African-American Participation in the Italo-Ethiopian War: Blog Post 2

Last week and this week, once I finally settled on a topic for my research, I began constructing a timeline of the diplomatic and military events of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict. Most scholarship about the diplomatic and military aspects of the war date from the 1960s and 1970s, and are therefore considered “old” by historian standards, but I found them to nevertheless be good sources of information on the bare-bones facts of the conflict. To this end, I consulted the Italian Angelo del Boca’s (Ethiopian-sympathetic) account The Ethiopian War 1935-1941, the American Brice Harris’s United States and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis and the Ethiopian Bahru Zewde’s A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1991. I also consulted the secondary sources I had read previously, especially William S. Scott’s The Sons of Sheba’s Race. Furthermore, I corroborated my dates with two published memoirs: the two volumes of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress and American international lawyer John H. Spencer’s Ethiopia at Bay.  I tried to include specific dates as much as possible in the timeline: once I enter my second stage of research next week analyzing African-American newspaper accounts, I will search for articles surrounding the dates of specific events such as Haile Selassie’s Christmas 1937 radio address.

Below I have posted the timeline I have constructed regarding the diplomatic and military events of the war. I place heavy emphasis on events in the beginning of the war, when African-American interest was highest; because interest waned after the Ethiopian defeat, I am not including much information about Ethiopian resistance to Italian fascism or the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941 during the East African Campaign. I apologize for the length. During the rest of this week, I will be deconstructing this timeline into a more concise summary of the diplomatic and military events that will serve as a background section for my paper. I also plan on summarizing the events marking African-American participation in the war into a several-paragraph introduction.


1 March 1896- Ethiopians under Emperor Menelik II defeat the Italians at the Battle of Adwa, ending the threat of Italian colonization and the first Italo-Abyssinian (Ethiopian) War.  The battle is considered a major victory for African anti-imperialism and becomes known worldwide.

2 April 1928- The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Italy and Ethiopia is signed (Zewde pg 151). In it, both countries–both members of the League of Nations–agree to bring to arbitration any incidents they could not solve themselves (B. Harris pg 6)

1930- Italy occupies 359 oil wells at Walwal, a frontier-post located in an oasis on the undemarcated (not clearly marked) boundary with Italian Somaliland. Afterwards, pastoral Ethiopians and Italians use the wells jointly.

5 December 1934- Walwal Incident: Italian and Ethiopian troops battle over control of the wells. This incident marks the start of nearly half a year of international concern and Italian mobilization before Italians invade in October 1935. (Zewde pg 153)

December 1934- Italy declines arbitration and demands Ethiopia issue formal apology and pay cash indemnity for Walwal incident. Emperor Haile Selassie I alerts the League of Nations of the situation. The Italians adopt a strategy of trying to stall the League procedures until they could engage in military action after the end of the summer rainy season (Harris 7-8)

3 January 1935- Haile Selassie sends second telegram explaining that Italy was preparing for war. He seeks to apply Article 11 of the Covenant of the League, which required the League to concern itself with a threat of war. (Harris 6)

Jan-Feb 1935- Mussolini signs pact (Rome Agreements) with French minister Pierre Laval allowing the Italians a free hand in Italy. This marks the beginning of the European tactic of appeasing Mussolini in order to convince him to not join with Hitler (which failed. Epically).

17 March 1935- Haile Selassie appeals again to the League of Nations, stating again that Italy was refusing arbitration and amassing troops and military supplies in its bordering colonies (Harris 11)

March 1935 (after Haile Selassie’s appeal)- Italy agrees to arbitration over the Walwal incident.

25 May 1935- The League Council reaches a compromise, largely negotiated by Britain’s Anthony Eden, where Italy promised to abide by 1928 Friendship Treaty. Timetables are set in the arbitration process; the League promises to intervene and consider the conflict if certain deadlines are not met in July and August, respectively. (Harris 16)

Late June 1935- Britain orders Anthony Eden to meet with Mussolini on a “personal mission.” Eden offered Italy concessions of Ethiopian territory as well as the opportunity to appoint Italian advisers in Haile Selassie’s government. Mussolini refuses. (Harris 17)

4 July 1935- Haile Selassie sends a plea to America, which was not part of the League of Nations. In the plea, which was purposely timed to reach America on the Fourth of July, Haile Selassie requested that Americans intervene in concordance with the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928 (Scott 57). President Roosevelt rejects this appeal, to the chagrin of many African-American newspapers.

9 July 1935- After less than a month of arbitration, the discussion falls apart over whether the arbitration should establish boundary lines between Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland or just consider the Walwal incident. (Harris 18)

August 31, 1935- United States passes “Joint Resolution on Neutrality” that prevented the shipment of arms, ammunition and other implements of war to any belligerent nations. (Harris 53) Supporters of Ethiopia are disappointed to note that it does not distinguish between the attacker and the victim or prevent the shipment of raw materials (Harris 61).

4 September 1935- The Council of the League of Nations meets for consideration of the Italo-Ethiopian dispute (pg 62). At this meeting, Italian delegate Aloisi presents a long case defending the invasion of Ethiopia with claims of altruism (pg 63)

11 September 1935- British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare pledges support for collective security and Ethiopia’s sovereignty in front of the League at Geneva.

12 September 1935- United States Secretary of State Hull issues a statement encouraging a peaceful end to the dispute (Harris 65).

18 September 1935- The League of Nations Committee of Five presents a plan that allows Ethiopia to retain her independence while transferring some government tasks to League control. It is accepted by Haile Selassie but rejected by Mussolini (Harris 64)

20 September 1935- Great Britain dispatches a fleet to Mediterranean in support of League of Nations principles of solidarity (Del Boca, pg 23)

3 October 1935- Italians cross Marab river, beginning their invasion of Ethiopia with a three pronged attack towards Adwa, Entticho and Addigrat (Zewde 153)

5 October 1935- The League of Nations Committee of Thirteen, which had been appointed to draft a statement and recommendations after the failure of the Committee of Five, reports that neither Italy nor Ethiopia had cause to engage in armed conflict (Harris 69)

6 October 1935- Only three days after the invasion begins, the Italians occupy Adwa (Zewde 154)

7 October 1935- The League Council determines that Italy has illegally resorted to war (Harris 69)

11 October 1935- The League approves of economic sanctions against Italy, prohibiting the export of arms and certain raw materials, denying loans to Italy, to go in effect November 18. However, the League does not prohibit the importation of raw materials, such as oil or cotton, that directly affect the Italian war effort (Harris 71)

9 December 1935- British Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval propose to Italy a plan to end the war by handing over a large portion of territory to Italy. Under the proposal, Ethiopia is left only a small portion of its northern territory and a corridor to the sea. (Scott 153) After a French newspaper exposes the plan, leading to a public outcry in Great Britain, it is abandoned (Harris 110-111)

15 December 1935- Ethiopian victory at pass of Dambagwina by Ras Emeru (Zewde 155)

January 1936- The Ethiopians begin a counter-attack. Like the Italian invasion, this defense is structured along 3 fronts (Zewde 154)

12-14 January 1836- At the Battle of Ganale Dorya, the unsuccessful Ethiopians are massacred.

20-24 January 1936-The Italians win at the first Battle of Tamben. (Zewde 154)

February 1936- After much discusion, the “Neutrality Act” of February 1936 is passed. This act, similar to a 1935 act that had expired, banned the importation of weapons to belligerent countries during wartime. Although the White House had proposed a version that gave the President the power to ban specific exports to belligerent nations, this was met with swift opposition from isolationists and defeated (Scott 133)

27-29 February 1936- Italians outnumber the Ethiopians and win easily at the second Battle of Tamben (Zewde 154)

31 March 1936- In the last major battle of the war, the Battle of Maychaw, Haile Selassie himself leads attack, which fails. The Ethiopian historian Zewde blames the emperor’s failure on his procrastination.- 156-7

4 April 1936- Italians invade Dessie. (Zewde 157)

2 May 1936- Haile Selassie, along with his wife, children and nearly 100 dignitaries and other officials, flees Ethiopia on a special train for Djibouti. From there, he heads to London, where he remains in exile until 1941. (de Boca 202)

5 May 1936- Italians enter the Ethiopian capital Addis of Ababa- (Zewde 157)

June 30, 1936- Haile Selassie makes a stirring personal appeal to the League of Nations in Geneva, becoming the first head of state to appear in front of the body. (Del Boca 211). He follows up the address in Geneva with a radio address broadcast to America that night. In this speech, his first direct address to the American people, he makes his first attempts at giving an address in English, a language that he does not speak or understand (Spenser 75).

4 July 1936- The League recommends lifting sanctions on Italy, thus ending diplomatic resistance to the conquest. The sanctions are lifted on July 15 (Harris 138)

25 December 1937- Despite being in pain from a fractured knee suffered in a car crash on the way to the BBC station, Haile Selassie makes a Christmas radio address directed at the American people. (Haile Selassie, My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, Volume 2, pg 40). By this time, African-American interest in the war has faded. Given the events of the United States’s mobilization for World War II and negative press that claims that the Ethiopian elite actually consider themselves Caucasian, African-Americans pay little interest in the liberation of Ethiopia in 1941.


  1. Your topic appears to be involved with some pretty interesting and often overlooked parts of World War Two. I certainly feel that the “Appeasement” and willingness of the League of Nations to prevent war at all costs is even more evident, not to mention Imperialist bias against non-European nations, which most certainly had a lot to do with the lack of action from European and American powers.

    I will be more interested to hear what your research into American media coverage of the conflict reveals. Certainly race would probably play into the significance and relevance that the story received in the United States. Sources from African American authors would probably be particularly helpful because of racial prejudice at the time. You are probably well aware of this, I’m simply looking forward to what kinds of view points you choose to include and which ones you find the most valuable.

    I also like the fact that you had the courage to change your topic after it was apparent that your initial research question simply wasn’t going to be exploreable in the depth you had hoped. Good luck!

  2. arhartley says:

    Thank you for your comment! I am definitely going to be including sources from African-American authors, especially in the coverage of the newspaper articles from African-American papers. For most of America’s history, stretching back to the days of Frederick Douglass, there’s really been a thriving industry of newspapers owned and written by African-Americans discussing issues relevant to African-Americans, and I’m looking forward into tapping into those sources for my project. Additionally, most of the secondary sources on the African-American reaction were written recently in more enlightened times (and often by African-American scholars, as well) so I don’t think racial prejudice is going to be much of an issue in my secondary source work. Interestingly, however, I’ve found that secondary sources on the diplomatic relations were written in the 1960s and are notably less liberal–for example, in United States and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis, Brice Harris completely disregards the role of African-Americans, using all of two sentences in a hundred-fifty page book to state that African-American association with Ethiopians was misguided and had absolutely no effect on the war whatsoever. However, because African-American reactions did not have much of an effect on the diplomacy at least–despite concern in black newspapers the entire summer before, I’ve read a detailed biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that states that she and the president were unaware of the problem until September 1936–I’ve chosen to use at least the factual information in Harris’s book, despite his obvious racial prejudices.