By Chris Tremoglie
Years ago, while working on a history project in middle school, my grandfather (long since deceased) told me a story about events that occurred during World War II that the majority are not familiar with. His father, who worked at a Stetson Hat factory that was once located in Kensington, had immigrated to the country from Sicily. After Pearl Harbor was bombed, his status in the United States changed; in the blink of an eye, he went from hard-working Italian immigrant to “enemy alien” to an internment camp.
“He returned home from the factory one day,” my grandfather told me, “and he was arrested and eventually taken out to Montana.”
February 19, 1942 is a date that many think should live in infamy. It is the date President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It is this Executive Order that established internment camps during World War II – a phenomenon that many today retroactively cite as an example of the government’s racism. Yet while many know of the internment of the Japanese, the plight of interned people of Italian descent – people from a country that, unlike Japan, did not attack U.S. soil before the war – are often ignored. Unfortunately, much lesser known is the experience of Italian internee.
Slightly over two months after the country suffered the most devastating attack in its history at the time at Pearl Harbor, the government and the voting public were focused on security. People of Italian descent in the United States had their civil liberties crushed in the name of threat mitigation. As Salvatore LaGumina described in In Search of Heroes: Italian Americans in World War II, Italians were viewed as “a potentially subversive population in the United States.” As such, by January 1942, at least 600,000 Italians and Italian Americans, among them who were legal residents and American citizens, were classified as “enemy aliens.”
Moreover, about 1,600 Italian citizens — among them my great-grandfather — were put into internment camps in Missoula, Montana and Ellis Island. As a result of security concerns in coastal areas, about 10,000 Italian Americans were forced to relocate from their homes along the California coast, moving inland. Additionally, people of German, Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Hungarian descent were also interned and had their civil liberties violated too.
The U.S. internment of people of Italian descent comes after a long history of anti-Italianism in the United States. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, many Italians, who arrived in the United States as immigrants were subjected to menacing, widespread discrimination in this country – a phenomenon largely not emphasized in schools today.
During this time, Italians were harassed, bullied, called ethnic slurs, denied housing jobs and other infringements of their civil liberties. One of the largest mass lynchings in the history of the United States occurred in New Orleans in 1891. Moreover, the United States Congress restricted the immigration of Italians (among other ethnicities) to the United States through the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924. This anti-Italian immigrant sentiment, combined with Italy being an Axis Power in World War II, perhaps paved the way for their internment.
Yet despite these horrors, it is typically only the experience of the Japanese internment camps that get taught in our schools or mentioned by politicians. As my Italian grandpop said, “They don’t teach about this in those history books of yours.”
Grandpop was right.
In 2004, the “Treatment of Japanese-American Internment During World War II in U.S. History Textbooks,” a study by Masato Ogawa, was published. Ogawa writes that history textbooks “exclude the information that nationals of Germany and Italy were interned.”
In 1995, an article in the New York Times stated that the country “was at war with Germany and Italy, of course, but there were no moves to lock up any European Americans.”
In an email conversation about World War II internment camps with a history professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, I received this reply:
To be honest with you, I do not know of any Italian or German internment camps. I am of German ancestry and during World War I, the language of German was banned in schools, but that only lasted as long as the war progressed. Also many Americans of Italian and German descent fought in the Pacific War. Do you know of any internment camps? Are you thinking of Prisoner of War camps?
That a history professor was not aware of these camps should be telling. Why are these things unknown? Why are only the sins of our country that focus on the plights of people of color given scrutiny or taught in schools?
Moreover, and even more obscured from our present knowledge, was the fact that internment camps were also incorporated into the war strategy of World War I. Under the 1798 Alien Enemy Act, President Woodrow Wilson interred thousands of people of German descent, as well as those of Austro-Hungarian heritage. Such actions contributed to the anti-immigrant sentiment – European immigrants – that was rampant in the country at the time.
Granted, the numbers of those of European descent were significantly less than the nearly 110,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans who were interned. However, while many claim this discrepancy as proof of racism, it is important to acknowledge that the empire of Japan attacked the United States before entering World War II on its homeland (Hawaii was a U.S. territory at the time), whereas the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy did not.
Moreover, unlike the Japanese, and to a lesser degree, the Germans, Italy never launched any attack on the United States mainland. Often omitted in history, Japan’s aggression towards the United States homeland continued long after Pearl Harbor. There are factual and logical claims of racism and xenophobia pertaining to the Japanese during that time, but it should not be omitted that there were legitimate security concerns as well. Just as racism, xenophobia, and security concerns predicated the internment of Italians (often considered not ‘white’ at the time) and Germans.
When evaluating the threat the Japanese posed to the U.S. homeland, it is important to remember that the Japanese also attacked and seized parts of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. In June 1942, the Japanese established military bases on these islands which had been U.S. territory since the acquisition of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Furthermore, the Japanese military launched attacks along the Pacific coast of the United States including Ellwood Oil Field, located near Santa Barbara, Fort Stevens in Oregon, and the Lookout Air Raids near Brookings, Oregon.
Also, the Japanese military used balloon bombs to wreak havoc in the United States. Deployed in Japan, these high-altitude balloon bombs would ride the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean, triggered to detonate on the U.S. mainland. During the last 8 months of World War II, the Empire of Japan deployed nearly 9000 of these to hit the mainland United States. Meant to instill fear and panic, these “Fu-go” balloons were largely ineffective as only 300 made it to the mainland. Six people did die from them. Some of these balloons made it as far as Michigan and Iowa.
Moreover, a cryptanalysis project during World War II known as MAGIC revealed that the Empire of Japan successfully obtained sensitive information through espionage efforts by “second generation” Japanese Americans in the country. These events, too, are omitted from our history textbooks — just like the internment of American of European extraction.
Given the propensity for progressives to constantly chide the United States as historically racist and xenophobic when it comes to immigration and security measures, our treatment of thousands of people of European descent by the government, over two World Wars, strongly challenges such claims. This is not to say that discrimination based on race did not happen; it did. However, when discussing the sins of America’s past, we are constantly reminded of the sins by the government towards racial minorities, while the same types of injustices faced by those of European descent are frequently and conveniently omitted. We can condemn the internment of Japanese Americans and also that of Italian and German Americans. But when only one story is told, it sows the seeds of racial discord in American society. Furthermore, it neglects the plight of all who were wronged with internment.
In 1988, the United States government officially apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II blaming “race prejudice, war hysteria, and failure of political leadership; reparations of $20,000 were paid to survivors.
As of May 2020, the descendants of interred Italian Americans are still waiting for their apology.
Chris Tremoglie is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he is pursuing a double major in Political Science and Russian and Eastern European Studies. @chris_tremoglie