1942: Victims of Fear




    When Italy declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Italian residents in the USA as well as much of the Italian-American community were suspected , by the Roosevelt Administration, of having questionable loyalty. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 not only allowed the military to evict and intern Japanese- Americans but applied as well to German- and Italian-Americans.

    In February of 1942, some 10,000 Italic residents along the Pacific coast were forceably evicted from homes that they had occupied for decades and issued identity passes that restricted their travel, employment, and ownership of such things as fishing boats and radios. Scores of fishing boats, the livelihood of thousands of Italic families, were impounded for naval use. Hundreds of community leaders, newspaper editors, social club officers, and teachers were summarily removed from their jobs and shipped to Montana for internment.

    Across the nation, Italian resident aliens and Italian-American community leaders were interrogated, travel-restricted, and many interned. Italian language newspapers were suppressed and even the Italian language condemned in government propaganda. People such as scientist Enrico Fermi and the parents of baseball star Joe DiMaggio were subjected to restrictions. Although the worst of these injustices were ameliorated after six months, mainly for political reasons dealing with off-year elections, the shame and the economic consequences have never been addressed by the United States Government.

    To properly explain the events described above, it is necessary to demonstrate the motives and prejudices that were behind these actions; to document the story of Italian immigration to America and America's reaction to it.

    Although the New World was first opened to European immigration by Italian navigators (Columbus, Vespucci, Cabot, and Verrazano) mass Italian immigration did not come until the later part of the 19th Century. Prior to that, small numbers of Italian immigrants participated in the development of the United States. The Tagliaferros of Virginia produced generations of solid American citizenry (Note: Booker T. Washington was born Booker Tagliaferro, which may infer some Italic heritage). William Paca of Maryland was of Italo-English heritage and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Giuseppe Mazzei was a political confident of Thomas Jefferson and played an important role in Jefferson's political outlook. Francis Vigo provided valuable financial assistance to the American Revolutionary government.

    But it was the mass immigration of poorer Italians in the latter part of the 19th Century that evoked xenophobia and "racial" hatred in the hearts of Americans of northern European stock. Images of swarthy banditti from Italy's hardscrabble south armed with stilettos and carrying on vendettas were spread among the intolerant American public by anecdote and in the press. And while there were small knots of criminals among these millions of Italian aliens American reaction to their strange food, traditions, and language was dangerously colored by pervasive stereotypes. The murder by mobs of otherwise good Americans became common. In 1891, eleven Italians were lynched or shot in one rampage of mob justice in New Orleans. Mob justice saw the murder of Italians in other parts of Louisiana and in Colorado during the 1890's. So outrageous were the killings that the Italian government took notice and the two countries were close to severing relations. President Franklin Roosevelt's later description of Italy's World War II declaration of war on France, "the hand that held the dagger..." has been considered a conscious reawakening of the stereotype of the Italian banditto.

    Unlike the East Coast where Italians were the new immigrants after the previous arrival of generations of northern Europeans, the West Coast was settled much later by Europeans and many northern Italians came concurrently in the 1870's and 80's. With more of an equal footing and easier access to agriculture than their cousins of the East Coast, Italians developed the American wine industry and vegetable and fruit production. Some Italian immigrants towered over the others. The Giannini family produced America's greatest banker A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America. Along the coast, Sicilian fisherman dominated California's fishing industry.

    Into the 20th Century the stuggle of Italian immigrants was little abated. Unlike the Irish before them who began as day laborers but who spoke English and were soon to grasp political power, the greater part of the Italians continued to earn their living with their hands.

    With the coming of the First World War, the Italic image was improved by Italy's entry into the war on the Allied side. Opera tenor Enrico Caruso raised millions of dollars for the American war effort and thousands of Italian-Americans served in the Italian Army or the United States military, in fact, one of the largest ethnic contingents.

    But with the end of the war America once again judged Italians an inferior "race" and were the subject of severe immigration restrictions in the 1920's.

    The 1920's brought another stereotype of Italians, that of the anarchist. There were, in fact, some violent Italian anarchists, mainly in Europe. One actually murdered Italy's King Umberto in 1900. But like most stereotypes it conveniently forgot non-Italian anarchists. With the fear of anarchism and the new scourge of Europe, Communism, America was fearful of any unrest. Italian labor activities in the New York and Massachusetts textile industries, although peaceful, confirmed the image of law-breaking Italians. This fear culminated in the kangaroo court conviction of Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for armed robbery and murder. Although the evidence was inconclusive and no testimony by Italian-American witnesses was allowed in court the judge sentenced the pair to electrocution. It was carried out, amid world outcry, in 1927.

    To compound the degraded image of Italian immigrants, the nation of Italy rarely enjoyed any respect as an equal of the great powers. Despite the trappings of nationhood, and industrialization, despite Italy's valiant victory, in the First World War it was considered a nation plagued by poverty, strikes, bandits, regionalism, and laziness. But with the coming of Fascism Italian society was transformed seemingly overnight. Discipline, nationalism, and strong central government ended strikes, and modernized the country. By 1936 Italy became an industrialized nation.

    Both Americans and Italian-americans were transfixed by what Fascism had accomplished. Italy became a great power and that image inspired Italian-Americans and produced a patriotic fervor that would culminate in their overwhelming support for Italy's Abyssinian War, despite the American government's neutrality and aversion to it.

    Italian-Americans would ultimately pay a price for this new-found pride. When Italy declared war on the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the old distrust of Italian-Americans re-emerged with Executive Order 9066.

    Notwithstanding their classification as internal enemies Italian-Americans served by the thousands in the American military, some 500,000. Among the heroes who fought while their cousins were denied their civil rights was Don Gentile, America's first ace whom General Eisenhower described as our "one man air force." Another was John Basilone, the first enlisted man in the Second World War to receive the Medal of Honor. Basilone was returned from the Pacific theater for his own safety but insisted on returning to combat and was killed by Japanese fire. He was the only man to be awarded both the medal of honor and the navy cross.

    That the Italic people suffered any indignity at the hands of their own government, in a country they discovered, helped to create, and literally helped to build, is a serious miscarriage of justice. That they have been ignored, forgotten and belittled in this manner of Executive Order 9066 is a greater injustice and one without precedent in this era of political correctness.