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