'I'm An American' Radio Show Promoted Inclusion Before World War II | KUOW News and Information

'I'm An American' Radio Show Promoted Inclusion Before World War II

Oct 16, 2017
Originally published on October 16, 2017 4:17 pm

In 1940, on the eve of the United States' entrance into World War II, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Immigration and Naturalization Service wanted to promote tolerance toward immigrants.

At that time, radio was the most important medium in the U.S. More than 80 percent of American households had a radio, and people listened for three or four hours every day. So, to reach the American people, the agency made a radio show.

Aptly named I'm An American, the program featured "distinguished naturalized citizens" who were brought on to talk about their citizenship and remind the country of the "possession which we ourselves take for granted but which is still new and thrilling" to those who recently acquired it.

I'm An American wasn't full-on wartime propaganda, but historian Gerd Horten says it did have a distinct political goal.

"Most Americans, because of the Great Depression and their experience in World War I, were very reluctant to receive immigrants," says Horten, a professor of history at Concordia University and author of Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II.

He says the government was trying to fight against isolationism.

"On the other hand, FDR was trying to lead the country towards a more internationalist and more welcoming perspective," he says. "So you had these two tensions coming together in a radio show."

Listeners of the weekly program, which aired on Sunday afternoons, tuned in to hear top celebrities of the day discussing what they thought was great about living in the U.S.

"You don't have to be millionaires or even well-to-do to dance to good dance music in America," said Canadian-born bandleader Guy Lombardo.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Mann is known for works such as The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice and Buddenbrooks. "Democracy can and will triumph," the German-American proclaimed on the show.

And another German-American, Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer, talked more directly about becoming a citizen: "To me it is a thrilling thing to be able to say with all my heart: I am an American."

All of these recordings and more featuring famous immigrants sharing their first impressions of the country are housed in the Library of Congress.

Sculptor Attilio Piccirilli arrived in New York City from Italy in 1888. When asked about his arrival, Piccirilli's response offered a glimpse of the hardship many immigrants endured to reach the U.S.

"We were boys with big eyes, boys leaning over the boat rail watching New York harbor," he said. "We had 25 cents in our pocket."

In total, there were more than 60 I'm An American broadcasts, including special radio plays for I'm An American Day, which Congress created in 1940 as an annual celebration of all new citizens — and which continues today as Citizenship Day (Sept. 17).

At the time, the U.S. was seen as "America, the melting pot" — and the only country that could defeat fascism.

The government was using its power to promote good feeling toward immigrants, but that welcome wasn't extended to everyone. During the same period, Congress passed the law that would eventually lead to Japanese internment camps.

Most of the show's guests were white European immigrants who made the U.S. seem like an easy place to be a newcomer.

"People in America have been very hospitable to me and to my ideas also," the German-American author Mann said on the show.

And those ideas of Mann's happened to match the show's political message. Like Roosevelt, Mann believed the U.S. needed to go to Europe and fight fascism.

"More than ever democracy's task is to defend civilization against barbarism," Mann said.

I'm An American was rarely explicit about its interventionist messages, but the show made it clear that American values included defending democracy, with messages like this, delivered in the broadcast by "Uncle Sam."

You can always tell an American when you see one. ... They've got the look of people who think they're just as good as you are. ... They're easygoing but watch their fists double up quick when you tell them about cruelty, injustice, and oppression anywhere.

The program went off the air in December 1941, just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But Horten says tension between immigration and nativism keeps re-emerging in our history.

"There's this old expression, that history doesn't necessarily repeat itself but it rhymes — I think we're in a historical loop especially when it comes to immigration," Horten says. "In times when we are afraid and fearful, we reflexively turn our backs on immigrants and some of the world. I think the show is a good example of that. I think our current fears and anxiety are a good example of that, as well."

Sarah Laskow is a staff writer for Atlas Obscura. This piece originally appeared on the Atlas Obscura website. You can follow her on Twitter @slaskow.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In 1940, in the run-up to World War II, President Roosevelt's Immigration and Naturalization Service wanted to promote tolerance toward immigrants. At that time, radio was the most important medium in America. More than 80 percent of American households had a radio, and they listened to it for three or four hours every day. So the INS made a radio show called I'm An American.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm an American. We have invited a number of distinguished naturalized citizens to talk about the American citizenship which they have recently acquired, a possession which we ourselves take for granted.

MCEVERS: These recordings are still in the Library of Congress, and that's where reporter Sarah Laskow of the website Atlas Obscura found them.

SARAH LASKOW: On Sunday afternoons in 1940, Americans who turned on their radio might have heard one of their favorite stars talking about just how great it was to live in the U.S.-of-A. It could have been the bandleader Guy Lombardo...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

GUY LOMBARDO: You don't have to be millionaires or even well-to-do to dance to good dance music in America.

LASKOW: ...Or the author Thomas Mann...

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

THOMAS MANN: Democracy can and will triumph.

LASKOW: ...Or the actress Luise Rainer.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

LUISE RAINER: To me, it is a thrilling thing to be able to say with all my heart, I am an American.

LASKOW: Many of these famous immigrants talked about their first impressions of America. Here's sculptor Attilio Piccirilli describing his arrival in New York City in 1888.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell us something about your first sight of this country.

ATTILIO PICCIRILLI: We were boys with big eyes, boys leaning over the boat rail watching New York harbor. We had 25 cents our pocket. I remember.

LASKOW: There were more than 60 of these I'm An American broadcasts in all, and that included special radio plays for I'm An American Day, which Congress created in 1940 as a day celebrating all new Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We are all immigrants - native or naturalized, old settlers or newcomers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We have come from half a hundred lands, speaking as many tongues.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Loving the same things.

LASKOW: This was America the melting pot and the only country that could defeat fascism.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Put that in your pipe and smoke it, anybody who doubts we are one people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LASKOW: But even though the government was using its power to promote good feeling towards immigrants, that welcoming perspective didn't extend to everyone. Most of the guests were white immigrants from European countries, and they made America seem like a perfectly good place to be a newcomer. Here's Thomas Mann again.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

MANN: People in America have been very hospitable and to me and to my ideas also.

LASKOW: Mann's ideas also happen to match the show's political message. Like President Roosevelt, he believed that America needed to go to war to fight fascism.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

MANN: More than ever, today Democracy's task is to defend civilization against barbarism.

LASKOW: I'm An American wasn't full-on wartime propaganda, but it did have a distinct political goal.

GERD HORTEN: You know, most Americans because of the Great Depression and because of the experience in World War I were very reluctant to receive many immigrants.

LASKOW: That's Concordia University historian Gerd Horten, who says the government was trying to fight against isolationism.

HORTEN: On the other hand, of course, you know, FDR and his administration were trying to lead the country towards a more internationalist and more welcoming perspective. And so you had these two kind of tensions coming together in the radio show, if you will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LASKOW: I'm An American rarely mentioned the war explicitly, but the show made it clear that American values included defending democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: You can always tell an American when you see one. They've got the look of people who think they're just as good as you are and maybe better. They're easygoing, too, but watch their fist double up quick when you tell them about cruelty, oppression and injustice anywhere.

LASKOW: The radio program I'm An American went off the air in December of 1941 just weeks after Pearl Harbor. But historian Gerd Horton says that tension between immigration and nativism keeps reemerging in our history.

HORTEN: There's this old expression that history doesn't necessarily repeat itself but that it rhymes. You know, in times when we are afraid and fearful, we reflexively turn our backs on immigrants and some of the world. And I think the show is a good example of that. I think our current fears and anxiety are good - a good example of that as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "I'M AN AMERICAN")

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) With liberty and justice for all.

LASKOW: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Laskow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE SEEGER SONG, "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.