Fascists at the Fair: A Deep Dive into Chicago’s Balbo Monuments

Monuments to problematic figures and historical events are increasingly the focus of issues relating to race and violence in the United States. Chicago’s own monuments to Italo Balbo are at the forefront of such discussions here in the city. The following is an abridged version of a research paper written for Loyola professor Dr. Timothy J Gilfoyle’s Urban History graduate seminar in 2015, meant to give historical context to the monuments, as well as to contextualize current calls to have them removed.

In Chicago’s Grant Park, just east of Soldier Field, stands a single, solitary, classical Roman column. An inscription in English and Italian at the base of the column, badly faded, reveals its surprising origins:














The column, mounted on a travertine base, was presented as a gift to the city of Chicago by Benito Mussolini in commemoration of the Italian Air Force’s 1933 transatlantic flight led by Italo Balbo, Air Marshall of the Aeronautica. Balbo and his squadron of pilots completed the final leg of their record-breaking flight in a spectacular landing in Chicago on the waters of Lake Michigan during the 1933-1934 World’s Fair. The column was unveiled a year later outside of the fair’s Italian Pavilion and has not moved from that spot since.

column dedication 7.14.34
Crowds gather to hear Balbo give a speech at the dedication of the pillar at Italian Day at the Fair. Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1934.

And the column is not even the only monument to Balbo in Chicago. Two other memorials include Balbo Avenue, formerly 7th Street, which was renamed in Balbo’s honor in 1933, and a plaque on the side of the statue of Columbus in Grant Park, which was presented to Chicago by the Italian community at the Century of Progress World’s Fair.

Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (14th) summed up many Chicagoans feelings when he recently commented to the Sun Times

“I’m amazed the citizens of Chicago have not demanded that these symbols of fascism – a street and a statue bearing Balbo’s name – donated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, a sidekick of Adolf Hitler, be removed decades ago from the city’s landscape…It is now time Chicago does something permanent about this embarrassing anomaly.” [1]

The US was not always vehemently opposed to Mussolini’s brand of fascism. David F. Schmitz has written extensively on why the United States remained friendly towards right-wing dictatorships such as Mussolini’s during the interwar years. He argues that a desire to support order and stability in Europe, as well as anxiety over the Bolshevik threat, led United States policymakers to welcome Mussolini’s rise to power and support his regime in direct contradiction with US ideals. [2]

Historians have also argued that monuments such as Balbo’s remain because, in American memory, the actions of Mussolini’s brutal regime are eclipsed by the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis. [3]

Despite the United State’s tacit support of fascism in the interwar years, Alderman Burke’s campaign to have the monument removed and to rename Balbo Avenue is not the first. Individuals and politicians have periodically challenged the monuments and their place in the city since they were installed more than 80 years ago.

The 1933 flight and dedication were protested by the Italian Socialist Federation and the Italian League for the Rights of Man, who circulated a pamphlet at the fair titled “Who is Balbo?” which described him as a terrorist and murderer. In 1946 residents waged a contentious battle in city council to rename Balbo Avenue after World War II hero John C. Waldron (Waldron did eventually get his own, different street). Opposition again arose during the 50th anniversary celebration of the flight in 1983, and as recently as 2011 a group of academics submitted a petition to Alderman Bob Fioretti to have Balbo Avenue renamed for Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who built the first nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago and came to the United States to escape fascism. [4]

The monuments and the discussions they generate about how history should be remembered illustrate a complex process in which public memory is created and reinterpreted through time. The narrative of Balbo’s transatlantic flight and monuments began as a triumphant story of innovation and technology propelling humanity towards a more enlightened future. Today, they are seen as outdated at best and offensive at worst. Following the trajectory of how the flight was memorialized and the arguments that centered around the appropriateness of the monuments shows that public memory is a fluid and dynamic force, continually defining and redefining how individuals and institutions such as cities incorporate memory of historical events into the fabric of their identity.

Two historical forces shaped the context of Balbo’s transatlantic flight and the dedication of the monuments: Chicago’s second World’s Fair, A Century of Progress, and the rise of fascism in Italy. Chicago’s centennial year, 1933, saw a fourth of the nation’s labor force out of work, 5,000 banks close, and thousands of homeless Americans living in shantytowns across the country.[5]  The second World’s Fair could not be a celebration of humanity-driven progress as the first had been. Cheryl Ganz argues in The 1933 World’s Fair: A Century of Progress that “Fair organizers, influenced by the war and early twentieth-century distrust of humankind’s capacity to produce a better world, replaced orthodox views with their belief that progress rides on the swell of technological innovation.”[6]

The fair’s motto, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts,” and exhibits that centered around the use of technology to improve everyday life exemplified these new notions of progress.

The event was hugely successful, attracting a paid audience of 39 million people, and was the perfect setting for Italo Balbo’s squadron of twenty-four seaplanes, on an incredible voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, to make an impression.

While Chicago was mobilizing to host A Century of Progress, Italy was also battling the devastating effects of the global economic depression. After World War I, the country was plagued by political instability, high unemployment, and financial ruin. The National Fascist Party, Partito Nazionale Fascista, or PNF, led by a charismatic Benito Mussolini, claimed to have the answer to Italy’s problems. The fascists promoted an ideology that was rooted in extreme nationalism and the belief that Italy needed to restore and expand its territory to assert the nation’s superiority and strength and avoid succumbing to decay. [7]  The PNF gained power and support throughout the early twentieth century, primarily through the party’s paramilitary wing, called squadristi or Blackshirts, and their violent intimidation of liberals, socialists, and anyone who disagreed with them.

Balbo became involved in the PNF after World War I in his home region of Ferrara in northern Italy, where he organized and became the leader of his own fascist gang. Balbo eventually rose through party ranks to become one of Mussolini’s closest associates. [8]

Mussolini appointed Balbo Air Minister in 1926 and charged him with building the Italian Royal Air Force, the Aeronautica. Balbo was instrumental in developing Italy’s militarized air power, and his tenure as head of the Aeronautica coincided with the so-called “Golden Age” of aviation. During this period record-breaking flights across the globe and daring aerial races were extremely popular – pilots such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were household names. Under Balbo, the Italian Air Force grew in acclaim, winning races and setting records for long distance flights.

Balbo, however, was uninterested in individual feats of aeronautical prowess because he felt they encouraged a prima donna mentality which was detrimental for a disciplined military force. His alternative to gaining publicity through hero-making solo flights was to lead mass squadrons of planes flying in formation across incredible distances. He led four major expeditions as Air Marshall.

The fourth, his most famous exploit, involved leading a squadron of twenty-four seaplanes carrying over 100 men across the North Atlantic from Rome to Chicago and back again, an ambitious feat that was never before attempted. To boost the publicity of the flight, the squadron landed in the middle of Chicago’s World’s Fair.

The American press was obsessed with the flight and religiously charted Balbo’s progress across the Atlantic. The Chicago Tribune outlined in painstaking detail the flight path from Rome to Orbetello, across the Alps to Amsterdam, and then on to Londonderry, Reykjavik, Newfoundland, Shediac, Montreal, and finally Chicago.  The New York Times reported daily on the squadron’s progress (or lack thereof) as they were often delayed by inclement weather. [9]

The spectacle that greeted Balbo’s arrival was unprecedented at the fair. Time Magazine described the scene around 5:45 PM on Saturday, July 15, as the squadron approached the city. Traffic stopped in Chicago as the planes circled, and people lined up for miles along the lakeshore to witness the landing. The squadron initially flew north past the fairgrounds, then circled around Navy Pier to land in the waters of Lake Michigan. They were accompanied by forty-three American fighter pilots who formed the word “Italy” in the air above the lake while they landed. [10]

Tribune Headline.jpg

After the landing, Balbo and his men were swept into rounds of visits, banquets, parties, religious ceremonies, speeches, and receptions. Throughout their three day stay, Balbo and his fellow airmen toured the fair, attended a preview of the unveiling of a statue of Columbus in Grant Park, and Balbo was made an honorary Sioux chief at the American Indian Village.

Walking from the Hall of Science and Industry to the Italian Pavilion, where he addressed the crowd of eager fairgoers, Balbo was met with cries of “Viva!” and the fascist salute. In his speech, Balbo highlighted his squadron’s technological achievements and the friendship between the two nations. [11]

By the end of the three-day visit, there were two monuments to Balbo in Chicago. A plaque was placed on the side of the Columbus statue in Grant Park, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly announced that 7th Street would be renamed Balbo Avenue. A year later, the third monument, an ancient Roman column, was unveiled outside the Italian Pavilion.

While Balbo’s flight was lauded and adored by fairgoers and the nation, not everyone welcomed him or appreciated the physical monuments to the event. An editorial by an unknown author, published in the Chicago Tribune, questioned attendees’ unexamined, whole-hearted embrace of Balbo:

“If the flight to America were intended, as has been rumored, as an effort to stimulate a sentiment of Italian patriotism or perhaps even of Fascist partisanism among all Americans of the Italian race, it would be rightly resented in America as in effect an invasion.” [12]

While statements such as these show the existence of some opposition to Fascism, and by extension Balbo’s flight as a propaganda tool, anti-fascist efforts were largely ineffective. At Balbo’s landing cheering onlookers vastly outnumbered anti-fascist demonstrators. After an extremely successful rally during the return leg of the flight, held at Madison Square Garden, Balbo telegraphed to Mussolini that he did not believe anti-fascism existed in the United States as he had personally encountered no evidence of it. [13]

As the relationship between the United States and Italy changed from one of friendship to enmity in the shadow of the United States’ entrance into the War, Chicago’s monuments to Balbo fell under increased scrutiny from a public that had become highly critical of fascism and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany.

Since the end of World War II, the monument to Balbo that has come under the most attack is Balbo Avenue – formally 7th Street – named in his honor in 1933. There have been multiple efforts to rename the street. The most contentious came in 1946, when 90% of property owners along and adjacent to Balbo Avenue signed a petition to rename the street after Lieutenant Commander John C. Waldron, a United States Navy flyer and Chicago native who died in the Battle of Midway. The proposal was also heavily backed by the Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers.

The president of the association, whom the Tribune identified as Mrs. Frank A Damm, expressed her feelings on the issue:

“Streets should be named for American heroes to emphasize to school children the history of their country and the acts and sacrifices of its heroes,” she stated. [14]

In a December 23, 1946, article on the proposal, the Tribune revealed that Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly had blocked the proposal to change the name by sending it to a subcommittee of the Council Committee on Streets and Alleys, where it was pigeonholed and died a slow death. The Tribune identified Kelly’s wish to maintain good relationships with the Italian American community as the reason for his actions, but then dismissed this notion based on their own observations that Kelly’s decisions had been decried by other Italian-American leaders in Chicago.

An Italian property-owner on Balbo Ave., N. R. Dispenza, explained he had signed the petition to change the name, because

“I would rather honor an American who gave his life for his country than someone who just took a plane ride.” [15]

Despite the Tribune’s editorializing, there was Italian-American resistance to changing the name. At the council meeting, representatives from groups such as the Order of the Sons of Italy in America, the Italian-American Barbers of Chicago, and the Italian Welfare Council of Chicago joined the session to voice their opposition to the name change.

State senator Roland Libonati commented that the proposal was a

“slap at the face of every man of Italian extraction.” [16]

Reactions to news of Balbo’s death in 1940 also contained evidence of Kelly’s reluctance to pass the proposal. On June 28, 1940, Balbo’s plane was shot down over Tobruk, Libya. Initial accounts of his death reported that he was brought down by sharpshooting British aviators who were attacking the Italian base near the Egyptian border.  However, conflicting accounts of Balbo’s death soon emerged.

The Los Angeles Time reported days after his demise that the British Foreign Office denied any involvement in the attack on Balbo’s plane, calling his death “unexplained” and declaring “the truth will probably never be known.” [17]

It is most likely that Balbo’s plane was brought down by friendly fire, but soon rumors were circulating that Mussolini, jealous of Balbo’s popularity, had had him killed.

The New York Times continued the report of Balbo’s death, writing, “Marshal Balbo was regarded here as strongly anti-war and anti-German and as a rival of Count Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister, in the Fascist organization.” [18] The article also referenced Balbo’s 1933 flight to Chicago and the acclaim he received as a possible motive for Mussolini to have him killed.

“It was stated there had been much conflict between Premier Mussolini and Marshal Balbo since the marshal’s mass flights to Brazil in 1930 and Chicago in 1933 stole the Premier’s limelight. For that reason, The Times says editorially, it was evident ‘the poppy was becoming too tall’ in Premier Mussolini’s eyes.” [19]

The idea that Mussolini had Balbo assassinated has been thoroughly debunked. However, Mayor Edward Kelly took the conflicting accounts of Balbo’s death to heart. When confronted about his opposition to the 1946 proposal to change the street name, Kelly expressed that he wholeheartedly did not believe Balbo was a fascist.

“The fact that he opposed Mussolini and Mussolini engineered his death is proof that he didn’t believe in the things Mussolini did,” he said in a comment to the Tribune. [20]

Kelly’s denial of Balbo’s profoundly fascist identity illustrates that for him, Balbo and the Aeronautica’s arrival at a Century of Progress was something more than a political stunt. It was an embodiment of the technological and progressive capabilities of humankind. This dichotomous view of Balbo, as either fascists or hero, continued to define disagreements about the appropriateness of the monuments.

While the proposal to rename Balbo Avenue never made it out of committee and the protest died down, in 1983 commemorations of Balbo’s flight, organized as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for A Century of Progress by the Museum of Science Industry, once again drew large amounts of public criticism. Tribune editorial columnist Vernon Jarrett railed against the 50th anniversary celebration:

“It will indeed be tragic if the City of Chicago and its prestigious museum participate in any way with the Balbo anniversary. Such an association in 1983 would offer nothing more than a shocking demonstration that some in high places refuse to learn from history. One of the most sickening observations about the rise of Hitler and Mussolini was that many of the most respected men of the professions innocently or deliberately refused to understand that you can’t separate high morality from high culture, high technology and superior science…we need to remember that phenomenon – not commemorate it.” [21]

Jarrett’s column did not go uncontested. In a response to his June 6, 1983 editorial, Jerome N. Zurla and Carl De Moon, members of the Anti-Defamation Committee of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, wrote that Jarrett’s admonishment to avoid the celebration was “irresponsible and belittled an event of tremendous historical significance.” [22]  The authors went on to argue that Jarrett’s condemnation of Balbo’s political views were irrelevant, and that Balbo’s role as an aviation pioneer outweighed his problematic political beliefs.

“His feat for the era can be likened to the achievements of our present day astronauts,” they wrote, and justified the city’s commemoration of Balbo by comparing him to other historical figures, writing “If we go back in history we can find examples of great men, even kings and presidents, whose backgrounds and beliefs might now be considered questionable. But we cannot negate their role in history.” [23]

Another editorial, written by Roberg V. Allegrini of Elmwood Park, also defended Balbo as a hero and downplayed his fascism. “Columnists J. Fred MacDonald and Vernon Jarrett simply cannot seem to comprehend the fact that Balbo was a brave and daring aviator whose flight from Italy to Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition in 1933 was a legitimate aeronautical milestone,” Allegrini argued.[24]  He contended that Balbo was only a nominal fascist who had joined the party as a patriotic Italian wished to defend his country from the larger communist threat. “Let us recognize Italo Balbo for being the superb pilot that he was, and let us enjoy the upcoming celebration in his honor to be held at the Museum of Science and Industry,” he finished his appeal. [25]

1983 was not the last time Balbo Avenue inspired controversy. In a 2006 article, columnist Eric Zorn took Alderman Tom Allen to task for his efforts to stop the practice of applying secondary, honorary names to Chicago’s streets. Criticizing Allen and others’ indignation over the honorary naming of a downtown street after former Black Panther Fred Hampton, Zorn wrote that those who opposed the name change “should realize that our city is in no position to judge Hampton unworthy as long as we have a real street named for Italo Balbo, a Fascist general and leader of the Blackshirts under World War II Italian dictator and Nazi ally Benito Mussolini.” [26]

“It’s not as bad as having a street named after Hermann Goering, Hitler’s air marshal, but it’s bad enough,” wrote an anonymous Tribune reporter of the presently named Balbo Avenue in 2011. [27]

Those who supported changing the name of Balbo Avenue argued that mere inertia and a fundamental misunderstanding of the past prevented more enlightened Chicago citizens from changing the name.  However, as in 1946 and 1983, not everyone agreed. In an editorial letter to the editor, John Dillon of Palos Heights wrote:

True, Italo Balbo was indeed a Fascist in the worst sense. However, to erase his name from being honored in 1933 would be to forget the lessons that rise above simple embarrassment for the city. Times were economically desperate and our nation was struggling frantically to find some way to climb up out of a world depression, not at all unlike today’s economic and financial turmoil…Sadly, we nationally ignored such atrocious behaviors until thrust into a position of response in 1941. Such past actions are unseemly and unsettling, but they should not be forgotten or erased with kinder, gentler names…” [28]

The heart of Dillon’s argument was that while the memorials were problematic, to erase them was to erase the evidence of the United State’s complicit role in supporting a violent, fascist regime.

Aldermen Burke’s and other Chicagoan’s calls to remove the monument and rename the street come down to a single question: What to do with our problematic history? Should these monuments remain as reminders of the United States’ participation and collusion with racists and fascists? Should they be erased from the landscape all together? Is there a middle ground?

In an article for the Association for State and Local History, author Modupe Labode, Associate Professor of History and Museum Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, offers a few potential solutions to this problem, including adding interpretive panels to explain the racist motivations of those who erected the monuments, moving the monuments to a museum, or democratizing the monumental landscape with monuments to other figures. It is clear there is not a one-size fits all solution to these problems – communities must tackle these issues together, taking into account both historical context and broader historical trends.

The interpretation and reinterpretation of Balbo’s flight demonstrate the past is not a static force, even in memory. Rather, individuals and institutions constantly remake meaning from history, contextualizing events within their own frame of reference to define their identity. In contrast to Donald Trump’s statement in a tweet  that “You can’t change history,”[29] the story of the Balbo monuments reveals a past that is always changing. In 1933, the Balbo monuments were memorials to a fair and a city whose citizens prided themselves on technological innovation and their own potential to create a better world. Now, Chicagoans must decide what story they wish to tell about themselves, and decide if the monuments still have a place in the narrative they seek to build.

Sources Cited

[1] Zach Long, Timeout Chicago, “Aldermen are Considering Removing the Balbo Monument and Renaming Balbo Drive,” August 17, 2017.

[2] David F. Schmitz, The United States and Fascist Italy, 1922-1940, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 1.

[3] Scott Ackman and Christopher Schwarz, “Dubious Legacy,” Chicago Magazine, July 10, 2008.

[4] “Naming wrongs: Rename Balbo Drive,” Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2011.

[5] Joseph Swanson and Samuel Williamson, “Estimates of National Product and Income for the United States Economy, 1919-1941,” Explorations in Economic History 10 (1972): 53-73.

[6] Cheryl Ganz, The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 3.

[7] Aristotle A Kallis, Fascist Ideology: Territory and Expansionism in Italy and Germany, 1922-1945, (London: Routledge, 2000), 41.

[8] Claudio G. Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 39.

[9] “Italians’ Flight for US Set Back,” New York Times, May 28, 1933; “Balbo Mass Flight Soon,” New York Times, May 28, 1933; “Ice and Fog Block Italian Seaplanes,” New York Times, June 4, 1933; “Italian Flyers Ready to Start Wednesday,” New York Times, June 12, 1933; “Weather Still Holds 104 Italian Fliers,” New York Times, June 15, 1933; “Weather Again Delays Italian Air Armada,” The New York Times, June 25, 1933.

[10] Time Magazine, July 24, 1933.

[11 ]“Chicago Fetes Balbo,” Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1933.

[12] “Loyalties,” Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1933.

[13] Quoted in Claudio Segre, Italo Balbo, 250.

[14] “Balbo Av. Name Change Backed by P.T.A. Head,” Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1946.

[15] “Italo-American Leaders Back Balbo Change,” Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1946.

[16] Aldermen Bury Move to Change Balbo Av. Name,” Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1946

[17] “British Hint Mystery in Death of Balbo,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1940.

[18] “Britain Skeptical of Balbo Report,” New York Times, July 1, 1940.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Italo-American Leaders Back Balbo Change,” Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1946.

[21] Vernon Jarett, “Steer clear of Balbo celebration,” Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1983.

[22] Jerome N. Zurla and Carl De Moon, “Italo Bablo’s Historic Flight to Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, June 15, 1983.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Robert V. Allegrini, “Brave and Daring Italian Aviator,” Chicago Tribune, August 22, 1983.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Eric Zorn, “A Fascist Hides in Plain Sight Downtown,” Chicago Tribune, March 2, 2006.

[27] “Naming Wrongs: Rename Balbo Drive,” Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2011.

[28] John Dillon, “What’s in a Name,” Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2011.

[29] Donald Trump, Twitter post, August 17, 2017, 8:02 a.m.


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