Friday, December 11, 2015

Italy Declares War on America

Any doubt as to the outcome of World War II was settled with the dawn attack by the Japanese on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which brought the United States into the war. An American declaration of war against the Empire of Japan was swiftly passed by Congress and soon after the German Reich and the Kingdom of Italy joined their Japanese ally by declaring war on the United States. The reasons for this have been widely discussed in regards to Germany. Hitler himself gave a lengthy explanation as to why his was declaring war on the United States and historians since have both questioned this action and offered various theories to explain it, some taking into account and others discounting what Hitler had to say on the matter. Relatively few, in comparison, have questioned the Italian declaration of war, mostly due to the very successful Allied propaganda campaign to portray Italy as the junior partner in the Axis pact that simply followed wherever Germany led. This is, of course, not true and there was a clear sequence of historical events which culminated in war between Italy and America.

In the first place, one must state at the outset that although the Italian government acted on its own, there is no doubt that the German decision to join Japan in going to war against the Americans was a determinative factor in Italy doing the same. Italy did not go to war with the United States only because Germany was doing the same but it is certainly true that it would have been unthinkable for Italy to declare war without Germany. Of course, the actions of Japan instigated the decision but that likewise did not compel Italy to take action. The Axis pact was a defensive alliance and, regardless of the many mitigating circumstances, it was the Japanese who had initiated hostile action against the United States. Japan had also maintained its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and did not join Germany and Italy in their ‘crusade against Bolshevism’ which had started earlier in 1941. In fact, given how close the Axis forces in Europe came to winning against the Russians, if the Japanese had joined in the war and thus forced the Soviets to divide their forces to defend two fronts separated by vast distances, the Soviet Union might well have been swiftly and totally defeated. In any event, the salient point is that Italy was not bound to support Japan in her war against America nor did Italy owe Japan any special favors in this regard.

The very idea of hostilities between Italy and the United States would have struck a great many people as absurd, aside from the fact that Italy would be hopelessly outmatched in any conflict between the two powers. Italians and Americans generally had a high opinion of each other. They had fought side by side in the First World War, Americans were very fond of Italian culture, Giuseppe Garibaldi had been very popular in the United States, Italians had a long history in America and even into the early days of the Fascist regime many Americans found much to admire about Italy. When Air Marshal Balbo made his famous trans-Atlantic flight to the United States he was given a rapturous welcome with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. With Italian-Americans making up a significant part of the population, many Italians had friends and family in the United States and Mussolini himself, while despising President Roosevelt and his administration, was quite fond of the American people. As far as the ordinary people were concerned, neither the Italians nor the Americans had any desire to fight each other. However, relations between their governments became increasingly tense.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, while claiming neutrality in the conflicts abroad, was never shy about voicing his opinion about who he thought was right and wrong and this often offended foreign sensibilities, particularly on the part of Mussolini. The Duce was very upset when FDR referred to the Italian entry into World War II against France and Britain, but speaking specifically of France, as Italy stabbing its neighbor in the back, ignoring all the events that preceded and precipitated the declaration of war. In 1940 President Roosevelt again spoke against Mussolini and the Italian war effort by pointing out the dangers of an extended conflict and warning of the terrible repercussions Italy would face if the war were widened to the Americas. This was, of course, intended for the consumption of the American public to impress upon them the notion that America was under threat from the conflict raging in Europe. Mussolini, however, was very offended by it, noting that he had tried to broker a peace when the conflict broke out but had been rejected by Britain and France and that positively no one had given any thought at all to the silly idea of expanding the war into the Americas.

The Duce responded soon after in early 1941 with the statement that, “Italy’s non-belligerency has effectively ensured peace for two hundred millions of men, but, notwithstanding, Italian merchant traffic is subjected to a constant surveillance that is vexatious and harmful. As far as I know, Germany is opposed to a further expansion of the conflict, and Italy likewise. We must learn whether this is also the Franco-British aim. The only European nation that dominates a large part of the world and possesses a monopoly on many basic raw materials is Great Britain. Italy has no programs of that kind. As to the repercussions which an extension of the war fronts might have on the three Americas, I call attention to the fact that Italy has never concerned itself with the relations of the American republics, with each other, or with the United States - thereby respecting the Monroe Doctrine. And, one might therefore ask for reciprocity in regard to European affairs.” In other words, he was telling Roosevelt that he was being needlessly paranoid and that since he didn’t interfere with America, FDR should not interfere with Europe, and certainly not Italy.

Mussolini was absolutely right as far as the actions of the FDR administration were concerned. FDR, while claiming neutrality, never claimed to be impartial at all. U.S. forces were watching Italian merchant ships and informing the British of their movements so that these ships could be sunk. He was aiding the Allied war effort in every way possible with lines of credit, supplies and war materials of every kind as he endeavored to make the United States, as he put it, the “arsenal of democracy”. He pushed neutrality as far as it would go and then pushed it even further, well beyond the breaking point. Tensions between the United States and Italy escalated drastically in February of 1941 when President Roosevelt went beyond surveillance and ordered the seizure of all Italian merchant ships within reach of American authorities. When word of this order got out, most of the Italian merchant sailors sunk their own ships in order to keep them out of American hands but Mussolini was positively enraged by such a provocation by a supposedly neutral country.

Even in the United States, where, prior to Pearl Harbor, an 86% majority opposed intervening in World War II, many condemned the seizure of Italian ships as a criminal act. Not only Republicans but some of his fellow Democrats accused Roosevelt of purposely trying to provoke Italy into an act of war. Mussolini was livid, saying that, “Illusion and lying are the basis of American interventionism - illusion that the United States is still a democracy, when instead it is a political and financial oligarchy dominated by Jews, through a personal form of dictatorship. The lie is that the Axis powers, after they finish Great Britain, want to attack America.” Yet, his rage was still directed at the Roosevelt administration and not the United States as a whole. The Duce said, “I understand how the American people, in their despair and confusion caused by the Depression, looked longingly to this man (FDR) for help, because of all the attractive, if baseless promises he made. Now, the only way he knows to make good on those assurances is to spill the blood of innocent peoples on behalf of a war-stimulated economy.” What is ironic is that American proponents of intervention were saying exactly the same thing about the career of Mussolini in Italy.

As tensions grew even worse, with American naval forces alerting the Royal Navy to the location of Axis submarines in the Atlantic and finally even openly attacking several German U-Boats, Mussolini still expressed no animosity for the American people while making no secret of the level to which he despised President Roosevelt. The American public, he often said, were to be pitied rather than hated for having been hoodwinked by Roosevelt and his Wall Street cronies. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Duce needed no prompting to join the other Axis powers in this expansion of the conflict. As far as he was concerned, Italy had her own reasons and justifications for doing so. The hope, of course, was that American military strength would be divided and mostly concentrated on smashing the Japanese first. Hopefully, by the time Japan was defeated, Germany and Italy would have beaten the Russians and forced the British to either make peace or surrender. On December 11, 1941 Mussolini appeared on the balcony overlooking the Piazza Venezia in Rome, flanked by the ambassadors of the German Reich and the Empire of Japan to announce the formal declaration of war by the Kingdom of Italy against the United States of America. He said to the crowd:

“This is another day of solemn decision in Italy’s history and of memorable events destined to give a new course to the history of continents. The powers of the steel pact, Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany, ever closely linked, participate from today on the side of heroic Japan against the United States of America. The Tripartite Pact becomes a military alliance which draws around its colors 250,000,000 men determined to do all in order to win.
Neither the Axis nor Japan wanted an extension of the conflict. One man, one man only, a real tyrannical democrat, through a series of infinite provocations, betraying with a supreme fraud the population of his country, wanted the war and had prepared for it day by day with diabolical obstinacy.
The formidable blows that on the immense Pacific expanse have been already inflicted on American forces show how prepared are the soldiers of the Empire of the Rising Sun. I say to you, and you will understand, that it is a privilege to fight with them.
Today, the Tripartite Pact, with the plenitude of its forces and its moral and material resources, is a formidable instrument for the war and a certainty of victory. Tomorrow, the Tripartite Pact will become an instrument of just peace between the peoples.
Italians! Once more arise and be worthy of this historical hour! We shall win.”

With that, Italy and the United States were at war. For the Italian King-Emperor Vittorio Emanuele III, it was simply one more reason for his increasingly pessimistic mood. He was shocked and voiced his displeasure when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last thing Italy needed was more enemies and war with the largest economic and industrial power on earth was a terrible prospect. However, when the Duce presented him with the declaration of war, he saw no alternative but to sign it. The Roosevelt administration had been grossly provocative and with German and Italian forces fighting side by side on every front, if the Americans and Germans fought then it was only a matter of time before the Italians would be involved anyway. He had been against any expansion of the war as well and could see no end to the conflict. His ardent hope was that, for the sake of the survival of western civilization, the two sides would make a negotiated peace. However, noble though it was, such was a forlorn hope. Hitler had offered Britain a peace (even if it meant terms detrimental to Italy) when the British prospects for victory were darkest and Churchill had declined. With the Soviet Union, the British Empire and now the United States all arrayed against them, victory was certain and the Allies would have no need to negotiate for peace.

The King-Emperor, faced with the fact of war, also hoped that at least the Japanese attacks in Asia might draw away British strength from the Mediterranean theater and, like most, assumed that American retaliation would fall first on Japan. Hitler and Mussolini alike were counting on this as well. Unfortunately for them, Roosevelt did the exact opposite and agreed with Churchill on a policy of “Germany first”. The war with Japan would be carried on as aggressively as possible but priority would be given to the European theater of operations, making Germany and Italy the primary targets. As it happened, the United States was able to bring sufficient forces to the land, sea and air to wage successful offensive operations on both sides of the world simultaneously. The Italian war effort was doomed and, looking back, one can say without much possibility of argument that the Axis powers as a whole were doomed as soon as the Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. The forces arrayed against them were simply overwhelming.

Finally, one thing that is noteworthy is that the Americans had almost exactly the same view of the Italians as Mussolini often expressed in regard to the American people. Even at the height of the conflict, the American people could never quite bring themselves to view the Italians the same way they viewed the Germans or the Japanese. It was simply impossible for most Americans to view most Italians as enemies. An example of this mentality can be seen in the American war film “Sahara” starring Humphrey Bogart, made during the war, being released in 1943. It tells the story of the crew of an American M3 Grant tank in North Africa that picks up an assortment of Allied troops as well as two Axis prisoners of war. The characters are meant to represent the different countries involved. Bogey, of course, represents the ideal American view of themselves and there are characters representing the French (a resistance fighter who loves wine and cheese), the British (very gallant and ready to bear any burden) and the British Empire (an African colonial soldier) and so on.

The two prisoners are a German pilot and an Italian infantryman. The way they are portrayed says much about American attitudes even during wartime. The German officer is perfectly evil, deceptive, arrogant and cruel, fanatically devoted to the Nazis and the war. The Italian soldier, however, is portrayed as a basically good guy who is on the wrong side. He’s a family man, sympathetic and kind-hearted, a Christian and an honorable man. In fact, the actor who portrayed the Italian soldier, J. Carrol Naish, gave such a touching performance that he was nominated for an Academy Award for it. One of his speeches is still regarded as one of the best of any American war film. It shows the extent to which Italo-American friendship extended so that, even when the two countries were at war, each viewed the only real enemy as the ruler of the opposing country and not the people themselves. Roosevelt and Mussolini clearly hated each other equally but for the Italian and American peoples, neither could ever really see the other as “the enemy”. Thankfully, the period of conflict between the two countries would be an isolated episode in a long history of peace and friendship.

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