African Americans - The italo-ethiopian war

In October 1935, Benito Mussolini's fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. The war there occurred at the height of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. Congress and the nation at large. While public sympathy for Ethiopia was considerable, so was the disinclination to intervene. The minority that pressed for a more forthright stand included African Americans and Irish Catholics who broke with the Catholic majority on the issue. The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt showed concern about Italian aggression, but domestic opposition to even rhetorical intervention discouraged firm action. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull and President Roosevelt sent Mussolini a note suggesting that the United States would not necessarily remain indifferent to what his government did in Africa, the message was so subdued that Mussolini readily dismissed it. A neutrality act banned the sale of finished war products to belligerents, but it did not deny them access to strategic materials, which could be purchased proportionately to the rate of prewar consumption. Italy, a growing industrial power, bought large quantities of American oil. Ethiopia, still feudal, bought none. The neutrality act thus helped ensure that Italy would be well equipped to defeat its decrepit adversary.

Administration officials shrank from the prospect of ventilating an issue that would bring down isolationist wrath. For actors at the policy center, domestic considerations and the ultimate collapse of Ethiopian resistance tabled the question for the duration of World War II. At the periphery, however, the Ethiopian issue enabled the development of linkages that remained timely. Ethiopia was a ready-made issue for black nationalists and permitted liberals and leftists to focus their general opposition to fascism. The Ethiopian government-in-exile played a leading role itself in keeping public interest alive through publicity campaigns and appeals for funds. It also made explicit appeals to African Americans as a usable pressure group. Ethiopia's experience with fascist conquest facilitated a sharper critique of racism and imperialism and focused postwar attention on the disposition of colonies in northeast Africa and colonialism in general.

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