Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy during the 1920s and he is credited with developing modern- day fascism. For many people, the ideology did not carry a negative connotation at first, since neither he nor Adolph Hitler had shown their true, monstrous intentions.
In time, the world came to know the brutality of fascism: the absolute state; the expansion of empire by conquest; creation of scapegoats used to ratchet up popular fear; the sexist culture that glamorized machismo and war; the anti-intellectual culture, dismissive of human rights.
Connecticut residents first admired Mussolini for the image he projected, his jutting jaw, hands chopping the air, the testosterone-fueled attitude. Il Duce (the Leader, as Benito named himself), promised to make Italy great again, which spoke to many immigrants who longed for their homeland.
In Hartford, Mussolini’s imperial ambition struck a chord with a wide range of people. The poet Wallace Stevens admired the strongman image the dictator created for himself (“I am pro Mussolini personally” he wrote in a letter to his publisher). An executive from the Manufacturers Association of Connecticut visited the fascist country and returned with great praise for its revitalized economic system. Italian Americans marched through the streets of Hartford when Ethiopia surrendered to Mussolini’s invasion.
Father Andrew J. Kelly, a big Mussolini booster, was pastor of St. Anthony’s Church in Hartford’s Italian east end. Kelly found fertile ground for his pro-fascist stance among many (but not all) of his 2,000 parishioners.
In 1936 Mussolini put out a call to Italian women to donate their gold wedding rings to the government in a show of loyalty and sacrifice. In exchange, he offered them iron bands to wear, symbols of Italian strength. Mussolini’s name was engraved on the inside of each ring.
Father Kelly convinced 500 Hartford women to give up their gold bands at a blessing ceremony on Sunday, May 24, 1936. “The substitution of iron for gold wedding rings by Italian wives,” the priest said, “symbolizes… the unanimity of Italian sentiment in favor of its government.” One hundred rings were also distributed to women of the Hartford Italian Congregational Church, and as many as 1,000 iron bands were delivered to Catholic women in New Britain.
Kelly was a popular, if controversial figure. He lashed out at birth control advocates such as Katherine Houghton Hepburn, labeling them “busybody humanitarians” who promoted coercive and “satanic” practices by spreading “cancerous doctrines” like family planning.
Kelly was a supporter of Father Charles E. Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi “radio priest.” Coughlin had a huge listening audience and was influential in American politics. His National Union for Social Justice was a million-member political action organization. Coughlin also promoted the Christian Front, a paramilitary group that used vigilantism against agents of “Jewish communism.”
Connecticut had local versions of both these organizations. In Hartford, the National Union was led by Henry White, an employee of the Terry Steam Turbine company. The Christian Front in Hartford dissolved by 1940 when the FBI raided the New York chapter and arrested eighteen members who were planning to assassinate public figures.
None of these examples resulted in a viable fascist movement that could overtake our way of life. They do, however, demonstrate a viral strain in American history that mutates to fit the times. From Il Duce to The Donald, the warning signs are always there, and they can’t be ignored.