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“I’m an American”: From Radio Program to Citizenship Day

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British-born conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) appeared on “I’m an American” in 1940.

What do a commemorative day in September and a radio program from the early 1940s have in common?

A lot, as it turns out!

September 17th marks the joint celebration of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. These designations commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17th, 1787, and recognize individuals who have completed the process of becoming US citizens. This day of commemoration and recognition has its roots in “I’m an American” Day, which began in May 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a joint resolution from Congress establishing the third Sunday in May as a day to recognize those who had been naturalized as American citizens.

Here’s where the connection comes in: “I’m an American” Day was the result of a Roosevelt administration desire to promote acceptance and respect for immigrants to the US prior to American involvement in World War II. Another result of those policies? A radio program of the same name recorded with the help of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and broadcast by NBC. The “I’m an American” radio program, which aired from May 1940 to just after Pearl Harbor in 1941, brought famous naturalized citizens to the airwaves to talk about democracy and the American way of life.

Guy Lombardo (pictured here at the Starlight Roof in New York city ca. July 1947) appeared on “I’m an American” in 1941.

Many well-known naturalized citizens appeared on the show, from musicians and artists to film directors and Hollywood stars, from lawyers and politicians to poets and inventors. Nobel laureate Thomas Mann is interviewed in 1940 about democracy and freedom, prior to his 1944 naturalization. Albert Einstein, also a Nobel prize winner, appeared on the program mere hours after his citizenship examination. Hollywood actress Claudette Colbert was interviewed about her 1912 naturalization and life in America after her family immigrated from France when she was a young girl. Conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years and appeared in Disney’s Fantasia, was also heard on the program, as were bandleader Guy Lombardo, composers Kurt Weill and Irving Berlin, and filmmaker Frank Capra. Former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish also appears on the program reading his poetry, as does Eleanor Roosevelt as a host and interviewer.

Although not quite government propaganda, the program certainly came close. The program is filled with anecdotes about how life is better for American citizens. Ludwig Bemelmans, author and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books, speaks of the advantages of being a US citizen, relating an incident in his appearance on the program in which a poorly-timed imitation of Hitler landed him in a German prison, from which he was ultimately released. He claims he was spared a much harsher fate because of his American passport. Lily Pons, the Metropolitan Opera star soprano who was married to NBC Symphony conductor Andre Kostelanetz (also a naturalized American citizen), speaks of the differences between Europe and America in her interview on the program. “Europe owns the past,” Pons declares, “but the future is America’s. She is responsible for the future of beauty, art, civilization—freedom.” Bandleader Guy Lombardo mentions the thrill of casting a vote for the first time in the November 1940 elections, and proudly declares, “All I can say is that America has more people, better dressed, better fed, and better housed dancing every night to better music than any other country in the world.” The program always touted hard work, earned success, camaraderie and respect for all peoples, the privileges of American citizenship, and the superiority of democracy as a form of government. This was, the program so often announced, the “American way of life.”

Irving Berlin, composer of many popular songs and musicals, appeared on “I’m an American” in 1941.

It’s important to note, though, that the program and the messages it conveyed did have their complications. The “distinguished naturalized citizens” that the program presented were entirely of European descent, were mostly men, and were all well-known and wealthy individuals. The voices of so many immigrants and naturalized citizens are silenced in the program’s carefully constructed picture of the American way of life. And in February 1942, shortly after the program’s run ended, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 which led to the imprisonment of Americans of Asian descent—many of whom were US citizens by birthright—in internment camps throughout the country. Seen in this context, the program becomes a fascinating window into the political and social climate of the US as it entered the Second World War and the contradictions regarding human rights that have always been present in our society.

The Recorded Sound Section holds select broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, as well as recordings of speakers at “I’m an American Day” events in 1941, 1942, and 1943. Scripts for some of the programs are also available, including several that don’t have accompanying audio recordings, and can be viewed in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Recordings of the program are cataloged in SONIC, the Recorded Sound Section’s catalog, and can be listened to in the Research Center. For more information on accessing the program, get in touch with Recorded Sound reference staff.

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