L’Unità del Popolo: The Voice of Italian American Communism, 1939-1951



The association of Italians with Communism in the United States has been obscured by the unfounded assertion that in 1927 Italian American radicalism along with Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti died. This perspective predominates despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including the first important electoral victory of the Communist Party in the United States – the election in 1941, and re-elections in 1943 and 1945, of Peter Cacchione of Brooklyn to the New York City Council. Consequently, the histories of the Communist movement within the Italian American community, and of its Italian-language weekly newspaper, L’Unità del Popolo have gone almost completely unrecorded.

L’Unità del Popolo, along with the community for which it provided a means of communication and self-expression, deserves a book-length study. This essay will be limited to a discussion of these points: the founding of the paper, its staff, funding, and readership; the paper’s approach to the most important question for the Italian American Left, that is, Fascism versus anti-Fascism; and finally the circumstances of its demise in 1951.

L’Unità del Popolo’s first issue – which appeared in New York City on March 25, 1939 – was an eight-page weekly (one page of which was in English) that cost five cents per copy and $2.00 for an annual subscription. For some time during World War II, it appeared twice per week, and starting in 1948, its size was reduced first to six and then four pages. Its full-page format was changed to a tabloid in 1950. It succeeded Il Lavoratore (1924-1931), L’Unità Operaia, (1932-1938), which published semimonthly, and the short-lived Il Popolo as the organ of the Italian component of a large Communist-led/Communist-influenced world of immigrants and their American-born children.

Writing more than forty years after the events, Ambrogio Donini, one of its founders, characterized L’Unità as “an atypical Communist newspaper” because it was independent of financial assistance from the Party, but instead “was financed by the large unions in which Italian Americans carried out leading functions.” He identified the electrical, fur, maritime, wood workers, and waiters unions as having been “led by Italian Americans who belonged to the Communist Party.” The headquarters of L’Unità reflected its close ties with the vast array of Communist-led organizations and specifically with some of the unions most influenced by Communism. The paper’s first offices were located at 80 East 11th Street, where these other organizations were also located: the Furniture Workers’ Joint Council, the Labor Research Association, and La Parola, the Italian-language weekly associated with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. After World War II, L’Unità del Popolo moved to a veritable Mecca for Left organizations – 13 Astor Place, which was located diagonally across from Cooper Union. Some of the organizations housed in this imposing structured were: the May Committee, the School of Jewish Studies, the Retail Employees Union, the Teachers’ Union, the Sanitation Workers (CIO), and many locals of the United Public Workers of America (CIO). The degree to which and ways that L’Unità benefited from its propinquity to this constellation of organizations within the Communist Party’s orbit is not known, but the large Italian American membership of some of them suggests the likelihood of supportive arrangements. In any case, the fact that subsidies came from the coffers of Communist-led unions instead of directly from the Party does not seem to be a distinction of great consequence. This was, after all, within the boundaries of the general tradition of the socialist and syndicalist unions supporting papers expressing their ideological positions. We also do not know the nature of the Party’s financial connection – if any – with the other foreign-language newspapers within its orbit. In any case, the existing records indicate that the greatest part of the paper’s support derived from the Garibaldi American Fraternal Society, the Italian section of the Communist Party’s fraternal organization, the International Workers Order (IWO). For example, when in 1941 the paper launched a campaign to raise $6,000 in order to publish semi-weekly, one-half that sum was pledged by the Italian Section of the IWO. Nonetheless, despite its organic connection with the Communist Party, L’Unità was not the mirror image either of the Daily Worker or of the many other foreign-language publications associated with the Communist Party.

The paper’s list of sponsors was headed by Vito Marcantonio and included Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Arturo Giovannitti, and many Italian American labor leaders. It was originally co-edited by Gino Bardi, who had arrived in the United States as a child, and the American-born Mary Testa, who joined the paper in 1940. In conjunction with their work on the paper, Bardi and Testa regularly spoke at meetings sponsored by the paper, generally in conjunction with the Garibaldi-American Fraternal Society, and other Party-related organizations. In addition to these activities, in 1940 Bardi ran for Congress on the American Labor Party (ALP) line from a district that included the large Italian American community in Greenwich Village. Under the headline “Blessed Event,” the paper reported that on March 12, 1941, Mary Testa had become “the proud mother of a baby girl.” In the name of the Editorial Board, the notice also expressed “the hope that she will be back with us soon to carry on the struggle for peace and progress.” Then on May 9, 1942 issue announced that Gino Bardi had enlisted into the United States Army.

Although Bardi and Testa continued to be listed for some time as editors, the new editors were two major exiled leaders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), Giuseppe Berti and Donini. Berti, who had joined the PCI in 1921, became an important youth leader and journalist. After serving a prison sentence under the Fascist regime, he fled to Paris in 1930. There, the PCI entrusted him with more and more important positions, including its representation in the Comintern, and the organization of the party’s school. During 1938, he served as de facto party secretary. As a publicist, he was active in the production of Lo Stato operaio, the PCI’s theoretical journal, and other Party publications. The PCI relocated Lo Stato operaio from Paris to New York City during August of 1939 when it was suppressed by the government of Edouard Daladier.

The PCI transferred the production of Lo Stato operaio to the United States, where it was published and sold from the same address as L’Unità. After the war, he returned to Italy where he served in the Chamber of Deputies as a representative of the PCI, and remained active in the PCI’s cultural initiatives as well as writing books on Italian history and the Communist movement.

Donini was an historian of religion who had joined the Communist Party in 1926 while studying in the university. In 1928, he traveled to Harvard to complete his research for his thesis, but also to make contact with leaders of the PCI. While in the United States, he taught in Smith College, but most of his energies were devoted to political activities. He later traveled to Europe, including trips into Italy and one to Moscow where he met with Togliatti. In Paris, he served as the editor of La Voce degli italiani. Donini’s special area of concern was the relationship between intellectuals and Catholics. He traveled to Tunisia in January 1939 in order to establish a newspaper for the anti-Fascist colony there and in June arrived in New York City to assist in the launching of L’Unità. While in New York, he wrote unsigned articles for Lo Stato operio, taught courses about religion and international affairs in the Communist Party’s educational institutions in New York, the School for Democracy and after its founding in 1943, the Jefferson School for Social of Social Science.

L’Unità’s editorial team reflected this dual leadership: Italian American Communists carrying out “nationality work,” for a small, albeit influential, Communist Party, and major leaders of a mass Communist party leading a guerrilla war and preparing itself to share political power in the post-war Italian government. This, in part, accounts for what one scholar, Nadia Venturini, has described as its “bifocal” character, that is, a parochial approach to domestic news, and a highly sophisticated treatment of international news. On December 12, 1944, the paper announced the departure of the “the Italian political exiles, Berti and Donini, who have guided the newspaper politically from the spring of 1942 until today. We hope that they will soon be able to resume their place in the struggle of their country, Italy.” Their places were assumed by two new editors, Ferruccio Marini, and Michele Salerno. Generally writing under the nom de plume Tito Nunzio, Salerno remained as editor until the demise of the paper, which closely coincided with his deportation in 1950.

Although their place in history may be humbler, the Italian American editors possessed the connectedness to the American reality that allowed L’Unità to reach beyond the confines of a sect or the narrow circles of worker-intellectuals living in exile. In this regard, the paper was especially advantaged by the presence of Mary Testa, who belongs high on the list of as-yet undiscovered Italian American women radical leaders. Mary Testa (Maria Pezzati) was born in 1910 in Massachusetts, the third of four children of Sesto Pezzati, an engineer from the town of Piacenza, near Milan, and Cesarina, who was from a peasant background from a nearby town. When Mary was two, her father died from tuberculosis. Driven by poverty, the family moved from place to place and ultimately settled in Boston. The constant hardship prevented her from graduating from high school. The execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1927 radicalized her and her younger brother, Albert. Her first marriage ended tragically when, shortly after their wedding, her husband Domenico (Dom) Testa died in an boating accident.

Perhaps in response to this trauma, she not only joined the Communist Party but volunteered for work which involved considerable risk. During the period 1937 to 1939, she traveled to Paris where she was engaged in clandestine efforts to first mobilize support for the Spanish Republic and then find refuge for Italian anti-Fascist leaders who had fled Spain after its defeat and were now living in mortal danger of imprisonment and subsequent deportation back to Italy. Among other things, she carried American passports from Italian Americans, which were then altered to allow these refugees entry into the United States. While in Paris, she met leading Italian Communists including Palmiro Togliatti, Luigi Longo, Bruno Pini, and Donini. Her association with Donini, who may from the beginning have been the éminence grise of L’Unità, established her connection to the newspaper. Upon her return to New York City, she began working on establishing the newly launched L’Unità del Popolo.

Testa’s connectedness to the Italian American reality is evidenced in her article, “The Little Italies of America,” where she aptly describes them as “part of the panorama of American life, yet retaining their own special flavor.” She noted that: “each Little Italy has its own problems and prejudices, and preferences. These grow out of the customs which our fathers brought from their far-off paesi and from the new habits acquired through long residence with the Irish, Jews, the Negroes or plain Americans. Occupation has a lot to do with the way of life of these communities too, in some cases binding together whole communities in a common interest of life and work. Such is the case of Red Hook [in Brooklyn], where a majority of the Italian Americans are longshoremen and Gloucester Massachusetts, where they are fishermen.”

In 1940, she had married Joachim (Pete) Rotolo, who had come to Brooklyn from Sicily as a child, with whom she lived first in Sunnyside and then in Jackson Heights, Queens. Radicalized by his involvement with a John Reed club, Pete was assigned by the Party to work in a printing plant in Brooklyn, where he remained active in its union until his death in 1958. In early 1941, shortly before her first daughter was born (her second daughter was born in late 1943), she resigned as editor of L’Unità. From this point on, she worked in support of Marcantonio’s candidacies and was active in the ALP. Her association with the progressive Italian American community continued, which among other things meant writing an occasional article for L’Unità. On November 19, 1950, she chaired a banquet that attracted four hundred friends and associates of Michael Salerno who gathered to hear Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well as leaders of the ALP and the IWO bid him arrivederchi before his imminent deportation. She also continued to attend the ubiquitous banquets (many of which were held in Corona, Queens) sponsored by the now much reduced and beleaguered progressive Italian American community.

Mary Testa escaped being blacklisted, and her husband never lost his job. However, in the early fifties, along with the other leaders of the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers’ Union, her brother was indicted under provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Throughout the anti-Communist years of the late 1940s and 1950s, the Rotolo family gathered frequently with other families who held similar political viewpoints. Nonetheless, the destruction of the world of the Left, and its Italian American component, was embittering: the firings, jailings, deportations and especially the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, were frightening. However, part of the legacy of this lost world, was transmitted to the next generation, many of whose sons and daughters contributed to the formation of humanistic communities and oppositional cultural expression. Others became important leaders in the New Left.

L’Unità was not a newspaper in the ordinary sense of the word; instead on an infinitely smaller scale, it served like Lenin’s Iskra to socialize its readers within the Communist movement and to mobilize them politically. Its most immediate task was to serve as the voice of the Garibaldi American Fraternal Society, which in 1940 boasted eleven thousand members organized into 150 lodges. Fraternal Outlook, the IWO’s monthly publication, informed its readers in April 1939 to expect the appearance of L’Unità del Popolo, which “would be almost an official organ of our Order.” In July 1940, the Cleveland lodges of the Garibaldi Society pledged to obtain four hundred new subscribers for L’Unità; and during the same month, a picnic sponsored by New York City’s lodges, at which Bardi spoke, also pledged to solicit four hundred subscribers. In return, every issue of L’Unità contained articles reporting on the IWO lodges’ activities—picnics, banquets, sports events, cultural programs, lectures, Italian-language classes. For example, the first issue of the paper contained three articles related to the Garibaldi-American Society: a report that a group of dancers from “the youth” of Italian Harlem’s Progressive Lodge would perform at the upcoming July 4th celebration; a manifesto issued by the IWO declaring that “progressives” must focus their efforts on fighting for an extension of Social Security to workers left uncovered; and an announcement of an upcoming IWO-sponsored picnic. Most importantly, L’Unità also always reported on the IWO’s insurance program: the types of insurance available, the large sums accumulated in its insurance funds, and the amounts dispersed to its policyholders. The association of L’Unità between the Garibaldi Federation was symbiotic: the paper helped build the membership of the society and provide them with the political orientation of the Party, while the lodges provided a readership base and general operational funds.

The circulation of L’Unità del Popolo was not large. The first figures reported in Ayers and Sons Newspapers and Periodicals: American Newspaper Annual are for 1947 through 1949 when due to the ever-widening repression of the Left, the circulations of all Left, and especially Communist-oriented, newspapers had dramatically declined from their high points. During this period, L’Unità’s circulation averaged between five to almost six thousand, much less than other Communist foreign-language newspapers, such as the Yiddish-language daily, Morgan Freiheit’s 21,000; the Russian-language daily, Russki Golos’s 31,000. Vito Magli, a Communist active in Italian Harlem who was on the staff of the paper, recalled that before the outbreak of the War the circulation of L’Unità peaked at ten thousand and that its readership was aging. Donini, however, claimed that the circulation of the paper averaged from thirty to forty thousand, which was distributed “in almost all the great Italian American centers throughout the United States.” It is possible that the figures forwarded to Ayers do not account for street-corner sales, bundle orders for IWO lodges, and the larger press runs for special editions such as a magazine-format insert published on the fifth anniversary of the paper.

Though nowhere explicitly stated, the Communist affiliation of L’Unità del Popolo was unmistakable. First, its name echoed L’Unità, the legendary organ of the Italian Communist Party, founded in 1923 by Antonio Gramsci. On occasion, the radical weekly explicitly defended the civil rights of the Communist Party. For example, in an editorial entitled “Outrage against the American Home,” the editors exhorted their readers to protest the order of deportation that had been issued against Earl Browder’s wife, who the editorial pointed out was the mother of three American-born children. The editorial argued that the order of deportation represented “a violation of American traditions of hospitality and freedom.”

While clearly operating within the parameters of the Communist Party’s general political positions, L’Unità calibrated its responses to the prevailing political sentiments of the progressive Italian American community. For example, while the Daily Worker constantly castigated Fiorello La Guardia for his pro-interventionist stance during the period of the Soviet-German Non-Intervention Pact, L’Unità printed only one article critical of the man who had significant prestige in the progressive Italian American community. Similarly, in 1940, while both the Daily Worker and L’Unità denounced both Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie, unlike the Worker, which made no effort to disguise its relationship to the Communist Party, L’Unità did not directly endorse Browder’s candidacy, but limited itself to advocating the election of “progressives” such as Marcantonio. Similarly, L’Unità published far fewer articles about the Soviet Union than the Daily Worker.

L’Unità adhered to the overall strategic conception of the Communist movement; however, it creatively adapted the Comintern’s general position to the specific realities of the Italian American community. Nowhere was this accomplished more successfully than on the most central issue for the Italian American Left, that is, Fascism versus anti-Fascism.

The assumption of power by Hitler in 1933 moved Fascism from an upper- to a lower-case word; from an Italian to an international phenomenon. The containment and ultimate defeat of fascism replaced socialist revolution at the top of the Communist movement’s agenda. The Communist approach to fascism, was first enunciated by the Anglo-Indian intellectual, R. Palme Dutt, who in 1934 argued that capitalism in decadence breeds fascism because fascism’s “basic aim [is] the maintenance of capitalism in the face of the revolution.” Dutt identified the principal aim of fascism as “the destruction of the revolutionary labor vanguard, that is, the communist sections and leading units of the proletariat.”

The following year, Georgi Dimitroff, the Bulgarian Communist, presented to the Comintern The United Front Against Fascism, a report that became the official Communist approach to fascism. Like Dutt, Dimitroff characterized fascism as having two major features: it employed a demagogic ideology which mobilized the petit bourgeoisie, peasants, and the unemployed; and it utilized terror. However, the fascist movement only became dangerous at the point when the capitalists, who in fear of their own expropriation turned to the fascists to destroy parliament and the independent institutions of the working class. In short, Dimitroff asserted that fascism was anti-Communism.

Dimitroff’s theses were applied by L’Unità del Popolo in ways which allowed an anti-Fascist message to penetrate into the Little Italies and gain a hearing from the Italian American masses. Dimitroff had placed Nazism in a special category. He defined German fascism as “the most reactionary variety of fascism. ... a bestial chauvinism ... a government system of political banditry, a system of provocation and torture. ... It is medieval barbarity and bestiality, it is unbridled aggression in relation to other nations.” This enabled the paper to shift the shame and blame of fascism off the Italian people and onto the Nazis. The tactical corollary to this axiom was the mobilization of sentiment among Italian Americans against Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany. Articles in L’Unità stressed the exploitation of the Italian people by the Nazis, and presented Mussolini as a puppet of Hitler. In this way, the Fascist government was identified as collaborating with a foreign oppressor against the most rudimentary interests of the Italian people. Furthermore, this approach attached the nationalist sentiments of the Italian masses to the anti-Fascist side. Much later, Donini reconstructed the Party’s sophisticated presentation of this key issue. He noted that “the first task” of L’Unità was “to try to make the Italian Americans understand that Fascism did not represent Italy, that the true Italy existed among those who fought to re-establish democratic liberty in order to create a new form of social life that Fascism had made impossible. [Moreover, it had to] uproot Fascist influence without offending the great masses of the immigrants’ attachment to the nation and the Italian people.”

Dimitroff castigated those Communists who had done “nothing to link up their present struggle with [the nation’s] revolutionary traditions and past. [So as to not] relinquish to the fascists all that is valuable in the historical past of the nation.” In practice, this meant not only the incorporation of national – even patriotic – themes into Communist politics and culture, but support for the cultures of minorities living within the dominant culture. L’Unità del Popolo and the Garibaldi Society applied this approach creatively. This perspective on national history and its symbols caused L’Unità, and the small world of Italian American Communists for which it spoke, to emphasize along with May Day the celebration of July Fourth, which serendipitously was both the birthday of the United States and the birthday of Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Every Fourth of July, L’Unità and the Garibaldi American Federation sponsored a celebration, which was held at the base of the statue of Garibaldi in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square. In 1939, as many as four thousand people assembled to listen to speeches by Marcantonio, Luigi Candela, the President of the Garibaldi American Federation, and the editors of. L’Unità. A chorus made up of Garibaldi Federation members sang Italian songs and members of the youth group performed folk dances of various regions of Italy. In 1942, before an audience of more than four thousand, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergymen spoke, and Donini (who presided and gave the keynote speech) announced that the Italian Americans of the Lower East Side had collected enough money to fund the purchase of an ambulance to donate to the United States Army. The high point of that year’s July Fourth, however, occurred when two members of the Garibaldi Regiment of the International Brigade laid at the foot of the Garibaldi statue a wreath of red flowers in the form of a “V” (to symbolize victory) festooned with a banner inscribed “In the Spirit of Garibaldi, Forward to Victory over Fascism.” Indicative of the broader acceptance of Communist-Party-related events during the war years, the 1943 celebration (which was promoted by the distribution of 100,000 flyers in the Italian communities) was chaired by John Lamula, the State Assemblyman representing the Lower East Side. The speakers that year included Marcantonio, Berti, Peter Cacchione, and Mario D’Inzillo, the new president of the Garibaldi Federation of the IWO. During the afternoon, while “The Hymn to Garibaldi” was sung, once again Italian-American veterans of the International Brigade laid a wreath at the foot of Garibaldi’s statue.

In a number of highly visible ways, the format of L’Unità reflected this patriotic orientation. For example, out of the “del” in the masthead of L’Unità del Popolo emerged the Statue of Liberty. On one side of this masthead, Thomas Jefferson is quoted to the effect that “The most secure protection of the rights of the people is the massed strength of its citizens.” Juxtaposed to this was a quote from Garibaldi: “Be United O People, be united, and you shall be free!” In this way, the paper announced its connection to the radical democratic traditions of both the United States and Italy and the integral relationship between both. In part because of their refusing to cede the history and symbols of their countries to the fascists, the Communist-led Left was able to influence millions in the course of events.

In a related way, L’Unità’s reportage never attacked religion. Indeed, if the readers’ knowledge of Italian American life depended solely on this one paper, they would have had to assume that religion played no role whatsoever in the lives of the people. Although it remained unstated, the Communist movement--through its propagation of a set of beliefs, its identification of heroes and martyrs, its celebration of holidays and rituals – became a secular religion, which among other things substituted for traditional religion. In a similar vein, at no time did the paper attack organized crime in the Italian American communities. The editors knew that “the boys” had the acceptance of most of the people in these communities. From the point of view of many community residents during this period, these gang members carried out functions (alcohol production and distribution, gambling, and lending money), which they did not believe should be illegal. Moreover, they were seen as providing security in neighborhoods where the residents did not trust the police. In both the areas of religion and organized crime, L’Unità del Popolo did not try to transform the underlying culture of these communities. Instead, the Communists allied themselves with the potentially Leftist features of the adapted Southern Italian culture: its democratic impulses, its solidarity, its rebelliousness, and its resentment against the third-rate treatment meted out to them by the dominant groups.

The Communist movement was aware of the successful efforts that fascist movements had made to recruit young people. L’Unita did not make any systematic effort to attract the young; however, it did on occasion print an article intended to achieve that purpose. In 1941, it published “East Harlem Italian Youth to Fight Negro Discrimination” and “Harlem Youth Plan Fight to End Job Discrimination.” From time to time, the paper did acknowledge the declining use of the Italian language. A 1940 editorial (which announced a short-lived change from a one- to a two-page English-language section), noted, “The great majority of Italian Americans are American born.” Also in 1940, an article reporting on a speech by Bardi in Buffalo observed that “the young people in the audience listened attentively and then presented their questions in English.” Although L’Unità made no on-going efforts to inculcate the Italian language, the paper announced in 1948 that it would sponsor a “new course of study of the Italian language and culture, which beside the teaching of the Italian language, will include lessons on the literature, history, thought, and art of Italy ... with particular stress on the economic and political conditions of contemporary Italy.” The tasks of maintaining the involvement of the youth and the use of the language were more naturally the functions of the Garibaldi Society, which evidence both an awareness of the centrality of these questions to the Italian American world. After admitting that “Our fraternalism needs young people,” Fraternal Order noted: “The most effective of these fields proved to be sports.” To that end, the IWO organized hundreds of sports teams which participated in all kinds of tournaments up to a national level. Fraternal Order also regularly published a separate section “Our Young Fraternalists” and maintained a division for youths. The business of the Garibaldi Society was conducted in Italian. It is not clear what specific programs the Garibaldi Society developed to formally teach Italian so it is not possible here to determine whether this created a context where the young generation could learn the language, of served to exclude them. L’Unità’s role in the maintenance of the Italian language and culture was implicit, whereas in the Garibaldi Society it was explicit. For example, an article in L’Unità about the Garibaldi Society noted that it “wants to develop the Italian culture and tradition as an important part of the life of the United States.”

Dimitroff reiterated the thrust of Dutt’s insistence as to the anti-Communist nature of Fascism. L’Unità del Popolo and the Italian-language pages of Fraternal Outlook reminded their readers that “in Italy [Fascism] began with saying that it was the communists who had taken Italy to the brink of the abyss and after having extinguished the word of the Communists, the Chambers of Labor, the workers’ cooperatives, and all the workers’ organizations and unions were destroyed. ... In Germany, the same thing was repeated in an even more savage and painful way.” In an editorial published in L’Unità, the same point was made: “The experience of other countries has taught us time and again that an onslaught against the Communists is but the first step in a far-flung onslaught against the trade unions and other liberties of the general population.”

L’Unità del Popolo and the Italian-language pages of Fraternal Outlook strove mightily to combat anti-Semitism and racism within their own progressive community as well as the wider Italian American community. An article criticizing the failure of the Order of the Sons of Italy in America to respond more strongly against the anti-Semitic decrees reported that the masses of Italian Americans were “upset, indignant, and preoccupied.” In congruence with its overall approach of separating Fascist Italy from Nazi Germany, the article characterized Mussolini’s racial policies as an “extension into Italy of the anti-Semitic politics of Hitler.” During this period, the paper also published a translation of an article Marcantonio had written for a magazine called Equality, where he insisted that “The defeat of anti-Semitism in not only an important task for the Jewish people, but for all those who love democracy. It is not possible that one minority group could be persecuted without that having consequences for the other groups.”

In March 1939, the IWO published fifteen thousand copies of a forty-page pamphlet, Siamo Ariani? [Are We Aryans?], by Gino Bardi, and later that year a Communist publishing house published an English-language edition that sold for five cents per copy with discounts for bundle orders. An article in Fraternal Order insisted that “Not only should each member read and reread [Siamo Ariani?] in order to understand many things that up to this very day are not known; but in every lodge there ought to be an educational discussion. Each lodge should distribute the pamphlet among the Italians in thousands of copies.”

Siamo Ariani? specifically responded to the issuance of a report on July 14, 1938 under the direction of the Italian Ministry of Popular Culture by a group of scholars that attempted to prove that a pure Italian race existed and that is was of “Aryan” origin. The report further insisted that the Jews were not Aryans, and that intermarriage between Italians and Jews threatened the purity of the Italian race. Bardi’s pamphlet provided an accessible, yet at no time condescending, refutation what the Fascists had imagined to be a scientific justification of the anti-Semitic decrees.

The tone and orientation of Siamo Ariani? are identical with the editorials and articles in L’Unità; however, Siamo Ariani? allowed for an extended and more synthetic presentation of the Communist Party’s general argument against fascism’s extreme variety of racism and specifically anti-Semitism. Bardi’s polemic rested firmly on the solid foundation of the radical republican tradition of the Risorgimento. He underscored Giuseppi Mazzini’s profound internationalism by citing his declaration: “I love my fatherland because I love all fatherlands.” He reminds his readers that Garibaldi “offered his sword to fight for the freedom of the common people from tyranny, where ever they might be.” Lastly, he insisted that Giacomo Leopardi’s lament “O Fatherland” is apropos of Fascist Italy where it queries: “I cry to heaven and earth: Tell me, tell me, Who brought her [Italy] to so low a pass?” Bardi characterized Mussolini’s endorsement of the Anschluss as “endangering the territorial integrity and national independence of Italy.” This was a masterful stroke because in one blow it undercut Fascism’s claim to its most core principle, that is, nationalism, while identifying the Left, which was accused of being antipatriotic, with upholding Italy’s national interests. This current, of course, became a torrent when Mussolini led Italy into a losing war behind Nazi Germany while the Communist Party and other Left forces led the Resistance to the Nazi occupation.

Siamo Ariani? also included a four-page history of the Jews in Italy, which showed that the small Jewish community (which he estimated as numbering at that moment 47,000) had been an integral part of Italian history for over two thousand years. The pamphlet noted that the core of the Jewish community originated in Rome before the birth of Christ and had been supplemented by Sephardic Jews who found sanctuary in Italy from the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps, to best effect, Bardi reminded his readers of the Jewish contribution to the Risorgimento, and most especially the success of Daniele Manin in overthrowing Austrian rule and replacing it with the short-lived Venetian Republic in 1848. Bardi then listed Jews of all types of political backgrounds who played important roles in Italian history, including: Luigi Luzzatti, five-time Prime Minister; Ernesto Nathan, a mayor of Rome; and Amadeo Modigliani, the artist. He did not fail to mention those Jews who had supported fascism, including, Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s mistress. All of this led Bardi, unwittingly, to make a somewhat invidious comparison with other Jewish communities: “The Italian Jew speaks Italian, never having spoken Yiddish; he looks like any other Italian; he thinks as an Italian.” In a brilliant stroke that greatly amplified the potential audience for Siamo Ariani?, when Bardi gave the last word on the Jews’ right to full equality in Italy to none other than Pope Pius XI, who is quoted as saying “We are spiritually Semites.”

After listing the penalties (the expulsion of Jews from the schools, the expropriation of their property, their exclusion from public life) inflicted upon the Jews since the promulgation of the anti-Semitic Decrees, Bardi warned his Italian American audience that even in the United States they are potential victims of fascism. He noted that fascist organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Silver Shirts were not only anti-Semitic and anti-Negro, but also anti-Catholic and anti-foreign born. Consequently, he reasonably posited that it was in the self-interest of Italian Americans to reject fascism whether of the Italian or the American brand.

The signing of Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939, did not decrease L’Unità’s assault on fascism. This is most evident from its treatment of Italy's invasion of Greece on October 28 1940, which was front-page news in L'Unità. Its headlines, in contrast with other Italian-language newspapers, blared: “A Victory of the Italian People: The Fascist Defeat in Greece” and “There Exists No Greater Courage than the Struggle against the War.” An accompanying article concluded its descriptions of the defeat of the Italian armies as a “terrible blow for Italian imperialism.” An English-language article's headline averred: “Greek and Italian People Share a Common Heritage of Liberty and Culture.” L'Unità's position on Italy's invasion of Greece was entirely consistent with its general outlook. Earlier that year, Bardi had assured an audience of two hundred Italian Americans in Rochester that: “Every victory of Italian imperialism constitutes a defeat for the Italian people and a danger for the Italian American people.”

In addition to presenting an anti-Fascist perspective about Italy's invasion of Greece, L'Unità del Popolo strove to help preserve the unity between the progressive Italian and Greek communities. Together with Eleftheria, the Greek-language weekly associated with the CPUSA, L’Unità organized a series of meetings in Italian American communities featuring speeches by the editors of both newspapers. Its articles and advertisements at first encouraged its readers to attend these meetings, and then subsequent articles amplified the meetings’ impact by reporting the content of the speeches and the reactions of the audiences. The advertisement for the first of these meetings, which was held on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, urged attendance “[Because] it is in our interests to know the truth about the origins of the military and naval conflict in Greece and in the Mediterranean and about the struggle of the Italian people against the war.” Other joint meetings were held in Corona, Queens, Detroit, Chicago, and yet another on the Lower East Side. The Chicago meeting, which was held at the C.I.O. Hall, reported the text of a resolution made by the audience: “We, Greeks and Italians ... pledged ourselves to promote unity and fraternity of the Greek and Italian Peoples in Chicago, and to expose and fight against those who are interested in dividing and disrupting the Greek and Italian peoples for their own selfish and reactionary policies.”

L’Unità’s uncompromising support for Greece against Fascist Italy was not anomalous. Throughout the period of the Soviet-German Anti-Aggression Pact, the paper castigated fascism. For example, it supported Chian K’ai-shek’s defense of China against the Japanese invasion, and it praised the strike organized by the Dutch workers in Rotterdam in defense of the Jews. There was, however, a striking dearth of articles documenting the persecution of Jews, Communists, and others, in Nazi Germany. Conversely, in comparison to the period of the Popular Front there was a shift to the Left in its opposition to capitalism. A July 1940 article, for example, after listing many violations of civil rights and liberties in the United States, stated that: “We want to remember that 59 percent of the country’s wealth is owned by one percent of the people and that 75 percent of the population owns nothing.”

The approach of L’Unità del Popolo and the Communist movement within the Italian American community to the anti-fascist struggle never preached to the Italian American community in terms which even suggested that it was philo-Fascist. It attempted to build upon the democratic traditions of both Italy and the United States to draw them as far as possible into an anti-Fascist culture and movement. However stumbling and at times crude its efforts might have been, the contributions of L’Unita del Popolo, and the Communist movement for which it spoke, achieved a central place in the wider anti-Fascist movement among the five million Italian Americans.

L’Unita’s life was first curtailed and then ended by the post-World War II Red Scare. President Harry S. Truman struck the first – and perhaps the most deadly – blow to the movement of which L’Unita was a component. On March 25, 1947, he launched a loyalty program that established that membership or even “sympathetic association” in any organization that the Attorney General found to be subversive was “one piece of evidence which may or may not be helpful in arriving at a conclusion” as to whether individuals should be able to be hired or maintain their jobs. On December 5, 1947, the Garibaldi American Fraternal Society was placed on the Attorney General’s List.

The anti-Communist purges and quarantine spread to another area that affected many Italian Americans. In December 1950, the United States Coast Guard announced that henceforth anyone working on the waterfront or on an American ship would have to apply for security clearance. This led to a massive blacklisting of waterfront and maritime workers (many of whom were Italian American) who had been Leftists, affiliated with Left unions, or with insurgent caucuses within their own unions.

The trade unions that along with the Garibaldi Society had provided the financial base for the paper were expelled from the CIO, or in the case of the AFL-affiliated Local 6 of the Hotel Workers’ Union was placed under receivership by that union’s international. While they fought for their organizational lives, their leadership was jailed, deported, or in some cases, both jailed and then deported. What made matters much worse was that membership in these organization was also used as evidence justifying deportation. While Communist-oriented publications were not placed on a subversive list, the government targeted the editors of these newspapers for deportation. In addition to many prior cases, in 1953, at least fifteen editors of pro-Communist papers were arrested for deportation or denaturalization.

Ultimately, the most fatal aspects of the anti-Communist postwar purge were those specifically aimed at the destruction of the Communist Party. The Communist Party had provided an overall ideological guidance and coordination to this multifaceted world. Once left to themselves, the activities of the individual components could not have much political effect. Once isolated, the myriad individual components of this movement, including the community clustered around L’Unità del Popolo and the Garibaldi Society, were able to serve few of the cultural needs of their members. Even these lost their raison d’etre, that is, the possibility of participating in a movement dedicated to large collective efforts – such as, the defense of the Spanish Republic, the organization of industrial unions – which for their adherents consisted of nothing less than aspects of a process of building a new world.

The political repression of the Left in due course landed on L’Unità del Popolo’s doorstep. On September 24, 1948, Michele Salerno was arrested and held for deportation because of his membership in the Communist Party. Salerno, who had been released on $1,000 bail, actively participated in a campaign organized by L’Unità del Popolo contesting this charge. The paper emphasized the fact that Salerno had resided in the United States since 1923 and had an American-born wife and son. (Furthermore, it meant leaving behind two American-born brothers and one sister as well as an eighty-year-old father.) The paper accused the Government of moving to deport Salerno and other Leftists “in order to remove obstacles to its imperialist plans” and specifically the Marshall Plan. In fact, the Truman administration’s moves to deport purported Communists throughout Wallace’s campaign and the arrest of the top leadership of the Communist Party two days before the Progressive Party’s presidential convention were widely viewed as timed to destabilize Henry Wallace’s candidacy that polls indicated had the approval of at least seven percent of the electorate.

L’Unita del Popolo became an early casualty of the domestic Cold War: its last issue appeared on August 11, 1951. L’Unita del Popolo may have been the first Communist foreign-language newspaper to cease publication. In fact, many survived the McCarthy period and then undramatically died out along with their readership—a few continue publishing. A number of factors may explain L’Unita’s earlier demise. The defeat of Vito Marcantonio – whose presence in that community and in the pages of L’Unita was colossal – in the 1950 election, must have deeply shaken the Italian Communist community. Especially damaging to L’Unita’s survival, however, was the greater risk of deportation among the Italians. Salerno was not the only Italian American arrested in political deportation proceedings. In October of 1949, a headline in L’Unità reported “Six Italian-Americans Held for Deportation.” They were: William Gave of Detroit, who had lived 29 years in the United States; Luigi Mascitti of Philadelphia, 20 years; John Mastrondea of Detroit, 40 years; Joseph Modotti of Los Angeles, 29 years; Angelo Pagotto also of Detroit, 29 years; and Salerno, who lived in the Bronx, 25 years. In addition to these six, there were these Italian Americans targets for deportation: Anthony Cattonar, a leader of a United Electrical Workers Union; Arduilio Susi, a leader of Local 89 of the Chefs’ and Cooks’ Union; Giacomo Quattrone, of Boston, the father of eight American-born children. Francesco Costa, of Rochester, was arrested for deportation at the age of eighty-three, because he refused to provide deportation testimony against his own son, Leonard. Deportations were originally limited to aliens who had at any time been members of the Communist Party. The government then began deporting naturalized citizens who they accused of lying on their citizenship applications about past or current membership. As the McCarthyite hysteria metastasized, causes for deportation became increasingly arbitrary. Quattrone, for example, was deported not for Party membership but or having attended meetings and donating money. Lewis Corey/Louis Fraina – who had become a rabid anti-Communist advocating, among other things, military aggression against the Soviet Union – died of a stroke at the age of 61 while anticipating an order of deportation to a country he had left at five years of age.

Michele Salerno adjusted well to his new life in Italy. He immediately began working in the press office of the Italian General Confederation of Labor, a Communist-led federation that was at the time the largest in Italy. He then worked on the foreign desk of the Communist-sponsored Paese Sera, where ultimately he became the foreign editor and then the assistant editor. He also wrote a number of books including Geruselemme Demistificata, America nera, Filosofia della prassi, and Il compromesso storico, as well as editorials and articles for a wide range of Left newspapers and journals. He died on June 10, 1978, and is buried, along side his wife, Betty Esbinsky, in Anticoli Corrado, a small town outside of Rome, where he had served as mayor elected on the PCI list.

According to United States immigration law, the government can only deport the foreign-born if their native country is willing to receive them. The vast majority of foreign-born Communists had arrived from Eastern Europe, whose Communist-led governments, following the wishes of the victims of McCarthyism, refused to accept them. Hence, while they (including editors of various foreign-language Communist papers) incurred years of legal duress, they were effectively immune from deportation. This was not the case for those Italian Americans indicted for their involvement with the Left because Italy accepted political deportees from the United States.

One further factor must have had a disproportionately great impact on the Italian American Left. To a unique degree, the Italian American community was mobilized to combat Communism. A vast movement – the Roman Catholic Church, and Il Progresso Italo-Americano – was organized by various agencies of the United States government to activate the Italian American community to write letters attempting to discourage their Italian relatives and friends from voting for the PCI in the 1948. Primarily this took the form of letter to writing, but it also utilized more creative tactics such as radio program broadcast during April 1948, where Frank Sinatra joined Jimmy Durante and Joe DiMaggio in an hour-long presentation in Italian in which they encourage the Italian people to vote against the Communist Party. This comprehensive anti-Communist mobilization, which had few analogue in any other community, must have added additional obstacles to the continuation of L’Unità.

L’Unita del Popolo reveals a small but active community of Italian American Communists. They attended endless meetings where they listened to speeches and lectures. They organized picnics, joined choral groups, and folk dance societies. Their children belonged to the sports clubs and the marching bands organized by the Garibaldi Society. Rather than read Il Progresso Italo Americano, they of course read L’Unità del Popolo. While they lived somewhat apart from non-Communist Italian Americans and frequently intermarried, almost like some sort of secular religious sect, they also worked hard and took great risks to change society. Its members helped organize unions, fought in Spain, swelled the ranks of the May Day marches, devoted themselves to re-electing Marcantonio, and provided a consistent and highly effective base for the struggle against Fascism in the wider Italian American community.

-- This article originally appeared in The Italian American Review (Summer-Spring 2001): 121-156.