American in the Making

A native of New York City, son of Italian immigrants, FIORELLO H. LA GUARDIA spent his boyhood in Arizona, where his father was bandmaster of the 11th U.S. Infantry, and his early manhood in Fiume, where as our Consular Agent he continued the self-education which was to make him one of the most creative statesmen of our time. In this, the first of three installments drawn from his autobiography, which he did not live to finish, we see the unforgettable interaction between his youthful experience and his mature legislation. The autobiography, edited by M. R. Werner, will be published by Lippincott in May.

Though I was only fifteen years old, I was restless and wanted to join the Army. My age, and the fact that I was short and under the required weight, made that impossible. But I persuaded the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to pay my fare to the camp at Mobile where my father was stationed. I did a couple of articles for the Post-Dispatch from the camp.

As an Army child I was familiar with drill and other training courses. I noticed at that time that it was very difficult to train Army officers quickly, though it was easy to train a large body of men in a hurry once you had the officers to do the job. This knowledge was very useful to me later when I was a legislator, and particularly when I became a member of the House Committee on Military Affairs. I also noticed at that time that the Medical Corps was both inefficient and insufficient in the Spanish-American War. During the First World War the Medical Corps brought its technique and efficiency almost to perfection. In the Second World War it surpassed anything that had been attained previously in this or perhaps any other country. But the government's record as a whole during the Spanish-American War was not up to the heroism of our men who took part in that war.

One of the worst scandals of our entire military history occurred during this short Spanish-American War and made a lasting impression upon me, for my father was one of its victims. Corrupt contractors supplied the Army with diseased beef. My father became so ill as a result of eating some of this beef that he had to be discharged from the service on account of disability. Though we did not know it then, he had only a few years to live because of the work of crooked Army contractors.

That experience never left my mind. When I became a Congressman during World War I, the first measure I introduced in the House was a bill providing the death penalty for contractors who supplied defective food or other supplies and equipment in time of war, and a heavy jail sentence if they sold such stuff in time of peace. I introduced that measure on April 3, 1917, a few days before Congress declared war on Germany. It was referred to the Committee on Judiciary, whore it was allowed to languish. But I still think it is a good idea. It might prevent other families from losing their fathers.

After Father's discharge from the Army, our family returned to New York City, where we renewed old acquaintances. Then the family went to Trieste, to live with my mother's family. It was while we were in Trieste that my father died in 1901, a victim of condemned Army meat.


After my family moved to Trieste, all we had to live on was my father's small pension from the Army. I had to get a job. Raymond Willey, American Consular Agent in Fiume, got me a job as clerk in the American Consulate in Budapest. Although the government did not pay me much of a salary, it was a good opportunity to learn useful things and gain valuable experience.

Frank Dyer Chester, of Boston, was the Consul General at Budapest. He was most helpful in guiding me in my studies, particularly in the study of languages. My ears were accustomed to Italian, and the smattering of Latin I had picked up in school made the Italian language comparatively easy, but I began to study it and German systematically. Mr. Chester did me a good turn by sending me to Croatia one summer for four months for the express purpose of studying Croatian. Croatian was tough, with its seven cases, all of them used, and its many conjugations of verbs. While I never pretended to be expert in this language, I did learn enough of it to pass a Civil Service examination later, which enabled me to get a job as interpreter at Ellis Island when I was working my way through law school.

I devoted a good deal of my spare time while in the consular service to the study of history as well as languages. I laid a groundwork then that was very useful to me later. I kept informed about current events at home by reading every newspaper and magazine I could lay my hands on.

When Raymond Willey went back to the United States to become associated with the Harbison-Walker Refractories Company, he got me his post as Consular Agent in Fiume. Since I was not yet twenty-one, I could serve only as Acting Consular Agent until February, 1904, when my commission, signed by Secretary of State John Hay, was sent to me.

When I took over the office in Fiume, I had no assistance and acted as boss, clerk, and my own messenger. On several occasions I had to make decisions which would have got me into trouble had I guessed wrong. My salary was the munificent sum of $800 a year. The law provided that certain posts were to be paid out of the consular fees collected. But if my fees at the minor post in Flume ever exceeded $1000 in any one year, the government took the balance. But at least I was sure of my $66 a month. I got along all right financially. My $800 was equal to 4000 crowns, and I managed to hold my own socially with the local government officials and junior army officers with whom I associated. That was all that was expected of me. Of course, I could not afford to gamble or indulge in many of the popular vices—an indulgence which got many of our young foreign service officers into trouble. When it was all over, I just about broke oven. I had no debts and I had no cash.

During my three years in Fiume, I not only met many interesting people, but I had a chance to observe situations, locally troublesome then, which later became matters of international importance. The Croatians with whom I came into contact at this time hated the Hungarian government passionately. They had every reason to do so. The Hapsburg policy was the age-old one of divide and conquer. It was put into practice every day before my eyes. Antagonisms and hatreds were carefully and systematically engendered. The Croatians were brought up to hate the Serbians and trained and aided by the government in that hatred. All of the South Slavic groups were kept at one another's throats. Any sensible person could see the devastating effect of this unchristian, inhuman system of teaching people to hate one another.

The Serbians, Croatians, Dalmatians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Montenegrins, Slovenes, all similarly exploited, all kept in the same abject poverty, were stimulated to take their hatreds out on one another instead of their exploiters. Their only real difference was that some of them were communicants of the Roman Catholic Church and others of the Greek Orthodox Church. Both these churches had practically the same beliefs and dogmas. And the Hapsburg politicians kept up a constant instigation among all of them to hate their neighbors, the Italians. It is no wonder that after centuries of such influences there are misunderstanding and lack of harmony among these people, who have finally been brought together under one government.

The same tactics, the same intrigues, were practiced by larger nations, I have since noticed. For reasons I could never understand, some nations would like to ace internecine strife continue in the Balkans. The people of the United States have never been familiar with the political background of these unhappy peoples of southeastern Europe. Even with some knowledge of their history and past sufferings it is difficult enough to understand these complex relationships and the conditions existing in these countries.

The various Slavic elements in this part of the world where I gained my first practical experience of foreign affairs will get along after hereditary memories are dimmed. But these people must he given a chance and time to forget as well as to learn. It took about seventy years to soften the feeling between the North and the South in these United States after the Civil War, and there are still a few scars that have not been fully healed. We were at odds for only four years. In the old Austro-Hungarian Empire a series of wars down through the last three centuries heightened racial antagonisms and increased national prejudices.

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