The Italian government of Benito Mussolini invaded the African nation of Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, in order to provide Italy with additional colonial territory, to stimulate Italy's economic growth and lower unemployment, and to create an outlet for Italy's excess population. Historians have speculated that with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Mussolini was also driven by a desire to maintain equal standing with Europe's other fascist dictator, and he saw the conquest as a means to do so. Ethiopia, which had been one of the last independent African countries, was conquered by Mussolini's forces by May 1936. The Ethiopian monarch, Haile Selassie I, and his family were driven into exile in Great Britain.
The brutality of the Italian military, particularly its use of low-flying bombing raids and poison gas against both civilians and soldiers, brought it condemnation from the international community. The League of Nations issued economic sanctions against Italy, but the sanctions were applied haphazardly because France and Great Britain wanted to avoid harming their long-standing alliance with Italy. The sanctions also allowed the continued shipment of oil to Italy and did not restrict Italy's use of the Suez Canal. Once victory was assured, the League lifted the minor sanctions against Italy in July 1936, almost indicating that they endorsed the action.
The general response of the United States government to the war was disinterest. The United States maintained its isolationist stance and concentrated its energies on the Great Depression. It had no colonies in Africa and so did not fear Italian encroachment into its overseas holdings. Economically, the area represented a tiny fraction of the nation's overseas trade, and few Americans had investments in the region that needed to be protected. Lastly, 1936 was an election year, and neither Franklin Roosevelt nor Alfred Landon wanted to make U.S. involvement in the war a central political concern.
Although the war engendered little interest among the white population of the United States, many African Americans followed the conflict closely and lobbied their government to take a stronger stand. They were motivated by several factors, including the historical importance that Africa's longest-lasting black nation represented to the continued struggle of African Americans for equality. The civil rights activism of the 1930s increasingly emphasized social and economic equality as African Americans struggled to cope with the Great Depression. They clearly empathized with Ethiopia's attempt to remain free and equal among the world's nations.
Major urban areas, such as New York and Cleveland, became centers of political agitation, prayer meetings, and demonstrations. Organizations such as the Ethiopian Research Council, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1934, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People kept news of the conflict prominent in African-American communities. The interest of African Americans in this conflict was matched by people of African ancestry across the globe, and the war provoked anti-Italian protests in Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad, as well as inquiries regarding the possibility of volunteer soldiers from southern Africa, the United States, and Great Britain.
In contrast, the Italian-American community and its organizations repeatedly urged the U.S. government not to intervene. They held fundraising drives and mass demonstrations to show their support for Mussolini's actions, and they contributed food, clothing, and money to assist Italy in its conquest. In addition, Italian Americans volunteered to serve with Mussolini's forces. This staunch support for Italy's actions brought about conflict between Italian Americans and African Americans, most notably a large riot that occurred in March 1935 in New York City.
Italian occupation of Ethiopia ended in 1941, as Italian forces were expelled by British and Commonwealth troops working in concert with Ethiopian exiles and guerilla forces, and Haile Selassie returned to power.
Baer, George W. The Coming of the Italian-Ethiopian War. 1967.
Harris, Brice, Jr. The United States and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis. 1964.
Harris, Joseph E. African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia, 1936–1941. 1994.
Scott, William R. The Sons of Sheba's Race: African-Americans and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935–1941. 1993.
Laura J. Hilton