Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 89, A160. see also the New York Times, September 20, 1944.
29 Information regarding the East Harlem of Marcantonio’s youth can be gleaned from Edward Corsi, “My Neighborhoods,” Outlook, No. 141 (September 16, 1925), 90-91, and Leonard Covello, The heart is the Teacher (New York, 1958), p. 180. For Biographical material on Marcantonio, see Vito Marcantonio Papers (hereafter referred to as M.P.), Box 19, Folder: Biographical material. Accounts of his high school activities have come from interviews with his former school friends, Salvatore Cimilluca and Alfred Marra, both active in Circolo Italiano.
31 Mann, LaGuardia, p. 241; Mann, LaGuardia Comesto Power, 1933 (Philadelphia, 1965), pp. 78, 86, 138, and 185. see also Howard Zinn, LaGuardia in Congress (Binghamton, 1959), 84, 156, and 248.
32 See Antonio Arturo Micocci, “Vito Marcantonio,” Romanica, Vol. 1, No. 4 (March, 1936), 8. Marcantonio also delighted in the ability of Italians in East Harlem to cooperate in ousting the Irish-dominated Tammany politicians from power as exemplified in the primaries of 1933.
34 Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 79, pp. 10 and 229. See Lucille B. Milner and David Dempsey, “The Alien Myth,” Harper’s Magazine (September, 1940), vol. 181, pp. 374-379, for an excellent journalistic appraisal of the anti-alien sentiment.
35 Often those seeking help promised unstinting efforts in behalf of marcantonio’s candidacy at election time. See M.P., Box 1, Folder: Immigration.
36 Congressional Record, 74th Cong., 1st see., Vol. 79, pp. 7708 and 14376; 2nd sess., Vol. 80, p. 6975, give examples of Marcantonio’s involvement in immigration legislation. For information regarding the change in classification of Northern and Southern Italian, see M.P., Box 19, Folder: Research Immigration, Letter from Marcantonio to Edward Corsi, January 4, 1936.
37 M.P., Box 14 Folder: International Relations, Italy General. Letter from Marcantonio to General J. A. Ulio, April 25, 1942; Letter from Alan Cranston to Marcantonio, April 27, 1942.
38 M.P., Ibid., Letter from Navy Department to Marcantonio, May 18, 1942; Marcantonio speech entitled “The Role of the Italo-Americans in this War,” July 17, 1942; Box 22, Folder: Italo-Americans in this War, Speech, August 6, 1943.
39 The New York Times, July 26, 1943; M.P., Box 22, Folder: Italo-Americans in this War, Speech, Aug. 6, 1943.
41 M.P., Box 14, folder: International relations, Italy Communism After the War. Letter from Marcantonio to Franklin d. Roosevelt, February 12, 1944; Congressional Record, 78th Cong., 2nd sess., vol. 90, p. 1563. Marcantonio was not the only one urging an amelioration of conditions for Italy. See for example, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, February 2 through 16, 1944, for evidence of how this issues galvanized the Italian-American community.
42 United States Congress, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Hearings on H.J. Res. 99, To Recognize Italy as an Ally and to Extend Lend Lease, passim.
43 The New York Times, July 24, August 29 and 31, 1943; Warren Moscow, Politics in the Empire State (New York, 1948), p. 163.
44 M.P., Box 14, International Relations, Italy Communism After the War, Communication of July 1, 1949.
45 Marcantonio received 36,000 votes to 31,500 for Elis and 31,200 for Morrissey. For an account of the role of the Italian elections in the Marcantonio election, see Jonathan Bingham, The Congressional Elections of Vito Marcantonio, p. 112 (unpublished thesis at Harvard University). To realize how much of an impact the Italian election had on New York’s Italo-Americans, see The Catholic News, July 2, 1949.
47 Brooklyn Eagle, October 7, 1949. Examples of reactions to the campaign are to be found in the New York Times, October 29, 1949 and New York elections of 1949, Reminiscences, George Combs section, (Oral History Office, Columbia University).
Published in The American Radical, Eds. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Harvey Kaye (New York: Routlage, 1994): 269-277.