What Did We Do with Aliens in World War II?

History Q & A

Mr. Schwartz is the author of the forthcoming book The Two Faces of Islam.

ON DECEMBER 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States government faced an array of internal enemies. These included aliens and Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry. The Roosevelt administration's handling of Japanese Americans--some 120,000 were sent to relocation camps--has become notorious, although few of those who expatiate on the topic nowadays know very much about it. For example, it is rarely mentioned that Japanese government-controlled Shinto religious temples in America were found to be subversive organizations, a precedent for possible investigation today of mosques financed by foreign governments.

Much less discussed is the government's internment and relocation of Germans and Italians. At the outset of the war, U.S. authorities made judicious use of a custodial detention list already compiled by the FBI. About 5,000 German aliens and 250 Italian aliens were interned during the war, mainly pro-Axis agitators, members of pro-Nazi and fascist groups, and others with demonstrable ties to Germany and Italy. Among Italian Americans, 10,000 were reportedly evacuated from strategic zones and tens of thousands more were required to observe a nightly curfew by remaining in their homes.

The fact that the FBI had been keeping watch on these groups is unsurprising. The German-American Bund was a U.S. branch of Hitler's ruling party, replete with uniforms and flamboyant mass rallies. The Italian stalwarts of Mussolini in this country had a longer and even more vicious history. They mounted a strident public defense of the dictator from the beginning of his regime, terrorizing antifascists in the Italian-American community and even murdering enemies on American soil.

The dictator's line was purveyed to Italian Americans through newspapers like the infamous Il Progresso Italo-Americano, a daily printed in New York by Generoso Pope, who would go on to publish the National Enquirer. The propaganda worked, as it often does: In 1935, when Mussolini's armies invaded Ethiopia, committing widespread atrocities, 10,000 Italian-American housewives in California donated their wedding rings to the Italian war effort, and San Francisco garbage collectors of Sicilian origin amassed scrap iron for the same cause.

The treatment of enemy sympathizers and agents is, of course, immensely relevant at the moment. In contending with the pro-terrorist tendencies among Arab Americans or American Muslims, the U.S. government has the example of Japanese relocation before it as a model of what not to do: label an entire ethnic or religious group as uniformly suspect. However, the German and Italian cases may be useful precedents, especially since Arab and Muslim extremists have been voluble, in the style of the Bund and the Italian fascists, and are thus fairly easy to distinguish. Indeed, the Justice Department's current pattern of arrests and interrogations seems limited and focused, notwithstanding the overheated rhetoric employed against it.

But this remains contemporary America, where until September 11, public self-flagellation over Japanese relocation was a firmly established element in the catechism of political correctness. Unsurprisingly, advocates for Arab detainees have exploited the Japanese parallel to the maximum, seeking to paint today's terrorism suspects as innocents and the entire Arab and Muslim communities as victims of wholesale discrimination.

Americans, however, may be losing patience with this argument. Consider the preposterous ongoing effort to confer martyrdom on World War II-era Italian Americans. Late last year, at the end of the Clinton administration, Congress passed Public Law 106-451, the"Wartime Violation of Italian-American Civil Liberties Act." This legislation, introduced with bipartisan backing by New York congressmen Rick Lazio and Eliot Engel, called for a comprehensive review of"the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II." The civil rights division of the Justice Department was directed to report to Congress by November 7, 2001, a deadline that has come and gone with little public notice.

The reason is obvious. People have become more realistic since September 11 about what a wartime government must do to deal with internal threats, and less inclined to apologize about it. The report is probably a colossal embarrassment to those who commissioned it. The Italian Americans who came under scrutiny during the war were mainly those suspected of fascist sympathies--a topic omitted from the debate over this law.

Notwithstanding the rampant fascist activity among Italian Americans before 1941, the number of those sanctioned in any way by the U.S. government during World War II was small. The alleged violations of civil liberties were hardly atrocious: arrest and internment; individual orders to move away from strategic areas; enforcement of curfew, contraband, and other regulations; bans on fishing in prohibited areas; confiscation of fishing boats; and dismissal from strategic employment. (Fishing boats owned by enemy aliens, many of whom were Italian, were a highly sensitive issue at the outset of the war, as Japanese submarines were sinking American ships off the Pacific Coast; a Japanese sub even shelled Goleta, near Santa Barbara.)

Nevertheless, it was probably predictable that a group of Italian-American complainants would come forward demanding redress. The instigators of P.L. 106-451--enterprising Bay Area historical revisionists led by an undistinguished scribbler, Lawrence DiStasi, and an elderly woman, Rose Scherini--have said they don't want money, just"recognition" of unfair treatment. With luck they will have a long wait. It's hard to imagine a more dubious cause these days than a public apology to those accused of sympathy for the Italian fascists in World War II.

The Wartime Violation of Italian-American Civil Liberties Act also directed the attorney general"to review wartime restrictions on Italian Americans to determine how civil liberties can be better protected during national emergencies"--a request that turned out to be more timely than its sponsors could ever have imagined. The conclusions of this review, adopted as findings of Congress and released in the form of an executive summary in mid-November (the full report has yet to be released to the public), shed little light on this challenging directive, however. History's bottom line, as identified by Congress:"The freedom of 600,000 Italian-born immigrants in the United States and their families was restricted during World War II by Government measures that branded them 'enemy aliens' and included carrying identification cards, travel restrictions, and seizure of personal property."

BUT WAS THIS the wrong thing to do? After all, what American's freedom was not restricted during World War II? A draft was instituted, and evaders of it were imprisoned; consumer goods were rationed; wages, prices, rents, and other transactions were controlled; the right of labor to strike was abrogated; travel was limited and ordinary people were regularly stopped and interrogated; whole chunks of the economy were requisitioned for military use. Wars are by definition unfair and uncomfortable. Loyalty tests may be especially uncomfortable to some, but should not trouble those whose loyalties are clear.

The official investigation of Italian-American victimization has produced at least one ridiculously exaggerated conclusion: We are told that"the impact of the wartime experience was devastating to Italian-American communities in the United States, and its effects are still being felt." But the document also exposes the extent to which those who drummed up this folderol made exaggerated and ambiguous claims. It turns out that when Italian aliens were"taken into custody," many were merely directed to report to the office of the U.S. attorney for questioning, and were not actually detained. The Justice Department today seems wisely to be following this same course with Arab aliens in Michigan.

Further, the charge that Italian-American fishermen were unfairly prohibited from fishing in prohibited zones falls flat. Venturing into restricted waters was forbidden to all vessels of every kind, whether commercial or pleasure boats, without regard for their owners' citizenship. Allegations that Italian-American fishing boats were confiscated also turn out to be a hoax. Boats were requisitioned by the federal authorities through charter or purchase, and the only craft that were confiscated belonged to owners who had repeatedly made incursions into prohibited waters.

The lesson to be learned from this legislative folly is that in the realm of civil liberties, our government is seldom deliberately malicious, even when sorely tried, and has usually acted practically and sensibly. Quite a few of us already knew that, and more are learning it every day.


This article was originally published by The Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Drew Keeling - 12/21/2001

Dilemmas, unfortunately, are a fact of life.

Those whose livelihood depends on the mass teaching of history face the reality that some students, who were sufficiently inspired to later write about the past, may also have been asleep during part of their lessons, e.g. how to avoid leaping to unsupported conclusions. Deleting their messages seems an unlikely means of improving their reasoning abilities.

Similarly, as citizens of a democratic republic, most of us accept the paradox that considerable freedom from governmental power is granted even to those who are willing to die in order to oppose freedom, e.g. of religion. Where to draw the line in tricky special cases, where some small freedoms might arguably need to be curbed in order that larger freedoms be protected, ought not to depend, however, on whether the president is Not With That Woman Tweedledum or Don't Trust Washington Tweedledee, notwithstanding impressions of such a criterion deriving from a brief glance at the on-line periodical from which this article was selected.

Ronald Dale Karr - 12/21/2001

Mr. Schwartz, wake up and smell the coffee!

As Al Smith used to say, let's look at the record.

In 1942 the United States was at war with the nations of Italy and Germany. Therefore, all of their citizens in the United States could be readily and objectively identified as "enemy aliens."

Despite what our war-happy President may tell us, today we are NOT at war with any nation (unless I missed a declaration of war by Congress). Where is the state called "Terrorism"?

Therefore, who are the "enemy aliens"? All Moslem non-citizens? Anyone who makes their neighbors nervous? Anyone John Ashcroft doesn't like? Anyone who looks like a terrorist?

And of course what made the internment of the Japanese especially outrageous was that many of them were American citizens, not aliens.

And do I trust our government to get it right? When the FBI misplaces firearms, looses computers and documents, bungles lab reports, and still can't find Whitey Bulger? Oh sure.

Comment - 12/19/2001

I have just unsubscribed, thanks to the offensive and idiotic piece by
Stephen Schwartz. You have every right to reprint this drivel, but I
don't have to waste my time looking through it, given the enormous
number of useful and informative email messages I receive every day.

11The last paragraph, pasted below, is the kind of dangerous stuff that
will land this country in fascism very shortly, although with luck that
will happen after I've found some other place to live.

"The lesson to be learned from this legislative folly is that in the
realm of civil liberties, our government is seldom deliberately
malicious, even when sorely tried, and has usually acted practically and
sensibly. Quite a few of us already knew that, and more are learning it
every day."

11Is this guy a historian? Hasn't he ever heard the name of Senator
Joseph McCarthy? Or does he think interrogating over 6 million people
w/o finding a single case of espionage during the Red Scare constitutes
no more than a minor inconvenience to people who lost their careers as a
result? Or, speaking of learning, maybe he's just too young to have
learned what some of the rest of us "already knew" about our government,
thanks to many years of keeping a close eye on it.

11I can hardly wait for the book! Nothing like learning about a whole
people from their enemies, I always say. That's the American Way.

best regards,
Ann Jefferson

George Rislov - 12/19/2001

The dilemma: Respond or delete? A quick response. To be appalled at the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens is now "politically correct?" (whatever that means these days)Too far right for me, when I spend all day trying to teach high school students to look at the issues and make REASONED decisions.

Now I shall delete. This kind of infuriation I don't need.

Tim Hodgdon - 12/19/2001

"in the realm of civil liberties, our government is seldom deliberately malicious, even
when sorely tried, and has usually acted practically and sensibly." Is this not a rather large generalization from the singular example of Italian-Americans in WWII? One might, for example, point to Indian removal--ethnic cleansing, to be sure; the third branch's Plessy v. Ferguson; COINTELPRO; "segregation now, segregation forever"; and many other examples of deliberate malice. This statement does not even suffice as a good generalization.