Fort Missoula, Montana


Congressman Rick Lazio speaking at a conference about the internment of Italian nationals during World War II
1999
The United States Congress addresses the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties.


The United States Congress was prompted to address the problematic treatment of Italian Americans during the Second World War by a coalition spearheaded by historian Lawrence DiStasi of the American Italian Historical Association's Western Chapter; it included Italian American organizations, NIAF, and notables such as Dominic DiMaggio. This culminated in House Resolution 2442, which acknowledged that the United States had violated the civil rights of Italian Americans during the Second World War. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives in 1999 and in the Senate in 2000. It was signed by President William Clinton in November 2000. Specifically it admitted that in the intolerant atmosphere of World War II, this government launched a program that wrongfully deprived Americans of Italian descent of their rights on the basis of ethnicity. Americans are rather familiar with the woeful history of the internment of Japanese Americans who were deprived of their civil rights notwithstanding the fact that most of them were American citizens. Less well known and admittedly on a smaller scale, but nevertheless repugnant and disturbing, was the internment of Italian Americans.

Undoubtedly World War II was a supreme testing time for all Italian Americans, but most especially those lacking United States citizenship -- 600,000 Italian-born who constituted the largest number of residents designated as "enemy aliens." That categorization imposed numerous restrictions including requirements to register and be fingerprinted as subjects of an enemy nation at local post offices, carrying a picture photo of their status, deprivation of guns, ammunition, cameras and short wave radio receivers, non employment in defense jobs, and limitations on travel from their home residences. The "enemy alien" classification was most galling chiefly in so many instances where the children of those ignominiously designated were serving heroically in the American armed forces, helping to defeat the Axis nations including Mussolini's Italy. As disturbing as were such restraints, they were not as severe as those visited upon approximately 10,000 Italian Americans on the West Coast, particularly California. General John DeWitt, West Coast Army Defense Commander, determined that these Italian Americans, because they were born in an enemy country, presented a risk and ordered their removal from homes and jobs. Many were required to move to other locations while others, including the father of baseball icon Joe DiMaggio, could no longer work as fishermen and in some instances were deprived of their vessels. Although the enemy classification designation was lifted in October 1942, the stigma of suspicion endured.

The most egregious curtailment of basic rights saw the government intern approximately 250 Italian national residents in the United States. While some of this number may have been Fascist apologists, others were bona fide American citizenship, whose supposed offenses were minimal, or were in fact completely innocent aliens. For instance, in 1942 FBI personnel appeared at the home of opera luminary Ezio Pinza, who was in the process of obtaining American citizenship, and arrested him on suspicion of subversive activities. In detention for several weeks, Pinza was released thanks to the energetic defense of prominent supporters including New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The story of Italian internment is a painful one, a history about which most Italian Americans are unaware. It is hoped that the adoption of H.R. 2442, which called for the Department of Justice to compile lists of the names of the affected individuals and the exposition of their treatment, which was published in a report in 2001, will serve as a lesson that intolerance can indeed occur in times of war or national distress.

For more information on the treatment of Italian Americans during the Second World War, please see hcom.csumb.edu/segreta.

Catherine Buccellato and son, Nick. While Nick served his country, his mother had to evacuate her Pittsburg, CA home. (Courtesy of Lawrence Di Stasi)
This wartime poster associated foreign language with disloyalty.(Courtesy of Lawrence Di Stasi)
Italian American internees watching a soccer game at Missoula, Montana. (Courtesy of Lawrence Di Stasi)
Many families from Pittsburg found housing at migrant worker bungalows in Oakley, California.(Courtesy of Lawrence Di Stasi)




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