Why America Targeted Italian-Americans During World War II

Why America Targeted Italian-Americans During World War II

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Louis Berizzi was in his pajamas when FBI agents burst into his Manhattan apartment and arrested him. As his daughter, Lucetta, and the rest of the family watched, wiping the sleep from their eyes, he hurried into clothing and was taken away.

Soon after, FBI agents questioned Lucetta, too. Why did she speak such good Italian? Had her father engaged in suspicious activities? Was she a traitor? She was released without being charged, but soon after suffered the consequences of the anti-Italian sentiment that had spread like wildfire since the United States entered World War II. After being seen speaking Italian with a customer, she was fired from her job as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Her father wasn’t a traitor, either. His only crime was being born in Italy. During the early years of World War II however, that was enough to classify him as an “enemy alien”—and to justify freezing his assets, interrogating his family, and interning him for months.

The Berizzis were just a few of at least 600,000 Italians and Italian Americans—many of them naturalized citizens—swept up in a wave of racism and persecution during World War II. Hundreds of Italian “enemy aliens” were sent to internment camps like those Japanese Americans were forced into during the war. More than 10,000 were forced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands suffered curfews, confiscations and mass surveillance during the war. They were targeted despite a lack of evidence that traitorous Italians were conducting spy or sabotage operations in the United States.

The roots of the actions taken by the U.S. government against Italian Americans can be found not just in Italy’s role as an Axis power during World War II, but in longstanding prejudice in the United States itself. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, Italians began immigrating to the United States in droves. By 1920, more than ten percent of all foreign-born people in the U.S. were Italian, and more than 4 million Italian immigrants had come to the United States.

Italians were the biggest group of immigrants to enter the U.S., and vibrant Italian American enclaves sprang up around the country. As the number of Italian immigrants grew, so did anti-Italian sentiment. Italians were painted as subhuman and undesirable, and employers often refused to hire people of Italian extraction.

READ MORE: The Grisly Story of America’s Largest Lynching

As Europe inched toward world war, the close ties many Italian Americans had with friends and family in Italy came under increasing scrutiny. Many Americans with Italian ancestry initially supported the growth of Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. In 1936, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s director, began to secretly surveil individuals and organizations he deemed likely to side with the enemy during the war to come.

It was a massive operation, and an effective one. By 1939, the FBI had assembled a massive list of information on “suspicious individuals.” Known as the “ABC List,” it divided people into categories based on their likelihood of danger to the nation. For many people on the list, which included tens of thousands of American citizens, the only basis for suspicion was their ethnicity.

Then, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Though the U.S. had not yet formally declared war on Italy, FBI agents began arresting Italians anyway in anticipation of entering the war in Europe. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a series of proclamations that declared citizens of Japan, Germany and Italy to be “alien enemies of the United States.” (As a later Department of Justice investigation found, the lists included permanent residents as well.) One hundred forty-seven Italians were already in custody when the U.S. declared war on Italy on December 11, 1941. Some stayed in the same camps where Japanese Americans were interned during the war.

Enemy aliens had to abide by curfews and turn in their weapons, radios and cameras. Most could not travel more than five miles from home without getting permission. The FBI began arresting and detaining people who were categorized as “As”—considered to constitute an actual threat to the United States—on the list.

As hundreds of Italians and Italian Americans awaited hearings to determine whether they would stay in detention, Congress signed legislation designed to protect a broad swath of the West Coast that was thought to be of special military and intelligence significance. The military determined who they thought should stay and who should go, and individuals could not be represented by legal counsel in the hearings that determined their fate. Other areas were declared off-limits to other individuals considered enemy aliens, including the San Francisco waterfront, areas around hydroelectric plants and areas near military bases.

The FBI searched houses for contraband items, confiscating radios and other items, and forced Italians, even those who were naturalized citizens, to report changes of address and employment. The government restricted the employment and movement of Italian fishermen, confiscating their boats and cutting off their access to the waters that provided their livelihoods. And though the federal government officially discouraged refusing Italians employment, they looked the other way when employers like Southern Pacific Railroad terminated them en masse.

At least 10,000 Italian Americans were evacuated in California, and forced to move out of their homes to areas outside of the evacuation zone. The government even came close to evacuating all Italians and Italian Americans along a massive swath of the state stretching from Los Angeles to Orange County, California, and, writes legal historian Joseph C. Mauro, those peaceful residents were only saved from being booted from their homes by the President himself.

Despite the persecution they endured, a large number of Italian Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II. Between 750,000 and 1.5 million people of Italian descent are thought to have served in the war, and 14 Italian Americans received the Medal of Honor for their service.

All in all, 600,000 Italians were affected by the policies, which were only lifted in 1942, once Roosevelt realized he’d need the support of the Italian American community if the U.S. was to invade Italy. On October 12, 1942, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle declared that Italians were no longer enemies of the state.

“You have met the test,” he said in a speech at Carnegie Hall. “Your loyalty to democracy which has given you this chance, you have proved, and proved well….We have trusted you; you must prove worthy of that trust, so that it may never be said hereafter that there are disloyal groups of Italian Americans.”

Though Italian American groups rejoiced at the proclamation, it wasn’t the end of their internment. The majority of interned Italians did not gain freedom for another year. And even beyond, Italian Americans were subject to bias and stereotypes that had been reinforced during the years they were assumed to be traitors.

The extent of the persecution of Italian Americans during World War II was only revealed in 2001, when Congress was presented with a report on their treatment in response to the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act of 2000.

Today, the persecution and internment of Italian Americans is a relatively unknown episode in the history of World War II, in part because of the humiliation and silence of the Italian Americans forced to live it.

“What happened to the Italians was based on wartime hysteria,” Joanne Chiedi, a former U.S. Justice official and daughter of Italian immigrants who helped write the report, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001. “We're trying to educate people so it won't happen again. The story needs to be told."

READ MORE: When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century’s Refugee Crisis

Anti-Italianism arose among some Americans as an effect of the large-scale immigration of Italians to the United States during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The majority of Italian immigrants to the United States arrived in waves in the early-twentieth century, many of them from agrarian backgrounds. Nearly all the Italian immigrants were Roman Catholic, as opposed to the nation's Protestant majority. Because the immigrants often lacked formal education, and competed with earlier immigrants for lower-paying jobs and housing, significant hostility developed toward them. [1] The established Protestant Americans of Northern European ancestry aggressively displayed and acted upon ethnocentric chauvinism and prejudice against Italian immigrants, especially in the American South, the population there being overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. In reaction to the large-scale immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Congress passed legislation (Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924) severely restricting immigration from those regions, but putting comparatively less restrictions from Northern European countries.

Anti-Italian prejudice was sometimes associated with the anti-Catholic tradition that existed in the United States, which was inherited as a result of Protestant/Catholic European competition and wars, which had been fought between Protestants and Catholics over the preceding three centuries. When the United States was founded, it inherited the anti-Catholic, anti-papal animosity of its original Protestant settlers. Anti-Catholic sentiments in the U.S. reached a peak in the 19th century when the Protestant population became alarmed by the large number of Catholics who were immigrating to the United States. This was due in part to the standard tensions that arise between native-born citizens and immigrants. The resulting anti-Catholic nativist movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, led to hostility that resulted in mob violence, including the burning of Catholic property. [2] The Italian immigrants inherited this anti-Catholic hostility upon arrival however, unlike some of the other Catholic immigrant groups, they generally did not bring with them priests and other religious who could help ease their transition into American life. To remedy this situation, Pope Leo XIII dispatched a contingent of priests, nuns and brothers of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo and other orders (among which was Sister Francesca Cabrini), who helped establish hundreds of parishes to serve the needs of the Italian communities, such as Our Lady of Pompeii in New York City. [3]

Some of the early 20th-century immigrants from Italy brought with them a political disposition toward socialism and anarchism. This was a reaction to the economic and political conditions which they had experienced in Italy. Such men as Arturo Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca, and Joe Ettor were in the forefront of organising Italians and other immigrant labourers in demanding better working conditions and shorter working hours in the mining, textile, garment, construction and other industries. These efforts often resulted in strikes, which sometimes erupted into violence between the strikers and strike-breakers. The anarchy movement in the United States at that time was responsible for bombings in major cities, and attacks on officials and law enforcement. [4] As a result of the association of some with the labour and anarchy movements, Italian Americans were branded as "labor agitators" and radicals by many of the business owners and the upper class of the time, which resulted in further anti-Italian sentiment.

The vast majority of Italian immigrants worked hard and lived honest lives, as documented by police statistics of the early-twentieth century in Boston and New York City. Italian immigrants had an arrest rate which was no greater than those of other major immigrant groups. [5] As late as 1963, James W. Vander Zander noted that the rate of criminal convictions among Italian immigrants was less than that among American-born whites. [6]

A criminal element which was active in some of the Italian immigrant communities in the large eastern cities, used extortion, intimidation and threats in order to extract protection money from the wealthier immigrants and shop owners (known as the Black Hand racket), and it was also involved in other illegal activities as well. When the Fascists came to power in Italy, they made the destruction of the Mafia in Sicily a high priority. Hundreds fled to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s in order to avoid prosecution.

When the United States enacted prohibition in 1920, the restrictions proved to be an economic windfall for those in the Italian-American community who were already involved in illegal activities, as well as those who had fled from Sicily. They smuggled liquor into the country, wholesaled and sold it through a network of outlets and speakeasies. While members of other ethnic groups were also deeply involved in these illegal bootlegging activities, and the associated violence between groups, Italian Americans were among the most notorious. [7] Because of this, Italians became associated with the prototypical gangster in the minds of many, which had a long-lasting effect on the Italian-American image.

The experiences of Italian immigrants in North American countries were notably different than those in South American countries, where many of them immigrated in large numbers. Italians were key in developing countries such as: Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. They quickly joined the middle and upper classes in those countries. [8] In the U.S., Italian Americans initially encountered an established Protestant-majority Northern European culture. For a time, they were viewed mainly as construction and industrial workers, chefs, plumbers, or other blue collar workers. Like the Irish before them, many entered police and fire departments of major cities. [9]

Violence against Italians Edit

After the American Civil War, during the labour shortage that occurred as the South converted to free labour, planters in southern states recruited Italians to come to the United States and work, mainly as agricultural workers and labourers. Many soon found themselves the victims of prejudice, economic exploitation, and they were sometimes victims of violence. Anti-Italian stereotypes abounded during this period as a means of justifying the maltreatment of the immigrants. The plight of the Italian immigrant agricultural workers in Mississippi was so serious that the Italian embassy became involved in investigating their mistreatment in cases that were studied for peonage. Later waves of Italian immigrants inherited these same virulent forms of discrimination and stereotyping which, by then, had become ingrained in the American consciousness. [10]

One of the largest mass lynchings in American history was of eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891. The city had been the destination for numerous Italian immigrants. [11] Nineteen Italians who were thought to have assassinated police chief David Hennessy were arrested and held in the Parish Prison. Nine were tried, resulting in six acquittals and three mistrials. The next day, a mob stormed the prison and killed eleven men, none of whom had been convicted, and some of whom had not been tried. [12] Afterward, the police arrested hundreds of Italian immigrants, on the false pretext that they were all criminals. [13] [14] Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said the lynching was indeed "a rather good thing". John M. Parker helped organize the lynch mob, and in 1911 was elected as governor of Louisiana. He described Italians as "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous". [15]

In 1899, in Tallulah, Louisiana, three Italian-American shopkeepers were lynched because they had treated blacks in their shops the same as whites. A vigilante mob hanged five Italian Americans: the three shopkeepers and two bystanders. [16]

In 1920 two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were tried for robbery and murder in Boston, Massachusetts. Many historians agree that Sacco and Vanzetti were subjected to a mishandled trial, and the judge, jury, and prosecution were biased against them because of their anarchist political views and Italian immigrant status. Judge Webster Thayer called Sacco and Vanzetti "Bolsheviki!" and said he would "get them good and proper". In 1924 Thayer confronted a Massachusetts lawyer: "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?" the judge said. Despite worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually executed. [17] Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declared August 23, 1977, the 50th anniversary of their execution, as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. His proclamation, issued in English and Italian, stated that Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried and convicted and that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names." He did not pardon them, because that would imply they were guilty. [18]

In the 1930s, Italians together with Jews were targeted by Sufi Abdul Hamid, [19] an anti-Semite and admirer of Mufti of Palestine Amin al-Husseini. [20] [21]

Anti-Italianism was part of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic ideology of the revived Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after 1915 the white supremacist and nativist group targeted Italians and other Southern Europeans, seeking to preserve the supposed dominance of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. During the early 20th century, the KKK became active in northern and midwestern cities, where social change had been rapid due to immigration and industrialization. It was not limited to the South. It reached a peak of membership and influence in 1925. A hotbed of anti-Italian KKK activity developed in Southern New Jersey in the mid-1920s. In 1933, there was a mass protest against Italian immigrants in Vineland, New Jersey, where Italians made up 20% of the city population. The KKK eventually lost all of its power in Vineland, and left the city.

Anti-Italian-American stereotyping Edit

Since the early decades of the 20th century, Italian Americans have been portrayed with stereotypical characterizations. [22] Italian Americans in contemporary U.S. society have actively objected to pervasive negative stereotyping in the mass media. Stereotyping of Italian-Americans as being associated with organized crime has been a consistent feature of movies, such as The Godfather (all three works in the series), GoodFellas and Casino, and TV programs such as The Sopranos. [23] Such stereotypes of Italian Americans are reinforced by the frequent replay of these movies and series on cable and network TV. Video and board games, and TV and radio commercials with Mafia themes also reinforce this stereotype. The entertainment media has stereotyped the Italian American community as tolerant of violent, sociopathic gangsters. [24] Other notable stereotypes portray Italian Americans as overly aggressive and prone to violence. [25] MTV's series Jersey Shore was considered offensive by the Italian-American group UNICO. [26]

A comprehensive study of Italian-American culture on film, conducted from 1996 to 2001, by the Italic Institute of America, revealed the extent of stereotyping in media. [27] More than two-thirds of the 2,000 films assessed in the study portray Italian Americans in a negative light. Nearly 300 films featuring Italian Americans as mobsters have been produced since The Godfather (1972), an average of nine per year. [28]

According to the Italic Institute of America:

The mass media has consistently ignored five centuries of Italian American history, and has elevated what was never more than a minute subculture to the dominant Italian American culture. [29]

According to recent FBI statistics, [30] Italian-American organized crime members and associates number approximately 3,000. Given an Italian-American population estimated to be approximately 18 million, the study concludes that only one in 6,000 has any involvement with organized crime.

An early manifestation of anti-Italianism in Britain was in 1820, at the time when King George IV sought to dissolve his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick. A sensational proceeding, the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820, was held at the House of Lords in an effort to prove Caroline's adultery since she had been living in Italy, many prosecution witnesses were from among her servants. The prosecution's reliance on Italian witnesses of low repute led to anti-Italian sentiment in Britain. The witnesses had to be protected from angry mobs, [31] and were depicted in popular prints and pamphlets as venal, corrupt and criminal. [32] Street-sellers sold prints alleging that the Italians had accepted bribes to commit perjury. [33]

Anti-Italianism broke out again, in a more sustained way, a century later. After Benito Mussolini's alliance with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, there was a growing hostility towards Italy in the United Kingdom. The British media ridiculed the Italian capacity to fight in a war, pointing to the poor state of the Italian military during her imperialistic phase. A comic strip, which began running in 1938 in the British comic The Beano, was entitled "Musso the Wop". The strip featured Mussolini as an arrogant buffoon. [34]

Wigs on the Green was a novel by Nancy Mitford first published in 1935. It was a merciless satire of British fascism and the Italians living in the United Kingdom who supported it. The book is notable for lampooning the political enthusiasms of Mitford's sister Diana Mosley, and her links with some Italians in Great Britain who promoted the British Union of Fascists of Oswald Mosley. Furthermore, the announcement of Benito Mussolini's decision to side with Adolf Hitler's Germany in spring 1940 caused an immediate response. By order of Parliament, all enemy aliens were to be interned, although there were few active Italian fascists. This anti-Italian feeling led to a night of nationwide riots against the Italian communities in June 1940. The Italians were now seen as a national security threat linked to the feared British Fascism movement, and Winston Churchill gave instructions to "collar the lot!". Thousands of Italian men between the ages of 17 and 60 were arrested after his speech. [35]

Adolf Hitler acknowledged the ancient history of the Roman civilization. He regarded the Italians as more artistic but less industrious than the Germanic population. The fact that the Kingdom of Italy "stabbed the German Empire in the back" by siding with the allies in the First World War was not brought up (Treaty of London, 1915).

—Loyd E. Lee and Robin D. S. Higham, World War II in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with General Sources: A Handbook of Literature and Research. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997, ISBN 0-313-29325-2. (pp. 141–142)

During the Second World War, the United States and the United Kingdom designated Italian citizens living in their countries as alien, irrespective of how long they had lived there. Hundreds of Italian citizens, suspected by ethnicity of potential loyalty to Fascist Italy, were put in internment camps in the United States and Canada. Thousands more Italian citizens in the U.S., suspected of loyalty to Italy, were placed under surveillance. Joe DiMaggio's father, who lived in San Francisco, had his boat and house confiscated. Unlike Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Italian Canadians never received reparations from their respective governments, but President Bill Clinton made a public declaration admitting the U.S. government's misjudgement in the internment. [36]

Because of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia and Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany, in the United Kingdom popular feeling developed against all the Italians in the country. Many Italian nationals were deported as enemy aliens, with some being killed by German submarines torpedoing the transportation ships. [37]

During the Second World War, much Allied propaganda was directed against Italian military performance, usually expressing a stereotype of the "incompetent Italian soldier". Historians have documented that the Italian Army suffered major defeats due to its being poorly prepared for major combat as a result of Mussolini's refusal to heed warnings by Italian Army commanders. [38] Objective World War II accounts show that, despite having to rely in many cases on outdated weapons, [39] Italian troops frequently fought with great valor and distinction, especially well trained and equipped units such as the Bersaglieri, Folgore and Alpini. [40] [41] [42]

The German soldier has impressed the world, however the Italian Bersagliere soldier has impressed the German soldier.

Bias includes both implicit assumptions, evident in Knox's title The Sources of Italy's Defeat in 1940: Bluff or Institutionalized Incompetence?, and the selective use of sources. Also see Sullivan's The Italian Armed Forces. Sims, in The Fighter Pilot, ignored the Italians, while D'Este in World War II in the Mediterranean shaped his reader's image of Italians by citing a German comment that Italy's surrender was "the basest treachery". Further, he discussed Allied and German commanders but ignored Messe, who commanded the Italian First Army, which held off both the U.S. Second Corps and the British Eighth Army in Tunisia.

In his article, Anglo-American Bias and the Italo-Greek War (1994), Sadkovich writes:

Knox and other Anglo-American historians have not only selectively used Italian sources, they have gleaned negative observations and racist slurs and comments from British, American, and German sources and then presented them as objective depictions of Italian political and military leaders, a game that if played in reverse would yield some interesting results regarding German, American, and British competence. [43]

Sadkovich also states that

such a fixation on Germany and such denigrations of Italians not only distort analysis, they also reinforce the misunderstandings and myths that have grown up around the Greek theater and allow historians to lament and debate the impact of the Italo-Greek conflict on the British and German war efforts, yet dismiss as unimportant its impact on the Italian war effort. Because Anglo-American authors start from the assumption that Italy's war effort was secondary in importance to that of Germany, they implicitly, if unconsciously, deny even the possibility of a 'parallel war' long before Italian setbacks in late 1940, because they define Italian policy as subordinate to German from the very beginning of the war. Alan Levine even goes most authors one better by dismissing the whole Mediterranean theater as irrelevant, but only after duly scolding Mussolini for 'his imbecilic attack on Greece'. [44]

Former Italian communities once thrived in Italy's African colonies of Eritrea, Somalia and Libya, and in the areas at the borders of the Kingdom of Italy. In the aftermath of the end of imperial colonies and other political changes, many ethnic Italians were violently expelled from these areas, or left under threat of violence.

Libya and Yugoslavia have shown high levels of anti-Italianism since WWII, as illustrated by the following manifestations:

  • Libya. During the years of administering Libya as an Italian colony, some 150,000 Italians settled there, constituting about 18% of the total population. [45] During the rise of independence movements, hostility increased against colonists. All of Libya's remaining ethnic Italians were expelled from Libya in 1970, a year after Muammar al-Gaddafi seized power: Day of Revenge on 7 October 1970. [46]
  • Yugoslavia. At the end of World War II, former Italian territories in Istria and Dalmatia became part of Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Peace with Italy, 1947. Economic insecurity, ethnic hatred and the international political context that eventually led to the Iron Curtain resulted in up to 350,000 people, nearly all ethnic Italians, choosing to or being forced to leave the region during Josip Broz Tito's dictatorship. [47][48] Scholars such as R. J. Rummel note that the number of Dalmatian Italians has dropped from 45,000 in 1848, when they comprised nearly 20% of the total Dalmatian population under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, [49] to 300 in modern times, related to democide and ethnic cleansing.

Other forms of anti-Italianism showed up in Ethiopia and Somalia in the late 1940s, as happened with the Somali nationalist rebellion against the Italian colonial administration that culminated in violent confrontation in January 1948 (it:Eccidio di Mogadiscio). 54 Italians, mostly women and children, [50] died in the ensuing political riots in Mogadishu and several coastal towns. [51]

National organizations which have been active in combatting media stereotyping and defamation of Italian Americans are: Order Sons of Italy in America, Unico National, Columbus Citizens Foundation, National Italian American Foundation and the Italic Institute of America. [27] Four Internet-based organizations are: Annotico Report, [52] the Italian-American Discussion Network, [53] ItalianAware [54] and the Italian American One Voice Coalition. [55]


The term "Italian American" does not have a legal definition. It is generally understood to mean ethnic Italians of American nationality, whether Italian-born immigrants to the United States (naturalized or unnaturalized) or American-born people of Italian descent (natural-born U.S. citizens).

The term "enemy alien" has a legal definition. The relevant federal statutes in Chapter 3 of Title 50 of the United States Code, for example par. 21, [3] which applies only to persons 14 years of age or older who are within the United States and not naturalized. Under this provision, which was first defined and enacted in 1798 (in the Alien Enemies Act, one of the four Alien and Sedition Acts) and amended in 1918 (in the Sedition Act of 1918) to apply to females as well as to males, all "natives, citizens, denizens or subjects" of any foreign nation or government with which the United States is at war "are liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed as alien enemies." [4]

At the outbreak of World War II, for example, all persons born in Italy living in the United States, whether US citizens, lawful full-time or part-time residents, or as members of the diplomatic and business community, were considered by law "enemy aliens." However, applying the standard to all persons including US Citizens became problematic given the huge numbers of Italian immigrants and the even larger numbers of their descendants. Accordingly, the government most often applied the term to Italian-born persons who were not United States citizens, but especially to Italian diplomats, Italian businessmen, and Italian international students studying in the United States all were classified as "enemy aliens" when Italy declared war on the United States. In some cases, such temporary residents were expelled (such as diplomats) or given a chance to leave the country when war was declared. Some were interned, as were the Italian merchant seamen caught in U.S. ports when their ships were impounded when war broke out in Europe in 1939.

The members of the ethnic Italian community in the United States presented an unusual problem. Defined in terms of national origin, it was the largest ethnic community in the United States, having been supplied by a steady flow of immigrants from Italy between the 1880s and 1930. By 1940, there were in the United States millions of native-born Italians who had become American citizens. There were also a great many Italian "enemy aliens", more than 600,000, according to most sources, who had immigrated during the previous decades and had not become naturalized citizens of the United States.

The laws regarding "enemy aliens" did not make ideological distinctions—treating as legally the same pro-Fascist Italian businessmen living for a short time in the U.S. and trapped there when war broke out, anti-Fascist refugees from Italy who arrived a few years earlier intending to become U.S. citizens but who had not completed the process of naturalization, and those who had emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century and raised entire families of native-born Italian Americans but who had not become naturalized. Under the law they were all classified as enemy aliens.

In September 1939, Britain and France declared war against Germany after Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Aware of the possibility of the war eventually involving the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, to compile a Custodial Detention Index of those to be arrested in case of national emergency. The Axis powers allied with Germany included Fascist Italy and the Empire of Japan. More than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Department of Justice began to list possible saboteurs and enemy agents among German, Japanese, and Italian Americans. [5]

In 1940, resident aliens were required to register under the Smith Act.

The following is a chronology of events regarding the treatment of enemy aliens and the reaction in the Italian American community:

1941 to 1943 Edit

  • On December 11, 1941, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the United States. The United States reciprocated and entered World War II. Beginning on the very night of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and before the US officially declared war against Italy, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a handful of Italians. [6] By December 10, 1941, nearly all the Italians, about 147 men, that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover planned on arresting before the official declaration were in custody. [7] By June 1942, the FBI had arrested a total of 1,521 Italian aliens. [8] About 250 individuals were interned for up to two years in the WRA military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, in some cases co-located with interned Japanese Americans. The government targeted Italian journalists, language teachers, and men active in an Italian veterans group. [2]
  • In late December 1941, enemy aliens throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands were required to surrender hand cameras, short-wave radio receiving sets, and radio transmitters no later than 11 p.m. on the following Monday, January 5, 1942. [9] They were subject to curfew and movement restrictions, and later were forced to move out of certain areas. These restrictions were enforced more in the San Francisco area than in Los Angeles, and much more on the West Coast than on the East Coast, where Italians were residents in much greater number and made up a much higher percentage of the population, especially in major urban centers. [2]
  • In January 1942, all enemy aliens were required to register at local post offices. As enemy aliens they were required to be fingerprinted, photographed, and carry their photo-bearing "enemy alien registration cards" at all times. Attorney GeneralFrancis Biddle assured enemy aliens that they would not be discriminated against if they were loyal. He cited Department of Justice figures: of the 1,100,000 enemy aliens in the United States, 92,000 were Japanese, 315,000 were German, and 695,000 were Italian. In all, 2,972 had been arrested and held, mostly Japanese and Germans. Only 231 Italians had been arrested. [10]
  • On January 11, 1942, The New York Times reported that "Representatives of 200,000 Italian American trade unionists appealed to President Roosevelt yesterday to 'remove the intolerable stigma of being branded as enemy aliens' from Italian and German nationals who had formally declared their intentions of becoming American citizens by taking out first papers before America's entry into the war." [11]
  • A few weeks later, the same newspaper reported that "Thousands of enemy aliens living in areas adjacent to shipyards, docks, power plants, and defense factories prepared today to find new homes as Attorney General Biddle added sixty-nine more districts in California to the earlier list of West Coast sections barred to Japanese, Italian, and German nationals." These were areas defined as within the Exclusion Zone. Japanese Americans were much more affected by this ruling than were German Americans and Italian Americans. [12] The WRA established a 50 miles (80 km) Exclusion Zone on the West Coast that adversely affected Italian Americans who had been working as longshoremen and fishermen, causing many to lose their livelihoods. Those in California were most severely affected. Perhaps because the Italians were more numerous and politically strong on the East Coast, there was never such an Exclusion Zone delineated. Italian Americans in the East did not suffer the same restrictions. [13]
  • On February 1, the Justice Department warned all aliens of enemy nationalities fourteen years of age or older that they had to register within the week if they lived in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Montana, Utah, or Idaho. Failure to do so could result in severe penalties, including internment for the duration of the war. [14]
  • Later in February, the Italian American Labor Council, founded by Luigi Antonini, met in New York and voiced "opposition to any blanket law for aliens that does not differentiate between those who are subversive and those who are loyal to America." [15]

By September 23, 1942, the Justice Department claimed "…From the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until 1 September, 6,800 enemy aliens were apprehended in the United States and half of them have either been paroled or released." [16] Their report dealt with enemy aliens apprehended under the Alien and Sedition Act, who were primarily German nationals.

  • On Columbus Day 1942, Francis Biddle announced the restrictions were lifted against Italian nationals living as long-term residents in the United States stating that, "beginning October 19, a week from today, Italian aliens will no longer be classed as 'alien enemies.'" [17] The plan was approved by President Roosevelt and many restrictions were lifted. Members of the Italian community could now travel freely again, own cameras and firearms, and were not required to carry ID cards. [13][18] In addition a plan was announced to offer citizenship to 200,000 elderly Italians living in the United States who had been unable to acquire citizenship due to a literacy requirement. [19] Those men in WRA camps were interned for nearly another year, until after Italy's surrender. [19]
  • Italy's surrender to the Allies on September 8, 1943, resulted in the release of most of the Italian American internees by year's end. Some had been paroled months after "exoneration" by a second hearing board appealed for by their families. Most of the men had spent nearly two years as prisoners, being moved from camp to camp every three to four months. [8]

In the late 20th century, Italian American activists argued that the US had violated the civil rights of some Italian Americans by classifying all who were not citizens as enemy aliens. They said that the US had failed to differentiate between those who had committed or promoted subversive acts and those who were loyal to the United States although they were not naturalized citizens, causing the latter to suffer indignities and worse, violation of civil rights, loss of residences and livelihoods with no basis.

In response to activists concerned about the treatment of Italian Americans during the war, on November 7, 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the "Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act".(Pub.L. 106–451 (text) (pdf), 114 Stat. 1947) This law, in part, directed the U.S. Attorney General to conduct a comprehensive review of the treatment by the U.S. Government of Italian Americans during World War II and to report on its findings within a year. The Attorney General submitted this report, A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II, to the U.S. Congress on November 7, 2001, and the House Judiciary Committee released the report to the public on November 27, 2001. [20] The report, covering the period September 1, 1939, to December 31, 1945, describes the authority under which the United States undertook enforcement of wartime restrictions on Italian Americans and detailed these restrictions.

In addition, the report provides 11 lists, most of which include the names of those most directly affected by the wartime restrictions. [21]

  1. the names of 74 persons of Italian ancestry taken into custody in the initial roundup following the attack on Pearl Harbor and prior to the United States declaration of war against Italy,
  2. the names of 1,881 other persons of Italian ancestry who were taken into custody,
  3. the names and locations of 418 persons of Italian ancestry who were interned,
  4. the names of 47 persons of Italian ancestry ordered to move from designated areas under the Individual Exclusion Program or, and an additional 12 who appeared before the Individual Exclusion Board, though it unknown if an exclusion order was issued,
  5. the names of 56 persons of Italian ancestry not subject to individual exclusion orders who were ordered to temporarily move from designated areas,
  6. the names of 442 persons of Italian ancestry arrested for curfew, contraband, or other violations,
  7. a list of 33 ports from which fishermen of Italian ancestry were restricted,
  8. names of 315 fishermen of Italian ancestry who were prevented from fishing in prohibited zones,
  9. the names of 2 persons of Italian ancestry whose boats were confiscated,
  10. a list of 12 railroad workers of Italian ancestry prevented from working in prohibited zones, of whom only 4 are named, and
  11. a list of 6 wartime restrictions on persons of Italian ancestry resulting specifically from Executive Order 9066.

Separately, in 2010, the California Legislature passed by an overwhelming margin a resolution apologizing for US mistreatment of Italian residents in the state during the war, noting restrictions and indignities, as well as loss of jobs and housing. [2] [22]

Mother Cabrini

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Born outside Milan in 1850, Francis Xavier Cabrini heeded the request of Pope Leo XIII and moved to the U.S. in the late 1880s to serve the millions of Italian immigrants who were flocking to its shores. She founded her first American orphanage in upstate New York in 1890 but refused to stay put, fielding calls to help the abandoned, sick and destitute across the country and around the world. Naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1909, Mother Cabrini died in one of her own hospitals in Chicago eight years later, leaving behind a legacy of more than five dozen schools, orphanages and hospitals built. She became the first U.S. citizen to be canonized in 1946, fittingly finding her place in the firmament as the patron saint of immigrants.

Family and Community Dynamics

The family ( la famiglia ) rested at the heart of Italian society. Family solidarity was the major bulwark from which the rural population confronted a harsh society, and the family unit (including blood relatives and relatives by marriage) became the center of allegiances. Economically and socially, the family functioned as a collective enterprise, an "all-inclusive social world" in which the individual was subordinated to the larger entity. Parents expected children to assist them at an early age by providing gainful labor, and family values stressed respect for the elderly, obedience to parents, hard work, and deference to authority.

The traditional Italian family was "father-headed, but mother-centered." In public, the father was the uncontested authority figure and wives were expected to defer to their husbands. At home, however, females exercised considerable authority as wives and mothers, and played central roles in sustaining familial networks. Still, male children occupied a favored position of superiority over females, and strong family mores governed female behavior. Women's activities were largely confined to the home, and strict rules limited their public behavior, including access to education and outside employment. Formal rituals of courting, chaperonage, and arranged marriages strictly governed relations between the sexes. Above all, protection of female chastity was critical to maintaining family honor.

Family and kin networks also guided migration patterns, directing precise village flows to specific destinations. During sojourner migrations, the work of women in home villages sustained the family well-being in Italy and allowed male workers to actively compete in the world labor market. In America, the extended family became an important network for relatives to seek and receive assistance. Thus, migration and settlement operated within a context of family considerations.

Attempts to transfer traditional family customs to America engendered considerable tension between generations. More educated and Americanized children ventured to bridge two worlds in which the individualist notions of American society often clashed with their parents' family-centered ethos. Still, strong patterns of in-marriage characterized the second generation, and many of their parents' cultural values were successfully inculcated. These carryovers resulted in a strong attachment to neighborhoods and families, consistent deference to authority, and blue-collar work choices. The second generation, however, began to adopt American practices in terms of family life (seen, for example, in smaller family size and English language usage), and the collective nature of the unit began to break down as the generations advanced.


The peasant culture placed little value on formal instruction, seeking instead to have children contribute as soon as possible to family earnings. From the peasant perspective, education consisted primarily of passing along moral and social values through parental instruction (the term buon educato means "well-raised or behaved"). In southern Italy, formal education was seldom a means of upward mobility since public schools were not institutions of the people. They were poorly organized and supported, administered by a distrusted northern bureaucracy, and perceived as alien to the goals of family solidarity. Proverbs such as "Do not let your children become better than you" spoke to these perceptions, and high rates of illiteracy testified to their power.

These attitudes remained strong among immigrants in America, many of whom planned a quick repatriation and saw little reason to lose children's wages. Parents also worried about the individualist values taught in American public schools. The saying "America took from us our children" was a common lament. Thus, truancy rates among Italians were high, especially among girls, for whom education had always been regarded as unnecessary since tradition dictated a path of marriage, motherhood, and homemaking.

Antagonism toward schools was derived not only from culture, but also from economic need and realistic judgments about mobility possibilities. Given the constricted employment options open to immigrants (largely confined to manual, unskilled labor), and the need for family members to contribute economically, extended schooling offered few rewards. From the parental viewpoint, anything threatening the family's collective strength was dangerous. Generations frequently clashed over demands to terminate formal education and find work, turn over earnings, and otherwise assist the family financially in other ways. Prior to World War I, less than one percent of Italian children were enrolled in high school.

As the second generation came of age in the 1920s and 1930s and America moved toward a service economy, however, education received greater acceptance. Although the children of immigrants generally remained entrenched in the working class (though frequently as skilled workers), they extended their education, often attending vocational schools, and could be found among the nation's clerks, bookkeepers, managers, and sales personnel. The economic downturn occasioned by the depression resulted in increased educational opportunities for some immigrants since job prospects were limited.

Italian Americans were well situated in post-World War II America to take advantage of the national expansion of secondary and higher education. They hastened to enroll in G.I. Bill programs and in the 1950s and 1960s began to send sons and daughters to colleges. By the 1970s, Italian Americans averaged about 12 years of formal education in 1991 the group slightly surpassed the national mean of 12.7 years.

Why America Targeted Italian-Americans During World War II - HISTORY

Complete seventeen page paper is available through email.
This report is the result of a "Topics Course" which completed my History Education classes at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania from the Spring 2006 semester.
The course of History 401 - "World War II Home Front" was conducted by Professor Elizabeth Ricketts-Marcus.

Italian American Racism During the WWII Era.

D uring the World War II era, Italian immigrants in America encountered harsh treatment from both citizens and the government. Prejudice paired with war time hysteria was directed at the Italian population and resulted in the internment of several thousand immigrants, executions of prominent businessmen, and the constant harassment of hardworking laborers. Many of these same people had sons discriminated against while fighting overseas in the United States military saving the world from fascism. Some victims cried “racism,” but for the most part Italian Americans pulled themselves up by their boot straps to make something out of their lives, despite the barriers. Nevertheless, injustices did occur, and at a critical time in world history the United States government treated Italians as second class citizens.

Most Americans considered the influx of these immigrants at the turn of the century as undesirable, and felt that they were eroding this country’s identity. At the time, the globe was sinking deeply into economic depression, and Italy was no exception. Similar to modern times, many emigrants chose to seek a better life elsewhere, rather than fix the problems in their own homelands. Italy was being dictatorially governed, primarily by ruthless and brutal gang lords whose government was characterized by violent feuds. [1] As instability met with financial downturn, American democracy began to look appealing. Men initially left home seeking work. Economically the conditions in Italy were so poor, that around nineteen hundred, one out of fifty citizens emigrated for the United States. [2] North America had yet to experience negative economic effects as harshly as Europe. These men hoped to secure employment and a stable home in the “land of opportunity.” Upon arrival, the immigrants found no welcome mat. No one befriended the cheaply working laborers who arrived seeking a better life than the ones they left behind in Italia.

Society’s View of the Italian

These new and darker faces found themselves at the bottom of the social totem pole. Italian newcomers were described as “low-class, ignorant, unassimilable, and prone to criminality.” [3] To make matters worse, the new immigrants practiced Catholicism. America was predominantly Protestant in the early nineteen hundreds, and earlier prejudices had developed toward the Irish who were also devout Catholics. Catholicism reinforced ethnic segregation, as each ethnicity practiced their faith in different parishes. The contradictions between the universal Roman church and the reality of ethnic division brought about tension in the United States among varying nationalities. Many Americans viewed this religion as a mixture of superstition, faith, and ritual. Tension developed as self-imposed ethnic segregation was viewed by Americans as an unwillingness to assimilate into “ Americanism Ideals, ” [4] or the idea of American cultural values.

Loading ships became the employment norm along the docks of New York’s harbors for many immigrants. This work was considered unappealing, difficult outdoor labor full of heavy lifting. Prior to legalized labor unions, ethnic groups banded together in employment. Undesirable dock work was usually reserved for Irish, Scotts, Poles, Slovaks, Italians, and other marginalized ethnic groups. [5] One source claims this experience is where the term “ dago ” originated. These various ethnic groups would negotiate agreements to load or unload cargo for ship captains however, captains took advantage of the laborers by promising to pay the men on a given day. Often the ship would sail during the night prior to payday, leaving those laborers with nothing after a week of hard work. Quickly each of these various ethnic groups learned to demand “we get paid by the day or we go .” [6]

As with employment, ethnic groups congregated together in housing which was just as unfavorable. Once established, immigrants began sending portions of their wages home until enough money accumulated for their families to make the journey across the Atlantic. Initially, Italians were located in the Upper East Side of New York City living in tenement housing. Tenements were several story apartment buildings located in the overcrowded slums of a city. The Upper East Side was filled with the aroma of Italian cooking, and the streets with the sounds of organ grinders. [8] Inside the tenements, Italians left their doors open and socialized in the hallways, which was considered unusual by most other ethnic groups. Also considered unusual by other ethnicities was the Italian custom of a large family: on average each household contained eight children. [9]

Unbridled prejudice within society resulted from the immigrant’s unconventional traditions, as commonly “alien cultures have been the recipients of scorn and maltreatment throughout much of American history.” [12] Though embracing democracy, Italian-Americans often found themselves defending Italy and its current fascist dictatorship as their beloved homeland most of whom hoped to return to one day. Xenophobia gripped the country’s mindset in 1939 as World War II loomed and threatened democracy worldwide. In addition, ethnic Italians were closely linked to organized crime, as criminality and dishonesty were considered part of the “cultural baggage of Italian immigration.” [13] Americans insisted that racketeering was not a native trait of America but was imported from Sicily and Naples. The government of Italy, led by Mussolini, was believed to be founded on such terrorism, and was considered a nationalized Mafia. [14]

Adolph Hitler viewed America as an inferior, mongrel, nation. Americans held a similar view of its Italian residents. The Italian segment of the population was even further dissected into groups of Northern and Southern immigrants. The Northern group was considered to be the lesser of two evils, due to their lighter “ Aryan ” skin tone. Some anthropologists argued that the Southern “ Mediterranean ” group possessed “inferior African blood…and demonstrated a moral and social structure reminiscent of primitive and even quasibarbarian times. They are volatile, emotionally unstable, soon hot, soon cool, and when they talk their hands will be moving all the time.” [15] Southern Italy’s location was viewed as a crossroads which joined Africa, Europe, and the East. Americans believed it had given birth to people with an “inherent racial inferiority.” [16] This led to discrimination against Italians based upon the worth of the province where the immigrant originated (with provinces further south being increasingly undesirable). This belief also led to the application of another derogatory term: “ Guinea ,” which originally meant an “inferior African slave, and their descendents.” [17]

Even in Italy countrymen were guilty of stereotyping themselves according to this cultural division, which was strangely familiar to our own mentality during the Civil War. Northern Italians viewed themselves as the industrious, wealthier, educated, sensible, and the stable half of the country. The southern Italians saw themselves as the agricultural, honest, hard working backbone of the country. They felt they were less conscientious but friendlier, warmer, and more sociable than the citizens from the north. The north viewed the south as disorganized, unreliable and impulsive. These views originated from a combination of historical and geographic factors. Granted there are economical, social, and cultural differences among Italian regions but sociologists had not indicated until modern times that the personalities of both northern and southern Italians are remarkably similar, even during the emigration of the early 1900s for the United States. [17.5] Terracciano, Antonio. North vs. South: What's the Difference? Italian America magazine. The Order Sons of Italy in America, Winter 2010, page 8.

Most of the immigrants in the close-knit familial communities were illiterate laborers living at poverty level, which ultimately became a great advantage. As the depression set in, and wages decreased, many higher-paid Americans lost their jobs. However, the Italians, who were already at the bottom of the pay scale, continued working on the docks and in coal mines - among other unskilled employment. Additionally, Italians were accustomed to living inexpensively among large groups of family, this allowed for social mobility when the rest of the country suffered the effects of doing without. The playing field was leveled as the depression took its toll. Italians would work for bushels of potatoes, share crops, and share livestock to feed paesani and their own extended families. [18] As Italians continued to live relatively unaffected, they found themselves economically better off than the majority of the country, which eventually started to translate into some political rights. For the first time Italians began to hold public office and inspire the nation. Success was found by Italian Americans such as Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, Congressman Vito Marcantonio, Mayor Frank Rizzo, Mayor Joseph Alioto, boxer Rocky Marciano, Baseball star Guiseppe “Joe” DiMaggio, and many others.

As America became involved in the war in 1941, hysteria made clear that the strides Italians had made during the depression were inconsequential. Society’s deeply rooted perception of the unscrupulous Italian immigrant resulted in Italian Americans being stigmatized as enemy aliens. Italian’s allegiance to America began to be questioned because so many immigrants did not take steps to complete the extensive requirements to become naturalized citizens, even though most had been here as long as forty years. Officials from the Justice Department and War Department were “convinced the Italians were under some kind of ideological spell from their fascist homelands.” [19]

The major internment sites for Italian Americans were Fort George Meade in Maryland, Camp McAlester in Oklahoma, Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Camp Forrest in Tennessee. Italian Americans were also sent to Fort Missoula, Montana and any one of the forty-five other internment camps used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Provost Marshal General's Office. [30]

Italian nationals saw for the first time the grim spectre of internment camps, mass evacuation of families, and the revocation of business licenses. These acts were similar to what the German and Japanese aliens of enemy descent had been experiencing. Doctors and dentists were forced out of work in a savage hunt to crush secret organizations which did not exist. [31]

The traditional injustices suffered by the Italian population typically served as motivation to improve their situation. Most families raised their children to work hard, appreciate what they had, and to speak English. Many of those children became successful members of society. Italians traditionally succeeded in America through hard work, perseverance, and without accepting government assistance. In July of 1942, President Roosevelt began to consider appropriating five million dollars from his presidential emergency fund to accommodate the Italian and German internees expected to be released over the coming months. In a silent effort to avoid national attention, signs were posted at the internment camp Post Offices announcing the release of all internees and the availability of federal aid. The federal aid was planned to fund housing and unemployment benefits each detainee was eligible for twenty dollars of unemployment pay per week for twenty weeks. Of more than 3500 Italian American detainees only an estimated three hundred sought assistance. Richard Neustadt of the Social Security Board was warned by officials that Italians were too proud and would commit suicide before accepting government assistance. [34] They were correct. Italian Americans had a difficult time finding employment, and suicides were reported across the country. The greatest desire was for a man to provide his family with a better life than the one he had left behind in Italy. Ani Difrano is credited with having said, “The world owes me nothing. We owe each other the world.” [35]

Although the internment was behind them, prior to the war’s end in 1945 soldiers of Italian ancestry were treated differently than other soldiers. Jack Tabone recalled a meeting during the war with a high ranking officer. As Jack was escorted into the officer’s tent he was questioned about his loyalties to the United States and asked what he would do should he be ordered to march into Italy. In a related story of mistreatment, Private First Class Frank Vizza did not receive any medals for his heroic efforts in battle until President Ronald Reagan ordered a review of war records in 1984. Later that year Vizza was awarded the Bronze Star, Good Conduct Medal, European Theater Badge with Two Battle Stars, North African Theater Badge, Combat Infantry Badge for Sharp Shooting with Wreath, and the Victory Medal all accompanied by a heart-felt letter of appreciation from President Reagan. When asked why it took forty years to be acknowledged, Vizza proudly responded, “No it wasn’t racism… when you are in combat things move so fast that the paper work gets lost for a while.” [36]

Due to members from the “greatest generation” one finds little or no prejudices directed to the Italian population in modern day society. This is partially the result of efforts from that generation assimilating into the culture and pursuing naturalization. Through perseverance and pride, Italians have virtually eliminated racism. By Refusing government assistance, tightening of their belts, and working hard, the first two generations of Italians gained success in America. As a final act of vindication, in 1999, as a result of lobbying by the Italian American community, the United States Congress addressed the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II. This resulted in House Resolution 2442, acknowledging that the United States violated the civil rights of Italian Americans during the war. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives in 1999, the Senate in 2000, and signed by President Clinton that same year. [37]

Italian Slurs and Slang Definitions

1. Tony - This was never a name. Immigrant luggage commonly read "TO: NY." To New York was frequently misinterpreted by clerks at Ellis Island to mean the name "Tony." Tony was then listed on the immigrant’s paperwork as their new name, since many could not speak English to correct the clerks, and the ones that could did not want to argue with a clerk that could deny them entry to the U.S., and make them get back on the boat to go home.

2. Dago - Various ethnic groups (Scottish, Polish, Irish, Italian, etc.) working at N.Y.'s docks would negotiate agreements to load or unload cargo for ship captains however, captains took advantage of the laborers by promising to pay the men on a given day. Often the ship would sail during the night prior to payday, leaving those laborers with nothing after a week of hard work. Quickly each of these various ethnic groups learned to band together in makeshift "unions" and demand “we get paid by the day or we go.”

3. Wop - Derived from the Italian word "Guappo" meaning thug. Originally used to describe an Italian grape picker in Spain. Some sources cite an acronym meaning illegal alien: W .ith O .ut P .apers.

4. Guido / Guidette - Gino - Mario - A lower class/working class urban Italian immigrant. Popularized by MTV's "Jersey Shore" this is commonly now used to describe a loud, materialistic, arrogant, high maintenance, stereotypical New Jersey/Staten Island Italian American.

5. Goombah - Originally this was a term Italians used among one another when referring to a fellow associate from the same mafia. Today this is a derogatory term usually meaning fool or buffoon of Italian heritage.

6. Guinea - Originally meant an inferior African slave, and their descendants.

7. Paesan / Paesani - Typically, immigrants spoke regional dialects over English, and were loyal to kin or paesani (townspeople) originally from Italy.

8. M.A.F.I.A. - Mothers And Fathers Italian Association.

9. Spaghetti-bender / Organ-grinder. Worthless, Italian immigrant pandering for money.

During the early 1900s Italians were believed to have an “inherent racial inferiority.” This led to discrimination against Italians based upon the worth of the province where the immigrant originated (with provinces further south being increasingly undesirable). Northern Italians fit the "Aryan" skin tone with predominantly blond hair and blue eyes. The further south you go in Italy, the Italian was considered to have a "muddied" background from the crossroads of the world. Different cultures from all over the Mediterranean would trade or invade at different times in history, the result was dark hair, dark eyes, and darker, greasy skin. Most people from our area are Southern Italians who settled here to work in the coal mines.

Many local doctors would deliver babies and translate Italian names into German, or change them altogether to make them sound more "American" on the birth certificates. Dr. King and Dr. Bowser were local doctors who practiced this idea.

The Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses in protest of Italian immigrants in Wishaw and the surrounding area.

Most immigrants who left Italy for America did not end up any better off than they were in Italy. In fact, many families ended up far worse off socially and financially.

[1] Salvatore LaGumina, Wop! (New York: Quick Fox, Inc), 12.
[2] Stephen Fox, The Unknown Internment (Boston: Twayne Publishers), 9.
[3] LaGumina, 53.
[4] Dominic Pacyga, Catholics, Race, and the American City [Web site] (1997) http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=7579868548641 Internet accessed 14 April 2006.
[5] Fox, 26.
[6] Wayne MoQuin, A Documentary History of the Italian Americans. (New York: Praeger), 46.
[7] Fox, 8.
[8] Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements . (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 13.
[9] Peiss, 15.
[10] Jennifer Guglielmo, Are Italians White? (New York: Routledge), xi.
[11] LaGumina, 239-240.
[12] LaGumina, 14.
[13] LaGumina, 61.
[14] LaGumina, 256.
[15] Guglielmo, 9.
[16] Guglielmo, 9.
[17] Guglielmo, 11.
[18] Frank Vizza, interviewed by Phil Mennitti, History of Wishaw , Historical Society, 8 November 2004.
[19] Fox, 6.
[20] Fox, 2.
[21] Jack Tabone, interviewed by Phil Mennitti, History of Wishaw , Historical Society, 3 November 2004.
[22] LaGumina, 268-272.
[23] Fox, 47.
[24] Fox, 59.
[25] Fox, 62.
[26] Fox, 41-54.
[27] Fox, xi.
[28] Fox, 1.
[29] Fox, 156.
[30] Fox, 26.
[31] Fox, 43.
[32] Fox, 176.
[33] Fox, 59.
[34] Fox, 142.
[35] Guglielmo, vii.
[36] Frank Vizza, 8 November 2004.
[37] U.S Department of Justice, Report to the Congress of the United States: A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry during World War II [PDF file] (2001) http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/Italian_Report.pdf Internet accessed 7 February 2006.

Corbis. Web site. 2006. Available from http://www.pro.corbis.com/. Internet. Accessed 14 April 2006.

Fox, Stephen C. The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Guglielmo, Jennifer. Are Italians White? New York: Routledge, 2003.

Justice, U.S. Department of. Report to the Congress of the United States: A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry during World War II. PDF file. 2001. Available from http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/Italian_Report.pdf . Internet. Accessed 7 February 2006.

LaGumina, Salvatore J. WOP! A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States. New York: Quick Fox Inc., 1973.

MoQuin, Wayne. A Documentary History of the Italian Americans. New York: Praeger, 1975.

Pacyga, Dominic A. Catholics, Race, and the American City. Web site. 1997. Available from http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=7579868548641. Internet. Accessed 14 April 2006.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Tabone, Jack. Interviewed by Phil Mennitti. The History of Wishaw. Historical Society, 3 November 2004.

Vizza, Frank. Interviewed by Phil Mennitti. The History of Wishaw. Historical Society, 8 November 2004.

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It was a distinctly American story, revealing the immigration system’s xenophobic through line. Poverty-stricken immigrants who were hated one day were approved of the next, only to be replaced by another allegedly dangerous immigrant group, all under the guise of national security. As beloved as Italian cuisine, sports cars, and fashion are on our shores today, things were different during the first half of the 20th century, especially during WWII. Swept up in xenophobic hysteria, Italians’ movements were restricted, their homes raided in some cases, they were interned. Six hundred thousand Italian immigrants were forced to carry “enemy alien” identity papers — a requirement similar to the dehumanizing registration system used by Nazis to track Jews, and eerily close to present-day U.S. immigration enforcement practices — where failing to swiftly provide proof of residency can put you on the next plane to danger in your home country.

B etween 1876 and 1930, a wave of Slavs, Jews, and Italians arrived on American shores. Vociferous arguments were made against these “undesirable immigrants.” Italians during this period were the targets of mass lynchings and subject to slurs like “guinea” (a person of mixed-race ancestry), “dago”(because Italians were paid as a “day goes” rather than salaried), and wop (as in “without papers”). In 1924, the same year the U.S.’s immigration quota system was implemented (allowing disproportionate numbers of immigrants from “desirable,” a.k.a. white, nations), a widely read article in Literary Digest declared, “The recent immigrants, as a whole, present a higher percentage of inborn socially inadequate qualities than do the older stocks.” According to the article, these recent arrivals suffered from “feeblemindedness,” “deformities,” and “criminality.” (In the coming years, the idea of Italian criminality would be baked into public perception by the media’s fixation on real-life Italian mobsters like Al Capone and Vito Genovese and their Hollywood equivalents, portrayed in movies like The Godfather and Mean Streets. Xenophobic ideas were peddled to the public as “Protestant morality.” In what looks a lot like an early version of a MAGA campaign, lawmakers, intent on making America white Anglo-Saxon Protestant again, maintained that dark-featured Catholics weren’t welcome.

The Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States were mostly poor laborers fleeing poverty in southern Italy. As they left behind low-wage jobs in mining, textiles, and other areas of manufacturing, their arrival clashed with the burgeoning American labor movement. When American workers went on strike demanding better pay and conditions, business owners replaced them with Italians, who were so desperate that they’d take whatever work they could get. Rather than direct their rage at the true sources of their disenfranchisement — the wealthy factory owners, the government, the very system of American capital itself — the American workers caved to xenophobic impulses and landed on a much easier target: “the other.”

When Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants with anarchist ties, were convicted of murder in 1920, despite the widely held belief that the men were innocent, prejudice against Italian Americans and their political ideologies swelled. However, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, anti-Italian sentiment reached a new level. The attack brought the United States into the war, and Japanese allies like Italy officially became enemies of the United States. Four days after Pearl Harbor, the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini emerged onto the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia and declared war on the United States. “Italian men and women,” he said, “I tell you once again in this great hour: We shall be victorious.”

For Italians living in America, the hour was not so great. As news of Mussolini’s announcement was broadcast over American radios that morning, Italian Americans watched their new country transform before their eyes. Neighbors eyed them with suspicion and fear. People refused to patronize their businesses. Everyday Italians like members of the Maiorana family became “enemy aliens.” Mike’s father, a fisherman by trade, had his boat confiscated during the war and never recovered from the prolonged loss of income. “He was on the skids for the rest of his life,” Mike said.

Roughly two months after Italy’s declaration of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066, which enabled the government to claim land for military use, a.k.a. internment camps. The internment of the Japanese is widely known, but less well known is the fact that 10,000 Italians were forced out of their homes, and hundreds interned in camps as well.

The executive order also enabled the government to seize the homes and belongings of Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants. According to Lawrence DiStasi, the author of Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II, all unnaturalized Italians were required to head to the post office to be fingerprinted, photographed, and furnished with an “enemy alien registration card,” which they were expected to carry at all times. Others’ homes were raided in search of so-called contraband, such as guns, shortwave radios, and flashlights, which the government said could be used as “signaling devices.” As the L.A. Times pointed out, many “enemy aliens” were elderly Italians who’d never bothered to pursue citizenship suspected as spies by virtue of their country of origin, they were yanked from their homes and forced into a byzantine bureaucracy that couldn’t have cared less about their basic rights.

Enemy aliens who weren’t hauled away couldn’t travel farther than five miles from their homes. “Because of the travel restrictions,” DiStasi writes, “mothers could not visit their children in hospitals if they were more than five miles away. Families could not attend a relative’s funeral. No alien could make a trip to visit distant friends or relatives, nor even visit their own sons in uniform at military installations.” They were also subjected to curfews. Violation of any of these terms meant arrest and indefinite detention.

The press seemed to bend over backwards to describe the humanity of the internment camps. When Time magazine journalists traveled to the camp, they reported that the detainees were never referred to as prisoners, and “govern themselves, spend their time reading, listening to the radio, playing games, doing chores for pin money. They are not forced to work.” The account failed to mention that these men were prisoners who were unable to see or provide for their families.

It was an obvious violation of civil rights just as notable, as historians would later point out, the United States had scant cause for concern about Italian spies on their shores. Mussolini had minimal support in the Italian American community.

T he travel restrictions and curfews were lifted a year after they had begun, but many remained imprisoned until the Italian surrender in 1943. But as DiStasi explains, the psychic toll of being labeled an enemy alien and treated like a criminal endured. “Many were humiliated by the treatment of spouses or relatives, and are still angry about it.”

In 1999, Rep. Rick Lazio (R-NY) introduced a bill to formally acknowledge the Italians’ treatment with an investigation into the violation of their civil liberties. It passed, and just a couple of months after the September 11 attacks, as anti-Arab sentiment swept the nation, a report was issued detailing some — but by no means all — of the offenses against Italians. In response to the report, Joanne Chiedi, a Department of Justice official, said, “What happened to the Italians was based on wartime hysteria. We’re trying to educate people so it won’t happen again.”

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How America became Italian

Italian Americans were ridiculed for their food choices in the early 20th century. Today, pizza and pasta are staples of the American diet. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Vincent J. Cannato is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of “American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.”

When baseball legend Yogi Berra passed away last month, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred called the late Yankees catcher “a beacon of Americana.” Sportswriter Frank Deford had employed the same theme a decade earlier, calling Berra “the ultimate in athletic Americana.”

That is quite a testament to a man born Lorenzo Pietro Berra to Italian immigrant parents and raised in the Italian enclave of St. Louis known as the Hill. There, he developed the outsize personality that would color the American experience with Italian wit.

Traditionally, when we think of Americana, we recall Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” or Betsy Ross sewing the Stars and Stripes. Now we can also invoke Berra and his famous quote, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Berra, an anchor of the dynastic New York Yankees of the mid-20th century, exemplifies the broad influence that Italian Americans have had on American culture since arriving as impoverished and denigrated immigrants isolated in urban ghettos. From sports and food to movies and music, they haven’t just contributed to the culture, they have helped redefine it.

That would have surprised many native-born Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was on the rise. Most Italians came from the poverty-stricken southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Abruzzo (although Berra’s parents were part of the minority that hailed from the North). These immigrants worked mainly as semi-skilled and unskilled laborers, providing much-needed muscle for the United States’ booming industrial economy. They toiled in steel mills and coal mines as “pick and shovel” day laborers or as brick- and stone-laying masons, as my grandfather and great-grandfather were.

Americans of that era saw Italians as a poor fit for democratic citizenship. Since many Italian immigrants were illiterate, immigration restrictionists sought to impose a literacy test for admission to the country that would have excluded Italians in large numbers. There was also a common belief that Italians were prone to violence. In 1893, the New York Times called Italy “the land of the vendetta, the mafia, and the bandit.” Southern Italians were “bravos and cutthroats” who sought “to carry on their feuds and bloody quarrels in the United States.” Three years later, the Boston Globe published a symposium titled “Are Italians a Menace? Are They Desirable or Dangerous Additions to Our Population?”

Nearly half of Italian immigrants were “birds of passage” who eventually returned to Italy. Those who stayed in America often settled together, forming poor ethnic neighborhoods. But these barrios were not simply replicas of their residents’ native country. Regional cultures — which distinguished Sicilians from Neapolitans — blended along with American customs that children brought home from public schools.

Two events in particular helped develop the Italian American identity. Congress passed immigration quotas in the 1920s that primarily targeted people from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 slashed the annual quota for Italian immigrants from more than 42,000 to less than 4,000. Stemming the flow of newcomers into ethnic neighborhoods caused Little Italys to gradually shrink, and Italian Americans moved to the suburbs and diverse neighborhoods where they were more influenced by purely American music, movies and culture.

Then came World War II, which forged a strong feeling of national unity — one that was more inclusive than the nativist campaign for “100 percent Americanism” during World War I. At the beginning of the war, Italian immigrants who had not become U.S. citizens were deemed “enemy aliens.” But President Franklin D. Roosevelt determined that the designation was counterproductive as he sought Italian American support for the war and lifted it on Columbus Day 1942 , so Italians largely escaped the fate of interned Japanese Americans. A half-million Italian Americans (including Berra, who earned a Purple Heart) served in the U.S. military during World War II, with some of them fighting in the Italian countryside that had been their parents’ home.

As they joined the military and integrated into suburbs, Italian Americans shed the popular stereotypes surrounding them. Gradually, the customs developed in Little Italys found acceptance in the mainstream and were absorbed into broader American culture.

Food is a good example of this phenomenon. In the early 20th century, Italian immigrant dishes were scorned and became the root of slurs like “spaghetti bender” and “garlic eater.” Garlic’s pungency seemed un-American and uncivilized, and the strong smell was seen as evidence of Italians’ inferiority. Its popularity in American markets and recipes today shows how drastically this perception has changed and how enmeshed Italian American culture has become in broader American life.

That’s also apparent in red-sauce dishes that are staples in U.S. homes and restaurants. Big plates of spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, and chicken parmigiana are not common in Italy, but they reflect the unique Italian American culture immigrants created. Red sauce became prevalent in immigrants’ kitchens because canned tomatoes were readily available in U.S. markets. Meat was a rarity in southern Italy but abundant in America, and the growing incomes of even working-class Italian households allowed for larger portions of meatballs and other dishes.

Pizza, believed to have originated in Naples, epitomizes Italian Americans’ outsize influence on our culture, where pizza took on an entirely new meaning. Generally, Americans don’t like the original Neapolitan pizza, whose crust tends to be a bit soggy in the middle — unlike the crispier Italian American version. An Italian restaurant owner who opened a pizzeria in New York featuring Neapolitan pies told me his customers complain that his pizzas are undercooked.

Italian Americans have continued to put new spins on the Neapolitan creation. In Chicago, they created the deep-dish pizza. New Haven’s legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana is famous for its white clam pizza, as well as its regular red-sauce and cheese version. In the classic American way, corporations also got into the act, from Domino’s to California Pizza Kitchen. Few foods are more ubiquitous in the American diet, and few are more synonymous with American cuisine.

While Italian Americans’ kitchens were changing the nation’s palate, their creativity was winning over the popular culture. Before the dawn of rock-and-roll, many of the singers who defined American music were Italian Americans: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Perry Como and Louis Prima among them.

Sinatra, specifically, transcended his time and has influenced American music beyond his death. His songs have become the cornerstone of what critics call the Great American Songbook. The music itself is a cultural mash-up, borrowing from African American jazz with lyrics often written by Jewish songwriters. But with his cocked hat, Sinatra possessed an air of confidence that popularized Italian American swagger and sartorial style. He sang without an accent, but between songs listeners heard a voice from the streets of Hoboken, N.J., with Italian-dialect slang thrown in.

Italian Americans have also made a mark on film. Two of the four greatest American movies, as judged by the American Film Institute, were not only directed by Italian Americans but narrate stories about the Italian American experience. Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” is a gritty, hyper-realistic tale of the rise and fall of middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta. And Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on the novel by Mario Puzo, is a tale about the tensions of assimilation, as Michael Corleone abandons his American ambitions to take over from his father as crime boss.

Coppola and Puzo were walking a fine line with “The Godfather.” The movie reinforced the connection that many Americans made between Italians and organized crime, a stereotype that bothered Italian Americans. But Coppola and Puzo turned the Corleones into classic American characters, embodying the broadly relatable conflict between fathers and sons, tradition and modernity.

Italian immigration, at least on a large scale, is now a thing of the past. But the influence of Italian American culture remains. These immigrants and their children did not simply melt into a homogenous stew of Americanism they created a lively ethnic community that helped shape mainstream culture.

Today, Americans are once again concerned about the number of new immigrants and their ability to assimilate. It might not quite be “deja vu all over again” (to borrow from Yogi Berra), but the Italian American experience reminds us that immigration is a process of transformation for the individuals and for American society. That bilateral cultural evolution will continue to mold who we are as a nation.

Why were majority of Japanese-Americans forced to move? Why didn't the German-Americans share the same fate?

About 13,000 German nationals, Italian nationals, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans were interned under Executive Order 9066. This number however represented a tiny, tiny fraction of the tens of millions of such peoples in the US at that time, and most of those detained Europeans were foreign nationals.

This pales in comparison to the internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans during World War II. The US interned 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans, almost all on the mainland. This represented about 80 to 90% of the Japanese population on the mainland. To make matters worse, while native-born Germans and Italians could receive citizenship, native-born Japanese could not. (This would remain the case until 1952, when the Supreme Court ruled the various alien land laws to be unconstitutional.) To make matters even worse, almost all native-born Japanese had been in the US for 20 years or more.

The only explanation for this is "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." This was the conclusion of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, which was established by Congress in 1980 to investigate World War II internment by the US and which issued its final report entitled "Personal Justice Denied" in 1982, forty years after the internment began.

Italian Americans in California

Italians were some of the first European explorers and settlers of California. Religious duties and the search for new fishing grounds were initial reasons for Italians to explore what later became the thirty-first state, but their reasons for staying expanded after arriving. Though we often associate Italians in California with San Francisco, the initial Italian settlers established themselves in such diverse communities as Monterey, Stockton, and San Diego during the years of Spanish Rule.

While the majority of Italians settled in the urban centers of the east, many, especially northern Italians came out west. As late as 1890, there were more Italian immigrants on the Pacific coast than in New England. Their reasons for leaving and for choosing California varied. Overpopulation and the French capture of the wine industry in the 1880s made leaving attractive to Ligurians. The fact that California's small immigrant community was 80% northern made it more attractive to these people.

Some children of the first wave of immigrants came of age in the 1900s to the 1930s, and these achieved greater success than their parents in law, politics, business, and agriculture, especially wine. Once again, the relative lack or prejudice in California, or rather the vicious prejudice against other groups allowed Italian families to quickly integrate themselves into California's economy and politics.

The interwar years between 1919 and 1941 were not the best for Italian-Americans in general. The Sacco and Vanzetti trials brought unwanted suspicion of anarchism to those of Italian descent, and the notoriety of mobsters such as Al Capone was embellished in the fledgling film industry. Most distressing to Italian immigrants was the internment of non-citizens in the early part of World War II. While not as extreme or as long as the Japanese-American internment, this came as a shock to the Italian-American population of California, which had established itself in the state economically and politically, and had experienced a relatively small amount of prejudice in the past.

After World War II, Italian-Americans began to move out of the Little Italy sections of Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill. This exodus became even larger after the Korean War. This was mainly due to the growth of suburbanization in the San Francisco Bay area in general, as new families sought independent housing of their own. Today, the areas associated with Little Italy, especially North Beach, retain reminders of its ethnic roots. At the same time, the neighborhoods have become diversified, as the need to maintain an exclusive community dissipated.

This website portrays the place of Italian Americans in the history and culture of California. As you will see, their influence has been significant, sustaining, and beneficial. È la gaia pioggerella a far crescer l'erba bella!