The Americans Who Embraced Mussolini
As we confront rightwing extremism in our own time, the history of American fascist sympathy reveals a legacy worth reckoning with.
February 17, 2021
Feb 17, 2021
21 Min read time
As we confront rightwing extremism in our own time, the history of American fascist sympathy reveals a legacy worth reckoning with.
The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism
Princeton University Press, $35 (cloth)
On the eve of the November 1938 midterm elections, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a forceful radio address. “If American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens,” he remarked, “then Fascism and Communism . . . will grow in strength in our land.” While opposition to communism was a standard current in U.S. politics, the rise of American sympathy with fascism had become an urgent concern for Roosevelt. Among the most visible sympathizers of the time was the anti-Semitic radio broadcaster Charles Coughlin, who regularly reached tens of millions of listeners, but Roosevelt and his administration knew fascist sympathy was diffuse among prominent Americans. From Henry Ford to the esteemed, path-blazing New York Times foreign correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick, expressions of fascist sympathy had reached the center of mainstream discourse and American political thought by the late 1930s.
Italian fascism seemed to offer possibilities for an American state still in severe need of modernization. By the late 1930s, fascist sympathy reached the center of American political thought.
It is intriguing to revisit this history in light of conversations about fascism today. How did an ideology that relished violence, dictatorship, and illiberal communitarianism animate so many different people in a country whose founding myths extolled individualism and self-government? What led these Americans to admire fascism and even suggest it was the logical successor to democracy? The historian Katy Hull’s new book, The Machine Has a Soul: American Sympathy with Italian Fascism, is a welcome study of these questions, examining the intellectual legitimation of fascism in the United States in the interwar period.
In lean, eloquent prose, Hull weaves together the intellectual and status-seeking journeys of four Americans: the conservative ambassador to Italy (1921–1924) and writer Richard Washburn Child, the political philosopher Herbert Wallace Schneider, the Italian-American newspaper publisher Generoso Pope, and McCormick herself. Hull takes these four figures as representative of common threads of fascist sympathy in the United States. Their sympathy flowed from different social and political moorings, but as Hull explains, all thought that the United States, coming into full force as a world power, lacked the political leadership required “to make democracy relevant, to manage the pace of industrialization, and to support those who felt left behind in the modern world.” Italian fascism stood for them as an appealing model, yoking together communitarian values and national progress in a way that had eluded American government.
This American fascination arose in part from fascism’s view of national struggle. As scholars such as Robert O. Paxton and Sheri Berman have noted, Italian fascism did not emerge as a sui generis authoritarian ideology and, in the beginning, was not explicitly premised on extreme racism, in contrast to German National Socialism. Its origins both reflected and drew upon a mélange of ideas and appeals based on conservatism, worker-led social transformation, economic development, and revolutionary nationalism. However, nationalism became the centerpiece shortly after World War I began, when a breakaway strain of syndicalists—who had agitated for syndicates, or worker cooperatives, in place of capitalist production—joined with leftwing nationalists and ex-socialists such as Benito Mussolini, the movement’s future leader, to demand Italy join the Allies. Together they rejected both liberalism and international class solidarity. Prewar fervor to transform Italy’s class structure was thus transposed to a vision of cross-class struggle for national prestige and wealth. What mattered most was Italy’s position in international politics and the global economy, and national solidarity was the solution.
Italian fascism stood as an appealing model, yoking together communitarian values and national progress in a way that had eluded American government.
After the war, fascism grew from a fledgling political ideology into a violent mass movement by late 1921. Mussolini proved to be a shrewd tactician. While fascists framed their cause as a just assault on Italy’s decline, targeting leftists and liberals allegedly undermining national unity, Mussolini understood force and charisma weren’t enough to establish a new order. He recognized fascism also needed a populist program to succeed.
As a result, even as fascists moved to the right, the November 1921 program advocated economic and administrative reform designed to appeal to all classes. In addition, a land reclamation plan from earlier that year to increase agrarian proprietorship combined reform with a defense of private property. Fascism thus offered an ambiguous form of state-driven political economy that would come to be known as corporatism. Whatever the changing finer points of the fascist program, Mussolini promised that a strong, paternalistic state, purged of the disarray and gridlock of democratic government, would maximize the fruits of industrial progress for the entire nation’s uplift. The bid worked well enough. As a result of fascism’s terror and political maneuvers, and in the face of recurrent parliamentary crises, the king of Italy invited Mussolini to form a government in October 1922. The new fascist state would continue to manipulate mass politics while dismantling political rights in the name of order, restoration, and progress.
From the start, Hull’s subjects took Mussolini at his word, believing fascism would resolve the country’s postwar instability. But equally important for Americans were the lessons fascism offered the United States. “These observers,” Hull writes, “asserted that fascism produced a different kind of modernity from that which prevailed in the United States—one that upheld traditions, restored connections between government and the governed, and rebalanced the relationship between men and machines.” For them, Italian fascism could decouple technological progress from decadent consumerism and harmonize the humble, spiritual qualities of agrarian life with the martial pursuit of world stature. It thus stirred romanticized notions about the U.S. preindustrial past, even as the arrival of corporatism suggested Italy would surpass America’s own Progressive Era strides toward technocratic government. In essence, fascism simultaneously augured the antidote to and the fulfillment of the American experiment. As U.S. society confronts the ways the powerful have sanctioned rightwing extremism in our own time, this history uncovers a troubling legacy worth reckoning with.
• • •
Hull’s book is an extended case study in the way fascist propaganda seeped into American consciousness. Her subjects filtered out fascism’s disquieting mix of sentimentality and blatant chauvinism, relishing the theater of “patriotic” action while veiling the extent of fascist repression and murder. Child and McCormick, in particular, portrayed postwar Italy as a hollow victor, a nation adrift and dispirited. Lamenting the inertia they attributed to labor strikes, a dysfunctional parliament, and what Child called the “selfish” attitudes of leftists, Child, McCormick, and Schneider “savored the violence,” as Hull puts it, that Mussolini’s squadristi inflicted against its opponents in 1921–22 in the lead up to the March on Rome. At the same time Hull adds that they marveled at Mussolini’s “vitality,” “capacity for control,” and “spiritual” leadership at the dawn of the fascist state. They willingly transmitted the idea that Mussolini’s ascent marked, as Hull summarizes it, “the beginning of the ‘new world’ [that] the war had failed to deliver.” With each expression of praise, they closed the distance between Mussolini’s regime and their roles as professional observers.
Fascism, for these figures, revived qualities that the United States had lost with the closure of the frontier: bravery, patriotism, and a profound connection to the land itself.
But fascism, for these figures, was not merely an exotic experiment worthy of admiration. It also revived qualities that the United States had lost with the closure of the frontier: bravery, patriotism, a profound connection to the land itself. Although U.S. entry into World War I had shown how an activist state and civic nationalism could forge a propulsive unity, Hull writes that mass production and uncontrolled urbanization continued to magnify McCormick’s perception of “Americans’ world weariness.” The country’s directionless modernity, in the general view of Hull’s figures, had marked a precipitous decline from its Progressive Era ascent to world power.
The desire to reclaim a sense of national vigor, Hull shows, was expressed in McCormick’s favorable comparison of the male students who joined the squadristi with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the American Legion, who had glorified wartime patriotism while violently attacking labor organizers in the name of anti-communism. For his part, Pope stressed fascism’s restoration of masculine values. Coverage of fascist Italy in his newspaper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano, dovetailed with the image he wanted to cultivate of Italian-Americans. Their supposed selflessness, as shown in their dedication to community and family, could be a stabilizing force for American manhood.
The attractions of fascism extended into political theory as well, for it appeared to reveal democracy’s entropic and atomizing tendencies. According to Schneider, fascists correctly identified democracy as merely a struggle among interest groups. Hull explains that in his effort to tailor the fascist critique of democracy to American audiences, Schneider connected it to similar Progressive Era concerns, articulated by figures such as Walter Lippmann, about the ability of voters to grasp issues of modern governance. From this perspective, Hull writes, “a lack of congressional expertise, the rise of special interest groups, and popular disillusionment” meant that the United States was showing the same signs of the decay that had plagued Italian democracy. In her dispatches, McCormick suggested that the U.S. government had become a bloodless machine of technical management for the industrial age, headed by anachronistic patricians inept at arousing a larger sense of nationhood. It could neither protect its citizens from the disruptive effects of modernity nor properly harness the full benefits of industrial progress.
The introduction of fascist corporatism in the mid-1920s appeared as a cooperative yet expert-driven alternative to laissez-faire capitalism and socialism.
This critique of American technical government may seem paradoxical, for the burgeoning fascist bureaucracy—enhanced in authority through a 1928 electoral law that established a Grand Council to select members of parliament and that extinguished what remained of democratic representation—was itself portrayed as a technocratic advance. But Hull explains how her subjects saw in this conjunction its own internal logic. The introduction of fascist corporatism in the mid-1920s had divided the economy into seven key sectors and mandated that major business associations and fascist labor unions negotiate production, among other directives, while also banning strikes. The fascist Grand Council promised to further manage corporatist social and economic development, taming the kinds of pressures that lobbies and independent unions exerted on American democracy.
Over time the state would increasingly subject strategic industries to a state-guided process of allocation and distribution. For fascist sympathizers this appeared to be a cooperative yet expert-driven alternative to laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. Hull thus emphasizes that while her subjects did not argue fascist corporatism “should be grafted directly onto the United States,” they nevertheless entertained “an equivalent arrangement” was possible and perhaps necessary. Hull cuts through her subjects’ illusions and exaggerations, showing how corporatism strongly favored powerful business interests and coerced labor into accepting the state’s industrial and agricultural policies.
The corporatist state had its complement in what the fascist theorist Giovanni Gentile called the “ethical state.” Extending the theme of cooperation that corporatism was professed to put into practice, the ethical state was meant to connote a form of moral governance that would organically pervade Italian life. Fascist welfarism was thus more than scientific management; for McCormick, the state’s growing presence in society indicated the population would embrace a new standard of social justice. In particular, the state organized female youth groups to prepare girls for motherhood and subsidized nurseries, infant and maternal health care, and large families, while also imposing higher taxes on bachelors. These priorities may have echoed the morals of middle-class urban reformers from the Progressive Era, which may have influenced McCormick’s and Pope’s favorable impressions of Italy’s natalist policies. But they were far from benevolent, Hull notes. Like the state-sponsored athletic camps for boys and young men, they were designed to prepare a generation for expansion and war.
Fascist sympathizers were attracted to these mechanisms that concentrated power but were unwilling to probe the actual outcomes for the broader populace.
The subjects of Hull’s study regarded this fascist effort to bridge all facets of Italian society as a more venerable form of representation than democracy. They believed that the 1929 referendum that approved the Grand Council “was proof of a transformation” in state-society relations; the implication was that the plebiscite authentically reflected citizens’ wishes. Yet, as with other forms of fascist encroachment on civil liberties, they did not care to investigate the voter intimidation that had assured the state’s desired outcome. From corporatism to the Grand Council, fascist sympathizers were attracted to mechanisms that concentrated power but were unwilling to probe the actual outcomes for the broader populace.
• • •
The Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration in 1933 only reinforced the conviction that the United States could learn from Italy, even though, Hull writes, Mussolini had “denied that fascism was ‘for export’ to the United States.” As with Mussolini’s ascent to power, Hull’s subjects waxed lyrical over Roosevelt. Whereas Mussolini’s increasing displays of “public intimacy,” as Hull puts it, contrasted sharply with the popular perception of Herbert Hoover’s detachment and coldness, Roosevelt, at least initially, kindled familiar notions that an activist state could inspire unity by reconciling industrial progress with a restoration of the agrarian ideal.
Roosevelt, at least initially, kindled familiar notions that an activist state could inspire unity by reconciling industrial progress with a restoration of the agrarian ideal.
At the same time, Roosevelt’s embrace of some form of economic planning invited further comparisons between fascist political economy and the early New Deal. There were at least a few surface-level similarities. The ill-fated National Recovery Administration, which set industrial codes for competition, prices, wages, work hours, and safety, was the closest the New Deal came to experimenting with corporatism, while the lesser known Subsistence Homestead program bore some resemblance to fascist land reclamation and related “back-to-farm” policies. A highly visible convergence was the commitment of both New Deal and fascist policy to public works. Child, who fleetingly endorsed New Deal liberalism before attacking federal spending, supported job creation through public infrastructure—as did Pope, whose newspaper would assert Mussolini was doing more than Roosevelt to provide unemployment relief. Sensing the New Deal’s potential to reconnect Americans to nature and rehabilitate deteriorating urban areas, McCormick and Pope both extolled the proliferation of public gardens—along with the construction of modern apartments, new highways, and suburbs outside of Rome—as evidence of the fascist state’s greener and aesthetically superior urban planning. They suggested New Deal agencies could follow Italy’s lead yet also cautioned that the extent of U.S. urban decay was formidable. Hull’s subjects thus propagated the idea that the fascist state had special capacities for initiative and far-sighted planning, qualities that even Roosevelt could not match.
In reality, fascist sympathizers often exaggerated the scope of Mussolini’s projects and the unemployment relief they provided—just as they had with welfare, housing, and agricultural policies, continually blurring the line between propaganda and conditions on the ground. And where the New Deal did most demonstrably empower workers, as in the Wagner Act that enshrined the right to collective bargaining, Hull’s subjects expressed concern that Roosevelt had failed to resolve the antagonism between business and labor, which in their view would impede recovery.
Hull’s subjects expressed concern that Roosevelt had failed to resolve the antagonism between business and labor, which in their view would impede recovery.
The “gardening state” that attracted Hull’s subjects was also used to justify colonization in Ethiopia, depicted as an “untamed” land in 1935—a grossly false representation duly circulated by McCormick and Pope. Mussolini even invoked the history of westward conquest in the United States in an interview with McCormick shortly before the invasion. As Hull explains, by employing “the idea of imperialism as the taming of wild land,” fascist sympathizers “facilitated Italy’s claims to equivalency . . . with other great powers.” In particular, they amplified the idea that Italy would act “as a cultivator, healer, and civilizer,” assertions that resonated with the logic of improvement that imperial powers had long used to defend the subjugation of colonial subjects and the expropriation of their labor and resources.
In response to the invasion, the U.S. government abstained from the sanctions the League of Nations levied on Italy, invoking its neutrality laws. But fascist sympathizers vocally opposed the possibility of an embargo beyond weapons sales. Shifting their emphasis to the relief Ethiopia would provide Italy in the form of raw materials and living space for Italian emigrants, Pope, McCormick, and Schneider insisted Italy’s territorial expansion was a sign peace could be maintained on the European continent.
Of all these misguided appraisals of fascist Italy, none was more perverse and illusory than the repeated insistence, beginning in the mid-1930s, that Mussolini could moderate Hitler. McCormick was particularly emphatic about the differences between the regimes—only after new, anti-Semitic race laws in 1938 did she pivot to an openly critical stance. Still, she and Pope were reluctant to abandon the notion that Italy could influence Nazi ambitions. In his newspapers Pope attempted to bury the overt turn toward anti-Semitism; Hull writes that even after a Jewish boycott of Italian-American businesses, “Pope never made a definitive statement against fascist anti-Semitism,” only gesturing to the virtue of the “American melting pot” and what he called the “anti-Semitic campaign in Europe” in editorials from 1938. Only after he became aware in 1941 that he was under FBI surveillance as part of an investigation into fascist sympathizers who may have been agents of Mussolini’s regime did Il Progresso begin to take an anti-fascist line. McCormick, meanwhile, kept suggesting Italy could be separated from the Third Reich through 1940. This stage of her career culminated in an ad hoc, futile turn toward diplomacy. Though she had lost access to Mussolini due to her more critical reporting, she attempted to communicate Roosevelt’s hope for Italian neutrality, pleading in a final letter to Mussolini that “Italy is the brake against illimitable war.” The letter is both a testament to her prestige as a journalist and the denouement of a protracted folly of moral and intellectual judgment.
Fascist sympathizers echoed the logic of improvement that imperial powers had long used to defend the subjugation of colonial subjects and the expropriation of their labor and resources.
Looking at these careers of fascist sympathy in broad outline, we can see that their apologism arose from a combination of opportunism and desire to partake in a politics of high theater and historical ambition. These figures were not mere agents of the fascist state, nor were their choices and writings characterized solely by delusion. From the outset they sanctioned state repression as the price for order, falsely equating the regime’s promises of social peace and national solidarity with social justice. Many readers will rightly find it both perplexing and disturbing that McCormick could believe so deeply in fascist Italy as a force for peace given the squadristi violence she had witnessed in the early 1920s—not to mention all that followed. Yet as Hull explains, her attitude was not anomalous among American views of international politics, including those within the U.S. government.
Ultimately the attachment of Hull’s subjects sprang more from a tension between the mythic idyll and the promise of a reconfigured and heroic modernity than from any substantive policy. The balance they identified between nationalism and pragmatism, experimentation and conservatism—embodied in Mussolini’s overstated if not entirely fabricated flexibility—was painted as a model for American leadership, even though it was not perfectly available for export. It illuminated new possibilities while also resonating with distinctly American concepts of agrarian republicanism and progressive government.
• • •
In seeking to explain this attraction to the fascist state, The Machine Has a Soul occasionally points to various American precedents. Beyond the obvious examples corresponding to the broader phenomenon of European fascism, from Jim Crow to the American eugenics movement, one less appreciated but illuminating context is the mixed legacy—at once democratic and disciplining—of the urban political machine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As documented in James J. Connolly’s An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America (2010), the machine was at once communitarian and capitalist. It depended upon extensive control of working-class neighborhoods, enmeshment with the police, and strong ties with business. Usually Democratic, urban bosses cultivated political loyalties through aid and patronage, yielding fiscal policies that satisfied both businesses demanding infrastructure and immigrants in search of jobs. Crucially, though it was initially perceived by the upper classes as subverting democracy, the machine came to be regarded by some as a bulwark against radical labor unrest. Bossism thus demonstrated that fin-de-siècle urban democracy could expand participatory politics through authoritarian discipline—a harbinger of the fascist heroism that first exhilarated McCormick in the early 1920s.
Ultimately, the attachment of Hull’s subjects sprang more from a tension between the mythic idyll and the promise of a reconfigured and heroic modernity than from any substantive policy.
At the same time, reformers’ efforts to counteract bossism set the stage for the conceptual marriage of efficient and “good” (that is, moral) governance. Here some of Hull’s subjects—or professionals like them—must have channeled Progressive Era ideas about the obligations and technocratic requirements of modern government. In turn, the incomplete synthesis of two visions of urban democracy must have contributed to the impression that the U.S. political system was failing to keep pace with social and economic change. One vision was premised on brash, charismatic, and communal appeals, yet completely at ease with a transactional approach to politics; the other was premised on contradictory impulses to strengthen political literacy among the masses and reserve public administration for credentialed experts, while also attempting to impart a civic nationalism that could transcend identity. The energy Hull’s subjects found in Italian fascism may well have recalled the unfinished business of American government—its need to catch up to industrial society—that both the urban machine and urban reform movements had set in motion.
This correspondence should not entirely surprise us. Within Europe, ideological boundaries both before World War I and during the tumultuous interwar era could be porous. Political scientist Sheri Berman, for one, has contended that social democracy and early fascism shared a “common genealogy,” noting the migration of some revisionist socialists into fascist and National Socialist camps—Mussolini, of course, the most famous example. Despite other stark differences, social democratic efforts to articulate a politics of solidarity over class struggle treaded waters where appeals to “the people” and “the nation” could not always be clearly distinguished from the “unifying” aims fascists expounded.
Appeals to “the people” and “the nation” could not always be clearly distinguished from the “unifying” aims fascists expounded.
Appeals to unity and social purpose similarly cut both ways in American Progressivism. Progressivism’s foremost proponents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, left deeply ambiguous legacies. Beyond their personal racism, their competing attempts to resolve what modern U.S. government stood for relied upon notions of freedom and nationhood that, in a demagogue’s hands, could transform the “consensus” sought between capital, labor, and the state into repressive and exclusionary mechanisms. Indeed, even as progressives sought to extend democracy, improve government accountability, and modernize representation, in other dimensions of civic life they allowed and sometimes encouraged powerful ideas of natural order, hierarchy, and Social Darwinism to prevail. It is only in hindsight that we see the Progressive Era as part of a long process culminating in the democratic capitalism of the mid-twentieth century. If instead we view it in medias res, as a liminal stage in which a more interventionist form of liberalism struggled to accommodate “interest group” politics, we can better appreciate its ambiguities in the interwar period and why fascism held such allure for Hull’s subjects.
What do these historical lessons mean today? Hull shows us that unlike socialism, which was always rendered “un-American” in mainstream politics, Italian fascism could appear to offer possibilities for an American state still in severe need, as some observers saw it, of modernization. This view was made possible in part by the pace of fascist history. Until the early 1930s the regime’s consolidation of control was relatively gradual over some areas of Italian life, underscoring the perception that Mussolini was decisive but not reckless. If social “peace” and steady administrative progress appeared to prevail, it was perhaps all too easy for an American sympathizer to justify or simply ignore the repression that yoked Italian society to Mussolini’s ambitions.
Hull’s history also reminds us that open sympathizers of reactionary, far right, and fascist movements have rarely paid a price for their support, even when they have justified political violence and efforts to destroy democracy. As the digital age has made clear, the spread of far right ideas has often begun with public figures who champion the mendacious promise of renewal and order. Beyond the events at the Capitol last month, this repeated failure of accountability looms over American society and government. Far from metastasizing in recent years, the far right has been built up for decades, not merely on the fringes of American life but with the assistance of incendiary forces in conservative media and the Republican Party.
Open sympathizers of reactionary, far right, and fascist movements have rarely paid a price for their support, even when they have justified political violence and efforts to destroy democracy.
Confronting this pattern in U.S. politics is necessary to strengthen democracy. Each episode of rightwing violence that is tolerated or even stoked by a major political party increases the risk there will be more. As the country grapples with a devastating pandemic, Joe Biden is attempting to fulfill a mandate to deliver recovery in the face of a GOP that demands respect for “procedure” but has abandoned any pretense to uphold democratic principles. Biden must use every tool available to fend off the appeals of the right and persuade millions of mistrustful Americans that democratic government can indeed better their lot—delivering solidarity, common purpose, and shared progress.
While you're with us...
... democracy depends upon the open, engaged, and honest exchange of ideas, but that vision has increasingly come under attack. For thirty years Boston Review has provided a forum—always free online—for thoughtful and ambitious discussions of democratic theory and practice. The best way to protect democracy is to challenge probe it through the public exchange of ideas, and ask more of it by inviting diligent and truthful critiques from a range of perspectives. If you join us in this belief in the power of collective reasoning and imagination to create a more just world, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to continue to allow our readers unlimited and free access to essays such as this one.
February 17, 2021
21 Min read time