Why Columbus Day of 1942 is so Meaningful Today

Why Columbus Day of 1942 is so meaningful today

Estimated reading time: 30 minutes

Beginning on December 8th 1941, over 600,000 Italian-Americans were branded “enemy aliens” and were firmly under the surveillance of the US intelligence community. Out of that number, tens of thousands were experiencing a very broad range of civil rights violations and massive economic losses, and a few thousand were being held in internment camps along with Americans of German and Japanese descent[1].

With this large ethnic group under restrictions, an even larger group of the Italian-American population was in military uniform and spread across the globe fighting for the United States. This incongruence was not lost on President Roosevelt and his advisors, and the discussion became how to plan the unavoidable task of invading Italy. How was FDR going to justify ordering hundreds of thousands of Italian-American servicemen now located in the European-African theater to invade their country of origin, and possibly face family members in action, while several hundred thousand of their community at home were under various levels of lockdown?

From any angle, this question pointed to the same inevitability for FDR; Italy had to be invaded, the remaining fascists swept away, and the Nazi war machine driven off the peninsula. The US Government needed the help of the Italian-American people, and it couldn’t ask for that while also continuing to persecute the Italian civilian population in the United States. The conclusion was clear – it was time to offer an olive branch of sorts through the possibility of lifting the label “enemy aliens” off of hundreds of thousands of Italians.

The Attorney General’s Address to Americans of Italian Origin

On Columbus Day of 1942, the Honorable Francis Biddle, Attorney General of the United States, made a public address to the nation from Carnegie Hall. It was a speech entitled “Americans of Italian Origin”, and it was broadcast nationwide via the Mutual Broadcast System.  Key points of the speech told the American public that the Italian people had proven that they were trustworthy, and that they were no longer to be classified as “enemy aliens”.

The speech was designed to show the nation that they could now trust their Italian neighbors. In reality, trust was never an issue, as many American’s already knew that Italians served America faithfully in so many ways. Americans of Italian descent were fiercely loyal to the United States, as evidenced by the 1.5 million men from the Italian community that signed up to fight for the United States. It was also obvious that our national infrastructure and war production were well-staffed with many of the remaining adult Italian-American population, and they were doing honorable work already. Many did so while worrying about their sons in uniform, and their families across the Atlantic under Fascism’s thumb.

Attorney General Biddle’s speech is housed at the Department of Justice. Reading it from a distance of 78 years reveals his personal thoughts about Italians in America; he discusses how he always felt that he could trust the Italian-American public, but had to abide by the law and ensure the safety of the homeland. There is also a mood of concern because this signaled the beginning of the plan to invade Italy, and to order Italian-American men to invade their home country. It would take another year for Italian-Americans to finally be release from internment camps, but this at least let them know it was coming.

Why is Columbus Day a Key Date for Italians in America?

Francis Biddle understood the sensitivities of the Italian-American public, so the idea of using Columbus Day as the date to announce the release from enemy-alien status would be quite meaningful. Columbus Day had come to represent a symbol of inclusion from the American people to the Italian-American community. The celebration was pushed to a major extent by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 as an appeasement to both Italy and the Italian-American public after the mass lynching of falsely-accused Italians in New Orleans in late 1891.

Columbus Day would again become a milestone in the history of Italians in America, as Biddle’s speech on that day in 1942 contained another positive outreach, this one to certain Italian-Americans who were not able to pass the onerous literacy test. This offered older Italians, who had long been denied a path to citizenship, a waiver so they could finally become citizens of the United States. This provided long-awaited citizenship to approximately 200,000 older Italian-Americans.

Columbus Day is tied to key moments of historical struggle for a long-sought inclusion into American society. An inclusion earned through tough perseverance and dedication to America in the face of ethnic discrimination, lynch mobs, violence, and devastating economic loss and legalized civil rights violations.

Columbus Day of 1942 was a day of deliverance to so many people, a moment earned by the decades of Italian-American contribution. This is reflected in the dedication, and often the very lives, of countless young Italian-American men on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Sharing that burden were those stateside who helped build and support the US War effort to defeat the Axis threat. Many Italian parents on the manufacturer’s assembly lines would receive telegrams from the War Department announcing the loss of their sons in defending the United States.

Key Takeaway #1:  Columbus Day is tied historically to key periods of struggle for a long-sought inclusion of Italian immigrants into American society.

Quotes from AG Biddle’s 1942 Columbus Day Speech

Key passages from Attorney General Biddle’s speech also reveal his knowledge of the history and heart of the Italian diaspora. By referring to struggles both ancient and contemporary, he paints a short but accurate picture of the historical troubles and successes within the Italian-American journey.

Each passage offers illumination for the reader as to the effects of war on the Italian civilian population, as well as the responsibility to work together to support the homeland. At the end of page 7 of his speech, AG Biddle describes the gallantry of some Italian servicemen in recent action, which leads into the following crucial passages: 

Surely the fathers and mothers of these boys are making the same sacrifice, surely their feeling about it can be no different, from that of other fathers and mothers who are citizens of this country. They, too, would like to be citizens of America. Had it not been for the barrier of the literacy test, almost without exception they would have become so long ago. 

 

It is for this reason that I have recommended enactment of a bill which is now under consideration in Congress. By the terms of the bill, an alien who is otherwise eligible, will be granted citizenship without taking the literacy test, provided he is fifty years of age or older, and provided that he came to this country before July 1, 1924, and has lived here continuously since. This measure would, I think, remove the greatest single difficulty that has stood in the way of citizenship for a large number of the older generation of Italians, who in all other respects, have made this country their own. Some 200,000 Italians would be affected by this new law. 

 

I know the problems of the people of Italian origin who are living in this country. I know their heritage and background, their hopes and ambitions. For a long time I have known what their loyalties are. When war broke ten months ago, and they were declared “alien enemies”, I knew time would tell the story of these loyalties better than any words of mine, any assurances or predictions that I could make. 

 

Nevertheless, I said then, and I have repeatedly said since, that there was no doubt in my mind that with a very few exceptions, these 600,000 Italian “alien enemies” were not enemies at all. 

 

Experience has borne me out. We now have the results of ten months of an unprecedented exercise of wartime vigilance. We have watched these Italians, these so-called “alien enemies”, we have investigated, we have acted on the slightest impulse of doubt. We have taken no chances. And what do find? We find that out of a total of 600,000 persons, there has been cause to intern only 228, or fewer than one-twentieth of one percent!

 

The test of time, of actual performance, was essential. We wanted proof. We were right in requiring it. But now the proof has been given; and the stigma of “alien enemy” would be unfortunate from now on, not only in name; if continued against the Italian population of this country, it would be unfortunate in deed.

 

I have an announcement to make to you tonight, that comes as a result of the splendid showing the Italians of America have made in meeting this test. It also comes as the fulfillment of my own hopes, the consummation of a project that has been very close to my heart. I now announce to you that beginning October 19, a week from today, Italian aliens will no longer be classed as “alien enemies”. From that time on the exoneration which they have so well earned will be granted them. With the approval of the President I have today issued the following order:

 

Section 3002 of the Regulations Controlling Travel and other Conduct of Enemy Nationalities is amended by adding thereto paragraph (f), so that it will read: Classes of persons not required to comply with these regulations: Any alien of Italian nationality.

 

Of course this does not mean that dangerous or disloyal persons are no longer subject to apprehension or internment. We still will take no chances. It does mean that the regulations applying, up to now, to alien enemies, no longer apply to Italian aliens – Those persons, though they are still aliens, are not, from this time forth, subject to the restrictions imposed by existing regulations on alien enemies. They will be free to participate in the war effort without the handicaps that have hampered them up to now. They will be free to travel and go about their lives as any other person. I wish to emphasize that in thus removing the label of alien enemy from Italians, we do not forget that there are other loyal persons now classed as alien enemies. Their situation is now being carefully and sympathetically studied the Department of Justice.

The Honorable Francis Biddle
Attorney General of the United States
Delivered a the Columbus Day Celebration at Carnegie Hall, New York – October 12, 1942

Key Takeaway #2:  Attorney General Biddle’s speech shows the scope of the civil rights violations revealed in our Wartime Internment Project, as well as how citizenship restrictions against southern Europeans since passage of the Immigration act of 1924 hampered families seeking to become Americans. The Wartime restrictions and internments of Italians are not included in public education history curriculums. Neither are the restrictions and internment of over 10,000 German-Americans.

How Does Columbus Day of 1942 Relate to Current Events?

The Wartime Violations & Internments, and its relationship to Columbus Day, remains ignored by primary and secondary education. This is a major reason why it is not understood by the American public. This void may also be contributing to the sharp rise of anti-Columbus rhetoric in America. Worse, very few people have the time or opportunity to sift through the maelstrom of disinformation to locate the facts, so the rhetoric goes unchallenged.

Anti-Italian discrimination has become quickly institutionalized in the form of countless city council meetings, where feckless politicians with no grasp of history remove Columbus Day from the calendar. Cancelling a key component of Italian-American Heritage Month to appease agitators is discrimination. Often an extra step is also taken by then replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, even though that holiday is already celebrated on August 9th of every year. In most cases, there is no consideration for the input of the Italian-American community. Worse, it usually isn’t sought.

A few cities have had the fortitude to take reasonable steps and keep Columbus Day active pending further discussion within the community. Some other cities such as New Haven CT and Atlantic City NJ have decided to change Columbus Day to Italian Heritage Day, which is a rational and welcome nod of compromise to those Italian communities who were either considered and/or included in the discussion from the beginning.

However, the bulk of city councils who have dispensed with Columbus Day and have not kept the date for Italian Heritage, have made no attempt to discuss the issue with Italian-American civic leaders in their jurisdiction. A point we’ve made in previous articles is that self-determination is important to any culture. City leaders need to understand this.

Key Takeaway #3:  City Councils should consider guidance and opinion from local Italian-American groups and citizens, and work with them to understand their concerns. Inclusion is expected, and is a tenet of American democracy.

The Columbian Encounter in Education

The teaching of the Columbian Encounter has always been inaccurate. The 20th century version that I learned in school was a whitewashed summation of the journey with no background on the true purpose of the expedition, nor any discussion of the other key players, their motives, and the ramifications of the encounter between the cultures involved. Today’s version of Columbian history is just as inaccurate and uninformative, but it goes a step further with the addition of misleading and fictitious pseudo-history. Neither polarized version should be taught to any student, regardless of grade level. A fact-based curriculum needs to be designed with easy access to primary sources. All valid evidence must be considered to create an accurate narrative.

The Myths and Facts behind Columbus Day

In slightly more than a century, the Italian culture in America has lived through dramatic highs and lows. We have gone from pre-war ethnic persecution, to wartime classification as “enemy aliens” (WW2), to being one of America’s post-war success stories of the latter-half of the 20th century.

We are now seeing random occurrences of Italian-Americans being harassed by protestors and vandals, who destroy statues that were commissioned and paid for by local Italian-American societies. Those statues had originally been gifted by those societies to the very public that the community worked so hard to become a part of. This vandalism happens under the false-flag of correcting history, even though the claims often made justifying the correction are false. The vandalism is, of course, counter-productive and pointless.

The positive is that a detailed review of primary and original source documents can bring the story into better focus. Upcoming major educational projects like www.knowcolumbus.org will shed additional light on the evidence-based history of Columbus. This history has dozens of powerful players with as many different motives, so context and detail are important. Some of the facts that are well supported by primary documents have been available for public study for decades, while others are newly discovered evidence. The key is that all of the primary sources must be evaluated in an unbiased way, with full transparency. Let the evidence tell the story, and the chips fall where they may.

Fact-Checking & Evidenced-Based Research Works

Columbus has become a symbol of every complaint against western progress. By targeting an individual that is no longer present to defend himself, his naysayers might feel that they have found an easy target. They haven’t. Many serious claims leveled at Christopher Columbus simply do not survive fact-checking. And that is what every American citizen should have a problem with. No one should accept rumor, myth or opinion as fact. A claim with no proof is just an opinion, and an opinion that contradicts fact is disinformation.

I am reminded of a quote by one of my favorite philosophers and debaters – the late, great Christopher Hitchens. He said “A claim asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. I add that a false claim can also be dismissed with verified evidence. Once myths are exposed, they can no longer be used to further disinformation. This is how our legal system works, and it shows why due-process is so important in a free society.

To give you a brief glimpse of how twisted the Columbus narrative is at the present time, we researched and answered six common questions about Columbus.

Columbus Q & A

Question 1 – Did Columbus Cause the Enslavement of Africans in America?

Answer:  No. Historical evidence indicates that race-based enslavement of Africans in the Americas was the brainchild of Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish cleric and historian. It is documented that Las Casas was at one time an owner of Indian slaves in the new world from shortly after his arrival in 1502, until the end of the Spanish conquest of Cuba in 1513. It was after witnessing the carnage of innocent people during the Cuba invasion, that Las Casas recanted his support of the slavery of the Indigenous people. Instead, he suggested importing African slaves to the New World to serve the Spanish Crown, as he felt that they were hardier at surviving disease than the Indigenous peoples[2]. Shortly after this, the Spanish Crown abandoned their practice of enslaving prisoners of war, and adopted the new idea of race-based slavery.

Las Casas eventually regretted his role in the institutionalization of slavery of both the Indians and the Africans, and spent the latter half of his life lobbying to abolish all forms of slavery. His efforts were unsuccessful as it was ignored by those who profited from it.

Conclusion:  Columbus died in 1506, 7 years before Las Casas suggested the idea of race-based slavery. Therefore, he cannot be connected to either the formation of, or participation in, the African slave trade in the Americas. And since he was already dead, he could not have profited from it either. Columbus had no connection to the enslavement of Africans in the new world.

Perspective:  It is an interesting observation that de Las Casas is looked upon as a protector of the indigenous people of the Americas, while his role in starting the transatlantic African slave trade is ignored.

 

Question 2 – Did Columbus Cause or Participate in the Genocide of the Indigenous People of North America?

Answer:  No. It is a proven fact that Columbus never set foot on the North American continent. Therefore, the argument that he is somehow responsible for the massive losses experienced by the Indigenous people of North America is completely unfounded.

Additionally, Columbus was long dead when the first English colonist arrived on the eastern seaboard of North America. Some Indigenous People in the United States are fully aware of this history, and have been vocal about this issue for very good reason.

Patrick Mason, a member of the Osage Nation and an attorney who specializes in tribal law, was highlighted in a June 2019 article covering the Columbus Day Hearing in New Haven Connecticut. Mr. Mason’s statements to the New Haven City Council at the meeting included the following point: “The reality is that Columbus never set foot in America” … “Heaping blame on Columbus simply scapegoats an individual and does nothing to reverse massacres perpetrated by English settlers and the continued pain imposed by the reservation system”.

Perspective:  Columbus had nothing to do with the harm experienced by the Indigenous People of North America. There is simply no evidence of any kind supporting contact between Christopher Columbus and Indigenous People in North America.

 

Question 3 – Did Christopher Columbus bring diseases that wiped out the Indians?

Answer:  Uncertain during his initial contact, but very possible. If microbiological transmission did occur, Columbus had absolutely no knowledge or control of it. The understanding of microbiology, virology, contagion and modes of transmission was hundreds of years away. It should be no surprise that this knowledge was gained only through evidence-based scientific research.

Perspective: The diseases unwittingly introduced by Europeans to the Caribbean was an unintentional but inevitable part of the Columbian exchange. This article was written 6 months into the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 infection rate has declined in only a few US States, and has now killed over 200,000 people. This is due in part to fractured leadership, supply-chain inefficiencies, and an American populace that refuses to follow simple social distancing guidelines. It’s not that the public doesn’t understand that there is a pandemic raging – it is just that they are either in denial, careless or outright negligent. This is what happens when evidence is ignored.

Since early 2020, American citizens have been warned repeatedly by top medical professionals on how to avoid becoming infected, as well as how to avoid infecting others. This information is based on Evidence-based research. Yet here we are. If we consciously refuse to help stop the spread of a worldwide pandemic in the 21st century, we are far more to blame than a 15th century explorer who had no concept of contagion.

Consider the phrase “Columbus Brought Measles to the New World and Spread it to the Native Americans”.  Sounds terrible, right? The way that phrase is worded sounds like Columbus did this personally and on purpose. That sentence is also the headline of an article from the Washington post in May of 2019.  There is no argument that disease travelled to the new world beginning with the Columbian encounter. What is left out of this common accusation is that it was unknown and unintentional.

 

Question #4 – Did Columbus Encounter Cannibals on his Voyages?

Answer: Yes. Columbus claimed in his diary that he encountering cannibals on his first voyage to the new world. This idea had never been taken seriously by modern scholars, as there was no hard evidence. That changed in January of 2020, when it was proven that a cannibalistic people called the Caribs had been present on the island since about 800 AD[3]. Columbus’ diary entry described the wounds and scars on the Indians, and his gaining an understanding from the natives that they were caused by fighting in self-defense.

Perspective & Reference: Dr. Willian Keegan, from the Florida Museum of Natural History, is the curator of Caribbean archaeology. After this discovery, he stated that “I’ve spent years trying to prove Columbus wrong when he was right: There were Caribs in the northern Caribbean when he arrived,” … “We’re going to have to reinterpret everything we thought we knew.” (This quote is available through endnote #3).

 

Question #5 – Was Columbus libeled by Francisco de Bobadilla and other Key Actors?

Answer: Yes. Columbus’ reputation as a genocidal tyrant is the product of intentional libel as well as poor modern-day research standards. It was Francisco de Bobadilla (1448 – 1502) who framed the Admiral using false accusations of various serious crimes, had him arrested and sent back to Spain in chains. That manuscript was rediscovered in 2006, and republished without also revealing the fact that Ferdinand & Isabella immediately ordered Columbus’ release, saying that the accusations against him were insufficient to warrant punishment. The Bobadilla document is an example of the various methods of conspiring against Columbus to remove him from Hispaniola.

Perspective: The republishing of Bobadilla’s letter in 2006, without the known important context of insufficient evidence is an example of egregiously bad modern scholarship. An excellent summation of the treachery of Francisco de Bobadilla is available at the Miguel de Cervantes library.

References:  Additional information about Bobadilla and his rebelling factions can be found in the memoirs of Ferdinand Columbus, who was a page in Queen Isabella’s court during the Bobadilla-Columbus conflict[4]. Also, Anti-Spanish press regarding Columbus and Spain’s existence in the Americas continued well into the 17th centuries, as England and Germany maneuvered for power using effective broadcast techniques like the Spanish Black Legend[5].

Question #6 – Was Columbus a Competent Navigator?

Answer:  Absolutely. His incredible skill as an open-ocean sailor is well-documented. His skill at dead-reckoning was proven by his ability to return to Spain and repeat the trip three additional times using this same mathematical navigation method. This voyage was duplicated in 1939-1940 by Admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison, who used a 147 foot schooner accompanied by a 47 foot ketch. These boats were roughly the dimensions of the Santa Maria and the Nina. The crew retraced Columbus’ steps using the same navigational techniques.

Reference:  This voyage is well documented in the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” by Morison.

Key Takeaway #4:  Fact-Checking & Evidenced-Based Research Works, and is reproducible. Six easy-to-find facts about Columbus with supporting evidence is a great starting point to consider the chasm between myth and fact. The gap is enormous. 

Christopher Columbus and His Vision

Columbus was one man with a grand vision to free Europe from oppression. He was a sailor and freedom fighter looking to fortify the ongoing resistance to the Ottoman Empire. With Queen Isabella’s support and funding, his expedition began. Along with her funding came royal advisors, court officers and administrators. They all had their own unique motives. Those who moved against Columbus were skilled politicians, while Columbus was a master mariner whose only court experience was asking for funding. Continued study will contribute additional information, while supporting what is already evident – that Columbus’ grave sin was his ineptitude at governing. He simply did not see the political maneuvering that surrounded him, nor had he any great talents for administration. He was quickly neutralized by this political machine. None of this detracts from his greatest talent; his incredible dead-reckoning navigational skills & master seamanship.

Columbus has been debated and studied thoroughly, he has been venerated as well as vilified, and he has been written about for over 500 years, yet today few seem able to recognize the difference between the myths and facts. Some claim that the charges against Columbus are an open-and-shut case. This assessment is just not accurate. Ongoing research continues to replace myth with fact. The 2020 discovery of the Carib tribe encountered by Columbus on his first voyage is an excellent example of new data that refines Columbus’ history. 

Why Is this Problem so Visible Today?

It has actually been years in the making. The political polarization we see today is an ideological divide created by an educational system that is filled with errors and omissions. Disinformation creates deep biases. If public education became a true source of evidence-based learning, where free speech was revered, debate welcomed, and all evidence considered, then society could right itself and by extension, fix its political representation.

Americans can then vote reasonable people into office who value evidence-based data, verified facts, and established science, and use them to make rational decisions. Some say that “everything is politics”, but that is not entirely correct. The top level of human understanding is science, logic and reason. Science and verified fact should dictate public policy. It is our only path to a just and peaceful society. 

The Path Forward is Actually Quite Simple

Until we correct the shortcomings in modern American education, rewriting history will remain biased and socially problematic. Most conversations today define and lament societal problems, but none seem to offer a definitive and workable solution. Protest without a rational solution is a detriment to society. With this declaration in mind, we are now studying how to evaluate this history in a transparent manner that honors historical, scientific and archival methodologies. The evidence should tell Columbus’ story.

The history of Columbus is indelible for all of us. Even if every statue comes down, the history cannot be erased. It should not be minimized in any way, good or bad, as we learn from history. We are a product of the Columbian exchange. We can’t change the past, but we can write our future. That stewardship is the responsibility of every American.

In my July 1st article entitled Columbus Day is about Self-Determination, I stated that “Columbus statues have been a ubiquitous public representation of our ethnicity for the bulk of the 20th Century, but I believe that this is related to the fact that the truly defining moments of Italian-American history had been deliberately kept from the American public”.

And that is the great takeaway – because our history is ignored in public schools, the Italian-American community places extraordinary value on the remaining symbol of our dedication to America, which is Columbus. The pointless public bickering over Columbus is a symptom of our politicized and faulty public education system. That needs immediate attention. The responsibility is ours to rebuild our public school curriculum so it reflects history in an evidence-based manner.

My Final note is designed to give every reader the chance to introduce a new perspective into their view of Columbus. I’ve shown how easy it is to debunk some major myths about the man, but his story is much more complex than that. It is about what some Italian-Americans see when they view a Columbus statue. They do not necessarily see the Admiral, but they see the visage of their Father or Grandfather who came to America with nothing but a dream, and then crafted a life. This is a point well-made by Professor Joe Sciorra in his 2019 Columbus Day interview with NPR. His final note is very important; this is not an “us-vs-them” issue. It is not Italian-Americans vs Native-Americans or vice-versa. It never has been. So let’s work on a solution.


[1] All three cultures had huge populations that were considered “enemy aliens”. This is detailed in our Wartime Internment research project for students and educators. This report is a necessary read for any person who feels they understand US History of the twentieth century, as it will reveal inaccuracies and omissions in the educational curriculum dedicated to that time period. A group of advisors and scholars from the German, Italian and Japanese communities worked together to create an updated curriculum to teach this complete story. This curriculum has been available since 2004. It has not been adopted by US public schools.

[2] Las Casas recommended hardier African slaves to the Spanish crown in 1515. Found at Ohio State University at http://origins.osu.edu/milestones/july-2015-bartolom-de-las-casas-and-500-years-racial-injustice. Accessed October 10, 2020.

[3] Article from Florida Museum of Caribbean History (University of Florida)   https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/carib-skulls-boost-credibility-of-columbus-cannibal-claims/. Accessed on October 10, 2020.

[4] Text titled “History of Admiral Don Cristobal Colon in which there is a particular and true account of his life and events, and of the discovery of the West Indies, called the New World”.  Authored by Ferdinand Columbus in 1538. A 1614 printing is held at the Library of Congress in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room. Accessed Oct 9, 2020.

[5] On the Internet at Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_legend#The_Spanish_Black_Legend.  Accessed on Oct 10, 2020.