During World War II, the U.S. Saw Italian-Americans as a Threat to Homeland Security

The executive order that forced Japanese-Americans from their homes also put immigrants from Italy under the watchful eye of the government

Italian-Americans were placed under suspicion when the United States entered World War II. Library of Congress

Frank DiCara is 90 years old, but he still remembers what it felt like to wake up an enemy in his hometown. It was 1941, and he was a 14-year-old kid in Highlandtown, an Italian-American neighborhood in Baltimore, when news broke that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into war with the Axis Powers of Japan, Germany and Italy.

For people like Frank, whose parents had come from Sicily three decades before, the news was doubly horrifying. Along with the anger and amazement that America had been attacked came the unbelievable news that Italy—their homeland—was suddenly the enemy. Overnight, the land his parents remembered fondly from their youth—and where they still had family—couldn’t be talked about without risking treason.

DiCara, now 90, remembers vividly the stigma of those days. “We took a lot of slur from people,” he says; Italian-Americans were called “guineas,” “dagos” and “wops.”

The incarceration of Japanese-Americans is the best-known effect of Executive Order 9066, the rule signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on February 19, 1942. And for good reason. The suffering and punishment placed upon innocent Japanese-Americans was a dark chapter in American history. But the full extent of the government order is largely unknown.

In addition to forcibly evacuating 120,000 Americans of Japanese background from their homes on the West Coast to barbed-wire-encircled camps, EO 9066 called for the compulsory relocation of more than 10,000 Italian-Americans and restricted the movements of more than 600,000 Italian-Americans nationwide. Now, the order has resurfaced in the public conversation about immigration.

Says Tom Guglielmo, a history professor at George Washington University: “It’s as relevant as ever, sadly.”

Italian-Americans had faced prejudice for decades by the time the order was drafted, says Guglielmo. Italians were the biggest group of immigrants to the United States who passed through Ellis Island for much of the late 19th and early 20th century; between 1876 and 1930, 5 million Italians moved to the U.S. Not without backlash: By the 1920s, pseudo-scientists and polemicists in the 1920s popularized the notion that Italians were a separate race from Anglo-Americans.

“There’s no doubt those ideas were still around in 1942,” notes Guglielmo. They were part of the air that young Italian-Americans grew up breathing.

In Highlandtown, life changed overnight. Federal agents across the country immediately arrested 98 Italian “aliens,” including ten in Baltimore. The agents identified their targets with the help of the Census Bureau.

Two months later, the government took more drastic action. DiCara remembers government agents confiscating his family’s shortwave radio. Agents from both the FBI and the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to today’s CIA) made surveillance visits to the Highlandtown neighborhood, gauging the attitudes of foreign-born residents, as evidenced by declassified OSS records in the National Archives.

Povero America,” his father said at the dinner table in the war’s early months. “Poor America, you ought to stay home and take care of your own house.” Like many of the Italian-born generation (and many “America First” isolationists then), he wished America would stay out of the war. But though politics came up more often in their home, they could not discuss it on the street.

Like many other of his generation, the younger DiCaras felt intense pressure to prove their patriotism to their adopted land—and like many other Italian-Americans, they enlisted in the military at a higher rate than people of other backgrounds. All three of Frank DiCara’s older brothers saw combat in Europe in the U.S. Army, and DiCara himself fought in the Pacific, also as part of the Army.

Frank DiCara - Baltimore family in WW2

Around the same time in Illinois, a young postgraduate sociology student at the University of Chicago named Paul Campisi saw growing unease in the Italian-American community. He shifted his master’s degree thesis topic to study the community's response to the war crisis. His interviews and surveys of Italian-Americans revealed tremendous “fear, bewilderment, confusion and anxiety.”

Rumors began right after the Pearl Harbor attack. The government was going to pass a law taking away the property of all Italians who didn’t have citizenship papers; Italians living near defense factories would be forced to move; Italian homes would be searched and cameras, shortwave radios and guns would be confiscated. In fact, government officials considered all three of those options.

Campisi’s surveys found a contrast between how the older, Italian-born generation and second-generation Italian-Americans viewed the threat. The older generation felt a deep inner conflict. “It was hard for the Italians to believe that their homeland was actually at war with America. It was incredible, unbelievable,” he wrote. But even though all Italian-Americans ages 14 and older had to register as aliens following the 1940 Alien Registration Act, a process that filled them with anxiety, nobody believed it would go any further.

“Italians weren’t expecting the shock which awaited them on December 8,” Campisi wrote. “It was a dual reaction. First, anger, amazement, and incredible shock at the news of Pearl Harbor, and then sorrow and pain at the realization that Italy definitely would now be an enemy nation.” Now Italian-Americans faced even greater suspicion from their co-workers and friends.

“There was no doubt about being on the American side of the war,” Campisi wrote of the attitude in the Chicago-area neighborhoods, “but there was great sadness…all things Italian should be suspect and hateful.”

The same chill settled in Connecticut. One morning in spring 1942, federal officers knocked on the door of a New Haven home. The man who opened the door, Pasquale DeCicco, was a pillar of his community and had been a U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. He was taken to a federal detention center in Boston, where he was fingerprinted, photographed and held for three months. Then he was sent to another detention facility on Ellis Island.

Still with no hearing scheduled, he was moved again to an immigration facility at Fort Meade, Maryland. On July 31, he was formally declared an enemy alien of the United States. He remained at Fort Meade until December 1943, months after Italy’s surrender. He was never shown any evidence against him, nor charged with any crime.

EO 9066 not only allowed the government to arrest and imprison “enemy aliens” without charges or trial—it meant their homes and businesses could be summarily seized. On the West Coast, California’s attorney general Earl Warren (later the Chief Justice of the United States) was relentless in registering enemy aliens for detention.

Even Joe DiMaggio’s parents in Sausalito weren’t spared. Though their son, the Yankees slugger, was the toast of New York, General John DeWitt, a leading officer in the Western Defense Command, pressed to arrest Joe’s father, Giuseppe, who had lived in the U.S. for 40 years but never applied for citizenship papers. DeWitt wanted to make a point: “No exceptions.”

Though the FBI stopped short of arresting Giuseppe, he and his wife, like their neighbors, had to carry “enemy alien” photo ID booklets at all times and needed a permit to travel more than five miles from home. Giuseppe was barred from the waterfront where he had worked for decades and had his fishing boat seized by the government.

Only months later, when officials let the elder DiMaggio return to the docks, did the New York Times report on the episode. Keeping a light tone, the Times said in June 1942 that DiMaggio senior “may return to Fisherman’s Wharf to keep an eye on Joe’s restaurant,” along with the other Italian-Americans who “had been barred from that picturesque district.” The short item noted that “compliance with curfew, residence and travel restrictions is still required.” As enemy aliens, over 600,000 Italian-born Americans nationwide were confined to their homes every night from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Warren was also in charge of the plan for relocating Japanese-Americans. He drew a racial line between the Japanese- and German- and Italian-Americans, targeting the Japanese for harsher treatment. But in the competition between state and federal agencies to show who was most aggressive about securing America, all three groups suffered.

Another casualty was Nino Guttadauro. A U.S. citizen who had in the past worked as an accountant for the Italian consulate in San Francisco, he made his way onto an FBI watch list in September 1941 when his name appeared on a letter signed by J. Edgar Hoover that stated, “It is recommended that this individual be considered for custodial detention in the event of an actual emergency.” The FBI had no evidence of any wrongdoing on Guttadauro’s part, but his past employment history and affiliation with an Italian-American World War I veterans group were enough to put him on their list.

Eleven months later, Guttadauro was given a custodial detention card and ordered to leave his California home and the western states. He was evicted despite a letter in his defense from the U.S. assistant attorney general stating that there wasn’t enough evidence to justify his prosecution. Still the FBI did not soften its stance. It ordered Guttadauro to report to an individual exclusion hearing board in San Francisco in fall 1942. If he failed to appear, he could be fined $5,000 (equivalent to over $76,400 in today’s dollars), sentenced to a year in jail, or both.

When he showed up at the Whitcomb Hotel for the hearing the morning of September 8, Guttadauro was told that he would not learn who his accusers were, nor receive details of the accusations. He would not be allowed legal counsel.

The suite on the hotel’s fourth floor struck Guttadauro as a bizarre location for an official proceeding. It lasted less than an hour. Despite his military service in a World War I, Guttadauro’s presence in California was declared a threat to public safety. Officials barred him from traveling to or living in more than half of the United States (anywhere near a coast where he might abet invaders). The FBI pressed again to take away his U.S. citizenship altogether, a process called “Denaturalization Proceedings.” For nearly three years the investigations, interrogations and hounding continued as Guttadauro and his family moved from state to state looking for work. He settled in Salt Lake City, where they knew no one, and took a job as a grocery clerk.

Guttadauro’s exile didn’t end until the spring of 1944, when the exclusion order was rescinded. The ordeal left his family in financial and emotional tatters. Historian Lawrence DiStasi quotes Guttadauro’s son Angelo: “We had become, by military fiat, a family of involuntary gypsies.”

DiStasi’s book Branded is one of several new books to add grim texture to this episode. Jan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City provides an account of a secret U.S. internment camp in Texas for prisoner exchanges, and Richard Reeves’ Infamy adds new details about the Japanese-American experience in internment camps and a startling glimpse into U.S. officials’ planning process.

In Branded, DiStasi returns to the episode he covered in an earlier book, Una Storia Segreta, and questions whether EO 9066 was the crucial regulation that brought hardship to so many. He argues the path was already paved in the earlier orders that set up the “enemy alien” designation. DiStasi finds that the orders to evacuate enemy aliens from prohibited zones came in a series of Justice Department press releases in January and early February, weeks before EO 9066. Furthermore, he writes that “once a population is designated ‘enemy aliens,’ little more needs to be done in order to impose on them whatever the government wishes… including deporting them without further justification.”    

In the autumn of 1942, Roosevelt delivered a radio speech in which he recognized Italian-Americans as full and patriotic citizens, lifting the “enemy alien” stigma. Restrictions on them as a group were ostensibly removed on October 12, Columbus Day, a day with special meaning for Italian-Americans, but the FBI and other agencies continued to violate their rights behind the scenes.

After enduring bias for decades and being targeted by EO 9066, Italian-Americans managed to “pass” into the mainstream soon after the war. As Guglielmo’s book shows, in the 1940s and ’50s Italian-Americans became more visible in pop culture representations of American identity, from G.I. movies to popular music.

But though most Italian-Americans recovered from the order, the rule itself remained. Executive Order 9066 was never successfully challenged during the war. It stayed on the books for more than three decades until 1976, when President Gerald Ford rescinded the order. Its effect on Italian-Americans remained largely unknown until 2000, when Congress passed a bill that directed the attorney general to conduct a full review of the treatment of Italian-Americans during the war. That report was issued two months after 9/11.

Government reports and public apologies for wartime harassment may get lost in the media buzz, but personal memories live a long time. Frank DiCara can tell you. “My nephew always says, ‘Uncle Frank, remember when you four were all in the service and they came and took the shortwave radio out of the house?'” DiCara gives a hard chuckle. “I say, Yeah, I remember.”

At 90, DiCara wants younger generations to know what their grandparents and great-grandparents experienced. “How can I instill that I have seen death, that I’ve seen poverty, that I’ve seen sadness, that I’ve seen people that, if you have any compassion, it would break your heart?” he asks. “How do I relate that to someone who didn’t see it?”

Editor's Note, February 7, 2017: This story has been edited from its original version to offer a more accurate number of Italian-Americans relocated to 10,000 from 50,000. It also offers more clarity on Earl Warren's involvement in Japanese interment and on Lawrence DiStasi's scholarshop on World War II internment.

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