'I'm An American' Radio Show Promoted Inclusion Before World War II Before the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to promote tolerance toward immigrants. So, the government started a radio program featuring celebrity immigrants' stories.
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'I'm An American' Radio Show Promoted Inclusion Before World War II

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

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

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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")

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