The human catastrophe that engulfed Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops has derided the image of America as a refuge for the persecuted peoples of the world. Cynicism about the United States and its role on the world stage is in order. But a cure for cynicism is the discipline of memory: my trip to this jagged little island in the Tyrrhenian Sea reminded me why so many people still look to America when their future looks bleak.
A century ago, in 1921, Giuseppe Aiello left his home in Ventotene, embarked aboard the SS Patria and sailed from Naples to New York. The ship’s manifesto mentioned his profession as a âbarberâ. He was 16 years old. Although he had little education and spoke hardly any English, he found work and learned his trade. Eventually, he owned his own hair salon in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks from Pennsylvania Station.
The barber was my grandfather, one of ten children of Vincenzo and Marianna Aiello. Although some of his siblings followed him to the United States, he never saw his parents again. Given the deep importance of family among Italians, my grandfather made one of the most painful decisions imaginable. Many other Italians did the same: from 1920 to 1924, about 250,000 of them left everything to come to the United States. Why?
As in Afghanistan today, the ravages of war have had a lot to do with it. The industrialized carnage of World War I left European economies bankrupt. Even though Italy was on the winning side of the conflict, its society was in tatters. About 578,000 soldiers died. Returning soldiers faced staggering levels of poverty, with few prospects for employment. On top of all this, the flu virus killed almost as many Italians as the Great War.
In 1921, Italy was on the brink of a massive collapse of public order. The parliament was corrupt, the monarchy unloved. There were fears of a Communist takeover. Historian RJB Bosworth writes: âFor Italy, the least of the great powers, the poorest of the great economies, the most fragile of the great corporations … the conversion from war to peace has brought about a sea of ââturmoil. The country was ripe for an ideology that promised to restore the glory that was Rome.
Enter Benito Mussolini. A former communist, Mussolini founded his fascist party in 1919. In two years, he and his âblack shirtsâ came to power, declaring the end of the Italian experiment of liberal democracy. âFor the fascist, everything is in the state,â he proclaimed, âand nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has any value, outside the state. It is a maxim that could come out of the mouths of the Taliban: fascism under the banner of the Islamic State.
Mussolini mocked what he called “the putrid corpse of freedom” and intended to preside over his funeral. In 1926, his fascist government swept away the vestiges of democracy and civil rights: opposition political parties and unions were banned; freedom of the press was canceled, and there were restrictions on foreign travel.
Then began a policy of “compulsory residence”, in which thousands of political opponents were rounded up and relocated to remote islands. The main one was the island of Ventotene.
In ancient Rome, Ventotene was a prison island, where the Caesars sent their wives and daughters to adultery. Criminals, radicals, persecuted Christians, all have carved out a desperate existence on Ventotene. Mussolini renews its reputation. At least 2,000 Italians were imprisoned here under his rule, and there are signs scattered around the island to mark places of detention. Gift shops even sell T-shirts with the words, confino island, island of confinement.
In 1945 the Italians would come to despise “Il Duce”, but only after he had nearly destroyed the country thanks to his wartime alliance with Hitler’s Germany. Mussolini was executed in front of a cheering crowd. According to an eyewitness, it was “as if everything was a dream from which we would wake up to find the world unchanged”.
The Italians who were lucky enough to flee Italy during the fever of fascism had another dream. Of course, the United States has not always been a welcoming place. The US Immigration Act of 1924, for example, dramatically reduced immigration from central, eastern and southern Europe. Thanks to sectarianism and xenophobia, one of the main objectives of the legislation was to exclude Italians.
Yet even in its ugliest state, America felt like a haven of sanity in a world gone mad. It must have looked like this for my grandfather. It surely sounds like this today, to the thousands of Afghans desperate to be saved from the Taliban.
If we open our doors, they will enrich our national life. Because it’s a familiar story. Like countless other immigrants whose life prospects forced them to leave home, my grandfather learned to love his adopted country. He bought a house in Brooklyn, got married, had four children, thirteen grandchildren and twenty-three great-grandchildren.
A century ago he made a choice for all of us: America.
Joseph Loconte is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation. His most recent book is A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War, which is being adapted into a documentary film: hobbitgarde-robe.com.