Restrictions on italian americans during world war ii
Restrictions on Italian Americans 1
Running Head: RESTRICTIONS ON ITALIAN AMERICANS
Restrictions on Italian Americans During World War II
University of St. Thomas
October 1, 2007
Restrictions on Italian Americans 2
Restrictions on Italian Americans During World War II
The circumstances and details surrounding the internment of Japanese Americans
during World War II are well known and documented. In fact, with the signing of the
Civil Liberties Act of 1988, the United States government made its apology to Japanese
Americans. This law also provided monetary reparations to survivors of the Japanese
internment camps (Brooke, 1997).
Most Americans are unaware that the federal government also placed severe
limitations on the civil liberties of Italian Americans during World War II. After the
attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States government made plans to intern the
Japanese. Similar plans to intern over half a million Italian and German immigrants
existed as well. Ultimately, the logistics of relocating this many people along with the
likely economic devastation of idling half a million workers, proved too costly and the
government abandoned the program for mass internment (Fox, 1990).
While they did not suffer internment during the early years of the war, many
Italian Americans suffered severe restrictions on their civil liberties including arrests,
detentions, forced relocations, internments, curfews, warrantless searches, and the
confiscation of property. In addition, “a deliberate policy kept these measures from the
public during the war. Even 50 years later, much information is still classified” (United
States Department of Justice, 2001, p. v). As a result, scholars have largely overlooked
this chapter in our history.
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The purpose of this review is to examine the limited literature available
documenting the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II. I begin with the
FBI’s surveillance conducted in the two years leading up to the war. As early as the day
after the attack on Pearl Harbor and for a period of nearly a year, the United States
government issued a series of wartime orders and proclamations restricting the civil
liberties of many Italian Americans. I focus on these events and review the available oral
histories, which record the devastating personal and economic effects of these policies.
Most recently, due to the diligence of a few notable historians along with several
congressional leaders, the United States government compiled a public record of these
events. After a review of these government documents, I conclude with a brief discussion
of the dangers posed to civil liberties during times of national crisis when the mistrust of
ethnicity fuels public fear.
Pre-World War II and The Treatment of Italian Immigrants
The ordeal suffered by many Italian Americans during World War II had its roots
in the decades leading up to 1940. During this time, Italians were the most prominent
group of immigrants in the United States. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 3.5 million
people emigrated from Italy and settled in widely dispersed areas throughout America.
Importantly, by the time the war broke out in 1941, a sizeable proportion of these
immigrants, 42.5%, had not become United States citizens. As such, the government
classified them as aliens. In her research, Branca-Santos (2001) points out that many
Italian immigrants placed no or very low value on becoming citizens. Their daily lives
and livelihoods did not depend on and were not enhanced by citizenship. She explores the
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factors that led to the decision not to apply for citizenship, factors such as poor education,
illiteracy, the language barrier and the time required to prepare for the citizenship exam.
She questions what it means to be assimilated and offers views on how all these factors
affected public policy during World War II. Ultimately, she points out how the United
States Government used the lack of citizenship to cast doubt on the loyalty of these
immigrants, and to justify the policies that restricted their civil liberties.
Two governmental actions between 1939 and 1941 set the stage for the restrictions
levied against Italian Americans after the start of World War II. The first was the routine
but clandestine surveillance conducted by the FBI. Second was the Alien Registration
Act of 1940. Individual historians and United States Government commissions have
researched and documented both of these actions and their affect on the lives of many
The “ABC List” and Clandestine Surveillance of 1939
The first of these actions dates back to 1939 when the United States began
preparations for entering the war. The Department of Justice established a Special
Defense Unit, which for a year and a half investigated suspicious activities by Germans,
Italians and Japanese living in the United States (Scherini, 2001b). The Special Defense
unit identified three categories of danger, A, B and C. People placed on the A list were
deemed to be the most dangerous, people on the B list were less dangerous and people on
the C list posed the least threat (Grodzins, 1949; United States, 1997). Placement on the
list was based on affiliation and participation with ethnic cultural organizations (Fox,
1990; Grodzins, 1949). Many thousands of Italian immigrants were placed on these lists.
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While the problems associated with compiling and maintaining these files were many,
chief among them was the FBI’s inability to distinguish between ethnic affiliation and
loyalty (Grodzins, 1949; United States Department of Justice, 2001). Regardless, once an
immigrant was listed, the policy was unambiguous, calling for these men and women to
be arrested and incarcerated in the event the United States entered the war (Grodzins,
In addition to the FBI’s “ABC Lists,” a wide variety of government agencies and
civilian organizations conducted their own surveillance to identify subversive individuals
and enemy sympathizers. Knowledge of this surveillance was revealed many years later
by the Untied States Congress, which in 1980 proposed the creation of The Commission
on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The commission issued a
report that is now the most comprehensive public record on pre-World War II
surveillance on civilians (United States, 1997). This report identifies surveillance files
compiled by non-government sources, primarily from newspaper reporters. These files
were ultimately deemed credible and were subsequently forwarded to President
Roosevelt for review. Not surprisingly, reports like these were influenced by rumor and
by the fear brought on by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The CWRIC admitted that the
intelligence was not scrutinized for objectivity and fell prey to prejudice and racism. As a
result, the government, along with the public, deemed an entire class of civilians disloyal
until proven otherwise (United States, 1997).
Adding further credence to the claims of misinformation is research conducted by
Scherini’s (1992). She compiled a review of FBI files obtained through the Freedom of
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Information Act. Her research reveals that many of the FBI reports were commonly
littered with errors, incorrect facts and misinterpretation of innocent acts. As a result,
authorities often misclassified responsible community members as dangerous, and
arrested them. Incarceration sometimes lasted for years without due process.
Alien Registration Act of 1940
Placement on lists and designation as “dangerous” was the first of a two-part
problem for many Italian immigrants in the pre-war period. The second problem arose
with the Alien Registration Act, passed by Congress in June 1940. This law required all
non-naturalized civilians over fourteen years old to register and be fingerprinted (Fox,
1990; Grodzins, 1949). This development is significant because as shown throughout
history, immigrants who are not naturalized but who live in a nation at war with their
homeland have a tenuous hold on civil liberties (Saunders, Kay and Daniels, Roger,
2000). Registration lists swelled to some five million people, each assigned an
identification number and each required to check-in with authorities regarding their
movement from place to place and state to state (Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1949; United
States Department of Justice, 2001).
Soon after the law was passed, the Labor Department shifted control over the
registration program to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). With this shift
and the United States’ declaration of war, all immigrants who were not U.S. citizens,
were classified as “enemy aliens.” INS policy stripped these individuals of their
constitutional rights and privileges (D’Amelio, 1999; Grodzins, 1949; United States
Department of Justice, 2001). Because of their enemy alien status, the law provided for
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their arrest and removal without due process. Warrants did not need to specify the
grounds for arrest and lawyers were not permitted to speak during arraignments
(Saunders, Kay and Daniels, Roger, 2000).
The First Ten Months of War: December 1941- October 1942
December 1941: Arrests, Hearings, and The Suspension of Civil Liberties
Directly following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the round
up began (Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1949). With the FBI’s “ABC Lists” in place, thousands
of enemy aliens were arrested and many more suffered severe restrictions on their civil
liberties. Many years later, the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act
of 2000, ordered the United States Government to make a full accounting to Congress of
this period (United States Department of Justice, 2001). This congressional report offers a
detailed accounting of what happened to Italian immigrants during this period. It
encompasses the review of historical records and government documents as well as oral
histories collected by renowned researchers in this field.
From United States Department of Justice (2001) we learn how hysteria
immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor shaped public policy. Government
officials believed they needed to demonstrate a firm hand in protecting public safety and
stem the public’s fear of internal enemy collaborators. The government intentionally
publicized these arrests to prevent panic.
After decades of research, DiStasi (2001) provides a human point of view on the
tragic events of this time. His edited volume, Una Storia Segreta; The Secret History of
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Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II, is a collection of
personal accounts, oral histories and photographs by those who were directly affected.
Arrests began as early as the evening of December 7. In one such occurrence, Louis
Berizzi was arrested, detained on Ellis Island for almost a year and then interned at Camp
Meade until 1943. During this time, Mr. Berizzi was not told the reason for his arrest. His
family was only able to secure his release years later on a personal appeal made to
Washington by his daughter. The appeal focused on the fact that Mr. Berizzi’s son had
been drafted and was about to fight for America while his father was interned as an
enemy alien in the United States (Drypolcher, 2001).
Similarly, Carmelo Ilacqua was arrested on December 19, 1941 and interned. The
FBI searched his home for incriminating papers but found none. Instead, they based his
arrest on his service in the Italian Navy during World War I and his subsequent work as a
liaison for the Federation of Italian War Veterans. Mr. Ilacqua was interned at Fort
Missoula, Montana and held until March 11, 1943 (Scherini, 2001a). Within two months
of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 260 Italian resident aliens were arrested and interned.
Because most news reports during this time were focused on the war itself, the media did
not cover the arrests of Italian American immigrants (Scherini, 1992).
Initially, all suspects were apprehended and detained in INS facilities until a
hearing was arranged. Hearings culminated in one of three recommendations: release,
parole or internment. According to Scherini (1992), half of those apprehended were
interned. The Civil Affairs Division of the Army’s Wartime Civil Control Administration
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presided over the hearings. Detainees were given one week to prepare; they were
permitted counsel, but counsel could not address the board nor call witnesses.
As the country’s fears escalated, the military was granted authority over homeland
security. Grodzins (1949) analyzes the consequences of this shift in power noting,
“Military decisions are made without public discussion, are subject to no immediate
criticism, and are calculated according to no rule of civil rights. Military rule, in effect,
becomes one-man rule” (p.131). He goes further to warn that civil liberties are impossible
to protect, once control for civilian safety is turned over to the military.
Hearings were poorly documented and many court records were destroyed
(DiStasi, 2001b). As a result, our understanding of what happened during this time comes
from first hand accounts and recollections by relatives (Scherini, 1992, Fox, 1990).
General John L. DeWitt and The Western Defense Command
As a counter balance, Attorney General Francis Biddle stepped forward. He made
many public appeals for fairness and justice (Grodzins, 1949). However, power and
control over the arrests and hearings belonged to the FBI and the Civil Affairs Division
of the United States Army’s Wartime Civil Control Administration.
Ultimately, Attorney General Biddle was embroiled in a power struggle with
General John L. DeWitt, the commanding officer of the Fourth Army and Western
Defense Command (Fox, 1988). According to Grodzins (1949), this power struggle was
pivotal. DeWitt pressed for the internment of all enemy aliens, Japanese, Italians and
Germans alike. Because DeWitt ultimately won this power struggle, historians have
dedicated much research to this topic. D’Amelio (1999), Fox (1988, 1990), Grodzins
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(1947), and United States (1997) all offer detailed chronological accounts of this power
struggle based on reviews of government documents, memoranda, transcripts of speeches
and phone conversations, personal journals, memoirs and news accounts of the time. In
these accounts we learn that the west coast was designated as a “theater of operations”
(United States, 1997) and that authority for this area was granted to the United States
Army, specifically to the commanding general with field responsibility, General DeWitt.
General DeWitt drew his information from both civilian and military sources
(Fox, 1988). He was neither an analyst nor a deliberator (D’Amelio, 1999; Grodzins,
1949). His judgments were not carefully considered and he was easily swayed by “every
rumor that came in” (United States, 1997 p.64). In the days after Pearl Harbor, DeWitt
was convinced of a Japanese naval attack on California, reporting three false alarms of
enemy ships headed for the west coast. His fellow officers had little respect for him and
believed he had very little common sense (D'Amelio, 1999).
December 1941: Confiscation of Contraband Items and Travel Restrictions
On December 29th, 1941 General DeWitt ordered all enemy aliens living on the
west coast to surrender contraband items. Included were radio transmitters, short wave
radios, and cameras (D’Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1988; Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1947; United
States, 1997). A few days later, the list was extended to include fire arms (D'Amelio,
1999; Grodzins, 1949). For the most part, items were turned in voluntarily, but raids and
seizures were also common. DeStasi (2001b) documents the personal hardship
experienced by many immigrants during these raids in his collection of oral histories.
Here, rich detail is recorded and the human side of this tragedy is revealed.
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By January 1st, further restrictions went into effect. Aliens on the west coast could
not leave their homes between 8PM and 6AM and they could not travel further than five
miles from home without written approval from the United States Attorney (D’Amelio,
1999; Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1947; United States, 1997). Due to these travel restrictions,
many Italian immigrants lost their jobs (Scherini, 2001b).
January 1942: Registration, the Roberts Commission and Relocation
In mid-January, 1942 Attorney General Francis Biddle ordered all enemy aliens to
re-register at local post offices despite their earlier registration in 1940. Here they were
fingerprinted, their pictures were taken and they were issued photo identification cards
(D'Amelio, 1999). They were required to carry this identification at all times. Many
immigrants considered these restrictions humiliating and demeaning because they felt
targeted and profiled (DiStasi, 1997)
During this same time, the public’s fear of another attack on the United States was
growing. In response, General DeWitt was privately calling for the evacuation of all
Japanese, Italian and German non-citizens on the west coast (Fox, 1988). On January 25,
1942, the Roberts Commission issued its report (Branca-Santos, 2001). This commission
had been quickly assembled after Pearl Harbor to determine the factors contributing to
the surprise attack. The Roberts Commission concluded that the Japanese attack on Pearl
Harbor was aided by inside enemy sympathizers (United States, 1997). This conclusion
enflamed public sentiment and put pressure on the government to act. Much of Grodzins’
(1949) research focused on news accounts during this time. He documents the public’s
cry for mass evacuations by citing the content, quantity and frequency of news accounts
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in the daily papers. Four days after the Roberts Commission’s report, the government
accepted General DeWitt’s recommendations and issued enemy alien relocation orders
(Branca-Santos, 2001; D'Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1988; Fox, 1990; United States, 1997)
DeWitt was not yet publicly calling for mass evacuations. Instead, he set up
prohibited zones along the west coast (D’Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1949;
United States, 1997). In all, over one hundred zones were established; most were along
the shore or near airports, radio towers or other areas of strategic interest. Enemy aliens
were required to completely vacate these areas by February 24 (D'Amelio, 1999; Fox,
1990; Fox, 2000). As a result, Italian American families comprised of both citizen and
non-citizen members were split up. Baseball hero Joe Dimaggio’s mother was one such
example (Ottino, 2001). DiStasi’s (2001) compilation of essays and articles offers an
accounting of many such personal stories.
In San Francisco, Monterey and other areas along the western seaboard, aliens
were prohibited from living along the waterfront. Many made their livings as fishermen,
and a disproportionate number of them were Italian (D’Amelio, 1999). With the growing
fear of an imminent west coast attack, the fishermen suffered many restrictions. For
example, they were told where and when they could fish, and many lost the right to fish
altogether. They remained unemployed for the duration of the war because no one was
willing to hire an enemy alien (United States Department of Justice, 2001).
According to D’Amelio (1999), the United States Coast Guard seized 90% of the
fishing boats along the west coast. They planned to convert these boats to minesweepers
and submarine chasers. More than a year later, the Navy judged many of these boats to be
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inadequate for their needs. The fishermen lost their boats and their jobs for nothing
(Colletto, 2001; DiStasi, 2001a).
February 1942: Executive Order 9066
The most important action taken during this period was the signing of Executive
Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 (D’Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1988; Fox, 1990; Grodzins,
1949; United States, 1997; United States Department of Justice, 2001). With this order,
President Roosevelt authorized the Secretary of War to “take any other steps deemed
appropriate to enforce compliance with the restrictions applicable to each military area,
including the use of federal troops” (United States Department of Justice, 2001, p.15).
These powers were sweeping and unprecedented. Incarceration of any American was
now possible as the result of arbitrary judgments (D'Amelio, 1999).
Executive Order 9066 gave the military far-reaching authority. General DeWitt
drew up plans to evacuate 40,000 Italian enemy aliens (United States Department of
Justice, 2001). D’Amelio’s (1999) research chronicles each step in a long series of events
during this time. He describes how the Army gained power as these steps unfolded and
how the Justice Department capitulated.
On February 20, 1942, Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered General DeWitt
to begin mass evacuations (D’Amelio, 1999). Importantly, Stimson specified not to
remove the Italians for the time being (Fox, 1988). Records show that it was DeWitt’s
intention to remove the Italians as soon as the Japanese were interned (United States
Department of Justice, 2001).
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March 1942: The Tolan Committee
In February 1942, the public mounted pressure on the government to protect
national security and take all precautions necessary to prevent another attack on America
(Fox, 1990). Congress held hearings to determine the extent of the problem.
Congressman John T. Nolan of California led these hearings immediately after Executive
Order 9066 was signed (D’Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1988; Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1949).
Known as the Tolan Committee, this legislative group called witnesses and heard
testimony regarding the Italian, German and Japanese threat on the west coast (United
The Tolan Committee’s preliminary report, released in March 1942, endorsed the
evacuation and internment of the Japanese but concluded that the Italians and Germans
posed no collective threat (D’Amelio, 1999; Fox, 1988; Fox, 1990; Grodzins, 1949;
United States, 1997). The committee asserted that the majority of these two ethnic groups
were loyal and recommended that any threat be determined on an individual basis
According to Fox (2000), the Tolan Committee was one of the central reason
Italians did not suffer the same fate as the Japanese. His research uncovered the role of
racism in this decision. To support his point, Fox cites the testimony of Colbert Olson,
the governor of California, who maintained that because all Japanese looked alike,
authorities could not distinguish between those who were loyal and those who were not.
As a result, the Committee ultimately recommended treating the Japanese differently than
the Italians and Germans (Fox, 2001)
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D’Amelio’s research (1999) focused on a different aspect of the Tolan
Committee’s proceedings. He points out that despite the committee’s recommendation to
evacuate the Japanese, John H. Tolan, the chairman of the committee showed remarkable
leadership. D’Amelio shows how Tolan analyzed the situation from a different vantage
point, chosing to focus on both the economic and political consequences of interning the
According to D’Amelio (1999), Tolan concluded that interning hundreds of
thousands of Italian Americans would be devastating to the war effort and demoralizing
to Italian American soldiers who numbered more than 400,000 and who were the single
largest ethnic group in the United States armed forces. Tolan also worried about the
impact on Italian American voters in the upcoming congressional elections and believed
that alienating their vote would affect the administration’s war policy. Lastly, Tolan
considered the economic devastation that would result from taking hundreds of thousands
of much-needed workers out of the workforce (Fox, 1990).
According to Fox (2000) Tolan set out to exercise a calming influence on the
policy makers and on the public. Tolan personally knew many prominent Italian civic
leaders and he called them as witnesses. He steered their testimony by asking questions,
which elicited sympathy for the Italians. Tolan also pointed out the sacrifice made by
Italian Americans who were soldiers fighting in the war against Hitler and Mussolini.
Importantly, Tolan stated that treating these soldiers’ families as dangerous enemy
sympathizers was not only miscalculated, but it was morally wrong as well.
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May 1942: The Tolan Committee Final Report
On May 15, 1942, the Tolan Committee issued its final report. As in the
preliminary report, the Committee supported the evacuation and internment of the
Japanese on the west coast (D'Amelio, 1999). The committee accepted the fifth column
argument relating to the attack on Pearl Harbor (United States, 1997). Importantly, the
Committee’s final recommendation was to treat Italian and German aliens on a case-by-
case basis as determined by local hearings (D’Amelio, 1999; United States, 1997).
General DeWitt, despite the Committee’s recommendation, continued to advocate for the
evacuation of all enemy aliens in the Western Defense Zone under his command
In Personal Justice Denied, (United States, 1997), the United States Government
outlined the details of the Tolan Committee hearings, including the chronology of
witnesses and excerpts from of their testimony. From this account, we learn that the
committee was “unwilling to challenge the need for Executive Order 9066” (United
States, 1997, p.99). As a direct result, Congress quickly enacted legislation making it a
crime to violate exclusion or internment orders. This action is significant because the
Supreme Court gave strong consideration to this legislation in upholding the legality of
the evacuations (United States, 1997).
On the heels of the Tolan Committee Report, the FBI issued a similar assessment
on May 25, 1942 (United States, 1997). In their report, the FBI stated that the majority of
Italian aliens had been living in the United States for 20 years. Most had sons and
daughters who were born in the United States and who were citizens by birth. A second
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FBI report characterized Italian aliens as hard working and law abiding. Both of these
reports helped to change public sentiment and alleviated the pressure to evacuate the
Italians (D'Amelio, 1999).
While the Tolan Committee report prevented the mass evacuation of Italian
enemy aliens (Fox, 1990), these residents remained bound to evacuate the prohibited
zones established in January. Similar plans were carried out against Italians on the east
coast under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Defense Command and in the south under the
Southern Defense Command. The number of people affected in these areas was much
smaller. Records show 59 people were excluded in the Eastern Defense Zone and 21
from the Southern Defense Zone while 174 were excluded in the west (United States
Department of Justice, 2001).
June 1942: Evacuation Orders Are Rescinded
By June 1942, the mass evacuation of the Japanese on the west coast was
complete (Fox, 1990). Pressure mounted on the Roosevelt administration to relax the
restrictions on the Italian and German aliens. Although DeWitt continued to press for
restrictions, his requests and recommendations were denied. He was authorized to
proceed only in cases where aliens were confirmed to be dangerous and he was warned
that his “job was to protect installations, not to persecute individuals” (Fox, 1990, p.
On June 27, 1942, under pressure from Washington D.C., General DeWitt
rescinded the orders excluding Italian from prohibited zones (Fox, 1988). The curfew and
travel restrictions remained in place, but excluded individuals returned home. The oral
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histories recorded by Fox (1990) detail how some of the Italians were notified that the
restrictions were lifted. His research uncovered that some families were not notified
individually. Rather, the government posted notices in local Post Offices and families
discovered the news on their own.
October 1942: Curfew and Travel Restrictions Lifted
With pride, Italian Americans have long celebrated Columbus Day in honor of the
discovery of America by the Italian explorer (Branca-Santos, 2001). In fact, Italian
Americans campaigned to make October 12th a national holiday in recognition of
Columbus. It wasn’t until 1934 that the holiday became official (Luconi, 2001).
According to D’Amelio (1999) and Fox (1990), on Columbus Day in 1942, the
government lifted the curfew and relocation restrictions placed on Italian Americans.
Italian aliens were reclassified as “friendly aliens.” Fox maintained that the
administration chose the date for its symbolic significance.
In his research, D’Amelio (1999) uncovered that Italian Americans turned
Columbus Day 1942 into a day of patriotic demonstrations. Italians used this day to call
attention to anti-democratic policies and to speak out against fascism, feeling it was
necessary to “exhibit their Americanism” (p.697).
Michaud (2002) asserts there was another reason Roosevelt chose Columbus Day
to announce the lifting of the restrictions. She concluded that the treatment of Italians had
become a political issue. Because Italians traditionally voted as Democrats, Roosevelt
could not afford to lose their support. With the national election in three weeks,
Roosevelt needed to take bold action to assure the Italian vote.
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Why Italians Were Treated Differently Than Japanese
Fox (1988) offers several factors that contributed to the difference between the
way the Italians were treated and the way the Japanese were treated during the war. First
the Italian aliens and their immediate families far out-numbered the Japanese. The Italian
population was estimated at close to 1,000,000 while the Japanese were estimated at
closer to 100,000. Policy makers considered the cost of relocating the Italians to be too
high, not only because of the logistical costs but also because of the dislocation to the
economy. Branca-Santos (2001) offers an additional consideration. She points out that
the government needed the full support and loyalty of the Italians as Roosevelt prepared
to invade Italy.
But, Fox (1988) goes further to explain that the Italians had geography on their
side. Unlike the Japanese who were living in enclaves in concentrated areas on the west
coast, the Italians were scattered across the United States. It was impractical to round up
the Italians. Lastly, Fox points out that many Italian Americans were public figures,
among them the mayors of New York and San Francisco and the American League’s
most valuable player, Joe DiMaggio. If the government interned all enemy aliens, these
men would have to be detained as well.
Wartime Powers Challenged in Court
Grodzins (1949) notes that throughout U.S. history, the executive branch of
government has exercised extraordinary powers. He mentions that historians often refer
to Roosevelt’s presidency to debate the opposing forces of individual civil liberties and
the protection of public safety during times of national crisis. In her research on this
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subject, Branca-Santos (2001) references Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933
when he asserted that under certain conditions the president had the right to depart from
In the United States’ system of government, the judicial branch provides the
check and balance on the abuse of war powers and the protection of civil liberties. The
legality of the evacuation and curfews imposed on enemy aliens during World War II was
tested in court. Grodzins (1949) was one of the first scholars to study the case law on
these issues. The Supreme Court ruled on two cases. The first was Hirabayashi v. United
States and the second was Korematsu v. United States. These cases not only challenged
the evacuation and curfew orders imposed on the plaintiffs, but also the constitutionality
of Executive Order 9066 as well.
Hirabayashi v. United States (1943)
When General DeWitt ordered enemy aliens to evacuate prohibited areas and
abide by curfews, a student at the University of Washington, Gordon Hirabayshi an
American-born citizen of Japanese descent, intentionally violated these orders (Branca-
Santos, 2001). Hirabayashi was a Quaker and a conscientious objector (Grodzins, 1949).
He was arrested, tried and convicted in May 1942 (Branca-Santos, 2001; Grodzins, 1949;
United States, 1997). His case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which upheld the
original conviction (Branca-Santos, 2001). Grodzin (1949) points out that the standard
the judiciary applied to this case was weak. The court ruled that the curfews and
evacuation were related to the waging of war. Specifically, the court concluded that the
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curfew was constitutional, thereby upholding the lower court’s ruling. The court evaded
the issue of exclusion.
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Fred Korematsu was an American citizen who violated the exclusion orders
(Branca-Santos, 2001; Grodzins, 1949). With this case, the Supreme Court faced the
issue of the constitutionality of the internment (Grodzins, 1949). As in Hirabayashi, the
Supreme Court ruled the evacuation constitutional. The United States based its defense
on the military’s claim that it could not distinguish between loyal and non-loyal Japanese
because a small group of Japanese, some citizens some not, refused to sign loyalty oaths
(Branca-Santos, 2001). According to Grodzin (1949), the Supreme Court applied
extraordinarily weak review standards and neglected the “clear and present” danger test
so often used in matters like these. Grodzins further asserts that the court approached the
case as a legal issue rather than on the basis of civil rights. As a result, the court
determined that it was legal for the executive branch to issue evacuation orders because
these orders bore a direct relationship to the war. Evacuation was, therefore, a military
necessity. Grodzins notes that in its documents, the court was careful not to comment on
the wisdom of the evacuation orders and in so doing, reinforced the broad powers of the
military over civilian matters during times of war or national emergency.
Post-war Events: The Examination of Civil Rights Violations During World War II
With the Korematsu ruling, the Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of
Executive Order 9066. However, over the next 30 years, the public, Japanese American
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activists and several key legislators continued to question the validity of the Japanese
internment. Finally, 32 years after this Supreme Court decision and 34 years after
Executive 9066 was issued, President Gerald Ford rescinded the order on February 19,
1976 (Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr., 2004). On July 31, 1980, President Jimmy Carter
signed a law establishing the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of
Civilians (Branca-Santos, 2001). The purpose of the commission was to determine if
there was sufficient military necessity to justify the restrictions placed on all resident
aliens. In its report, Personal Justice Denied (1997), the commission concluded that
Executive Order 9066 was not justified. The report cited several factors, which
contributed to the decision to hand down the order. The first was war hysteria and the
atmosphere of fear. The second factor was racial prejudice against the Japanese as
evidenced in the testimony of witnesses called by the Tolan Committee. The third was
the failure of politicians such as Attorney General Biddle as well as military leadership,
particularly General DeWitt (Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr., 2004; United States, 1997).
This report vindicated the Japanese Americans, but offered little information or
documentation of the plight suffered by the Italians and the Germans.
In July 1999, two United States Congressmen, Rick Lazio and Eliot Engel,
introduced a House Resolution 2442 calling for a full investigation into the violation of
civil liberties suffered by Italians during World War II (Branca-Santos, 2001; United
States Department of Justice, 2001). Five months later, the resolution passed the House of
Representatives. The Senate’s version of the bill passed almost a year later (United States
Department of Justice, 2001). The two bills were reconciled and on November 7, 2000,
Restrictions on Italian Americans 23
President Clinton signed the “Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties
Act”(Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr., 2004; United States Department of Justice, 2001).
This legislation formally acknowledged the restrictions suffered by Italian Americans
during World War II. The bill also required the government to study these violations,
determine who was affected and make lists of individuals who were arrested, detained
and interned (Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr., 2004).
In November 2001, the United States Department of Justice issued its report to
Congress reviewing the restrictions of civil liberties affecting Italian Americans during
World War II (Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr., 2004). The report, Report to Congress of the
United States: A review of the restrictions on persons of Italian ancestry during World
War II (2001), provides a detailed timeline and a review of government documents at
both the state and federal levels. Military and civilian records were also included.
Personal stories and oral histories were documented based on interviews with dozens of
individuals and their families who were directly affected by these events. Lastly, the
report included the work of private researchers and historians who are experts on this
In the Report to Congress of the United States: A review of the restrictions on
persons of Italian ancestry during World War II (2001), the United States Government
documented the tragic treatment suffered by Italian Americans during World War II.
Seven key findings were referenced. The first confirms that more than 60,000 Italian
immigrants were classified as enemy aliens, were forced to carry identifications cards and
were restricted from travel. The second confirmed that Italians were unnecessarily
Restrictions on Italian Americans 24
subjected to curfews and evacuations. The third finding cited the arrests and interments of
innocents. The fourth acknowledged the patriotism of Italian American soldiers during
World War II. Next, the report referenced the size of the Italian American population that
was affected and confirmed the devastation and lasting effects suffered by these people.
Lastly, the report admitted that:
A deliberate policy kept these measures from the public during the war. Even 50
years later much information is still classified, the full story remains unknown to
the public, and it has never been acknowledged in any official capacity by the
Untied States Government (United States Department of Justice, 2001, p. v).
With these findings, Italian Americans received the acknowledgement and closure they
In summary, the scholarly literature regarding the treatment of Italian Americans
during World War II documents the hysteria following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As a
result, laws and proclamations suspended the civil liberties of millions of Italian
immigrants causing great hardship. The government’s inability or unwillingness to
distinguish between ethnic affiliation and loyalty culminated in the suspension of due
process, one of the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.
The contributing factors, which led to the wartime panic and its aftermath, were
several. First, the fear of another attack on American soil created hysteria among the
people. Next, the Tolan Committee released its report, which erroneously confirmed that
enemy sympathizers assisted the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbor. This report
fueled an already mounting fear. A third and very important factor was the issue of
Restrictions on Italian Americans 25
ethnicity. The government was unwilling to distinguish between ethnicity and loyalty,
treating all aliens as enemy aliens. But most importantly, the United States Supreme
Court failed to apply the “clear and present danger” rule when reviewing both
Hirabayashi and Korematsu. Had either plaintiff prevailed, Executive Order 9066 would
have been overturned and ruled unconstitutional.
However, a gap exists regarding our understanding of the underlying fear. The
psychological and social impact of external threats often creates conditions, which
threaten America’s immigrants and citizens. Currently, public outcry over the Patriot Act
proves this topic is ongoing. One area that requires further research is the connection
between the theory of fear and its relationship to public policy during times of war.
Without this knowledge, citizens may continue to fall prey to the mistrust of various
ethnic groups resulting in limitations on their civil liberties during times of national crisis.
Restrictions on Italian Americans 26
Branca-Santos, P. (2001). Injustice ignored: The internment of Italian-Americans during
World War II. Pace International Law Review, 13, 151-182.
Brooke, J. (1997, August 11). After silence, Italian Americans recall the internment. New
York Times, p. A10.
Colletto, S. (2001). A sardine fisherman during the war. In L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia
segreta: The secret history of Italian American evacuation and internment during
World War II (pp. 97-102). Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
D'Amelio, D. A. (1999). A season of panic: The internments of World War II. Italian
Americana, 17(2), 147-162.
DiStasi, L. (1997). How World War II iced Italian American culture. In I. Reed (Ed.),
Multi America: Essays on cultural wars and cultural peace (pp.169-178). New York:
DiStasi, L. (2001a). A fish story. In L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia segreta: The secret
history of Italian American evacuation and internment during World War II (pp. 63-
96). Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
DiStasi, L. (Ed.). (2001b). Una storia segreta: The secret history of Italian American
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Drypolcher, L. B. (2001). Orders to take him away. In L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia
segreta: The secret history of Italian American evacuation and internment during
World War II (pp. 217-222). Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
Fox, S. (1988). General John DeWitt and the proposed internment of German and Italian
aliens during World War II. Pacific Historical Review, 57(4), 407-438.
Fox, S. (1990). The unknown internment: An oral history of the relocation of Italian-
Americans during World War II. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
Fox, S. (2000). Uncivil liberties: Italian Americans under siege during World War II.
uPUBLISH.com, USA: Universal Publishers.
Fox, S. (2001). The relocation of Italian Americans in California during World War II. In
L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia segreta: The secret history of Italian American
evacuation and internment during World War II (pp. 39-54). Berkeley, California:
Grodzins, M. (1949). Americans betrayed: Politics and the Japanese evacuation
Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Luconi, S. (2001). From Paesani to white ethnics: The Italian experience in
Philadelphia. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Restrictions on Italian Americans 28
Ottino, S. (2001). A tragic episode. In L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia segreta: A secret
history of Italian American evacuation (pp. 59-62). Berkeley, California: Heyday
Saunders, Kay and Daniels, Roger (Ed.). (2000). Alien justice: Wartime internment in
Australia and North America. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: University of
Scherini, R. D. (1992). Executive order 9066 and Italian Americans: The San Francisco
story. California History, 70(4), 366-377.
Scherini, R. D. (2001a). Letters to 3024 Pierce. In L. DiStasi (Ed.), Una storia segreta:
The secret history of Italian American evacuation and internment during World War
II (pp. 223-235). Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
Scherini, R. D. (2001b). When Italian Americana were "enemy aliens". In L. DiStasi
(Ed.), Una storia segreta: The secret history of Italian American evacuation and
internment during World War II (pp. 10-31). Berkeley, California: Heyday Books.
Sensenbrenner, F. James, Jr. (2004). Supporting the goals of the Japanese American,
German American, and Italian American communities in recognizing a national day
of remembrance to increase public awareness of the events surrounding the
restriction, exclusion, and internment of individuals and families during world war II
No. House Report 108-410. Washington D.C.: United States House of
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