The War on Italian Americans in 1942
on the Subject of Human Rights in the United States
Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights
in the United States (1991)
American Book Award
“In recognition of outstanding literary achievement
from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse
and multicultural community”
Before Columbus Foundation (1992)
More Praise for Under Siege!
‘An intelligent and important study of a neglected subject.’ - John Morton Blum, Yale University
‘Under Siege! adds fascinating new pieces to the puzzle of American wartime concentration camps. It is tragic history told by survivors in poignant anecdotes.’ - John Christgau, author of "‘Enemies’: World War II Alien Internment"
‘By utilizing interviews and widely scattered records, Fox has brought to life the completely neglected relocation of an entire national group during World War II. Those of us who have written histories of Italians in America have dealt with this episode, but only in a sketchy way. Bravissimo!’ - Andrew Rolle, Occidental College, author of "The Italian Americans: Troubled Roots" and "The Immigrant Upraised"
‘A first-rate work of research in oral history that recaptures the poignant emotions of a people whose experience would have been forgotten had it not been for the sensitive scholarship of Stephen Fox.’ - John Patrick Diggins, University of California, Irvine
Under Siege! powerfully demonstrates oral history's ability to challenge common assumptions. While the relocation of Japanese Americans in 1942 has been extensively reported, few are aware that for a period of six months the federal government also pursued a program that forced thousands of West Coast Italian and German aliens and their families to leave their homes and jobs. Other Italians, including American citizens whose loyalty was deemed doubtful, were interned or excluded without due process.
Under Siege! is an oral and documentary history. It uses the words of those affected by the relocation order to tell the human side of the story omitted by the government, and it presents documents that testify to the struggle of a country trying to square its actions with its values.
Why were Italian and German Americans spared the fate of Japanese Americans?
Removal of Italians and Germans from the civilian work force would disrupt the economy, especially in the large urban areas on both coasts and destroy postwar morale.
Thus, economics, politics and morale drove U.S. relocation policy during World War II, with race as a reinforcing factor. The withdrawal of perhaps millions of Italians and Germans from civilian production jobs, many in heavy industry—or even the shutdown of fishing in California—was judged too high a price to pay to thwart potential sabotage.
Had there been several million Japanese in the United States as there were Italians and Germans the Japanese could not have been relocated as a practical matter. On the other hand, had there been an unwavering policy to relocate all enemy aliens—an extreme reaction, to be sure—no entire class of people or nationality could have been singled out for punishment.
The cessation of Asian immigration in 1924—but not European—and the resulting numerical disproportion across the country, not the attack on Pearl Harbor and its bitter emotional legacy, determined what happened to the Japanese in 1942 and why Italians and Germans did not experience the same fate. It is possible for a proud nation such as the United States, dedicated in principle to individual freedom, to come close to losing its soul during a time of crisis under poor leadership.
It has been the accepted practice among historians, journalists and the public to say that what happened in the spring of 1942 in California happened because of Pearl Harbor. People panicked. Yet what happened also happened because there was no individual strong enough or with sufficient institutional prestige in the government to say, ‘No!’
Attorney General Biddle came as close as anyone to assuming this role but he deferred to Henry Stimson, his senior in the cabinet who owned Roosevelt’s ear and confidence. It would have taken enormous courage in the face of the public tumult for Biddle to jeopardize his career by refusing to bow to the military during the first six months of the war. Moreover, the attorney general had mixed instincts: he discounted the seriousness and longevity of the emergency, but he was inclined to give the military what it wanted. He seems not to have had a combative personality.
The Justice Department was geared to deal with individual lawbreakers. The Army, on the other hand, operated on a larger scale with the logistic capability to handle thousands of suspects. Nevertheless, to his credit Biddle never gave up the fight to lessen the impact of the Army’s policy. Rather than resign in futile protest he bore from within. His fundamental common sense and regard for fair play finally carried the day. It is testimony to Biddle’s elemental decency that by the middle of 1943 the War Department reached such a state of total exasperation with him that it changed its policy.
What happened in 1942 happened because people seem unwilling or incapable of looking at human beings as individuals rather than members of groups. It also happened because there are always powerful voices in an emergency to insist, ‘Quarantine them,’ whether the ‘them’ are alien enemies or AIDS victims. When a solution to drug abuse frustrates Americans, the cry seems always, ‘Test everyone, that way we’ll be sure to catch the serious offenders. It’s better to be safe than sorry.’ The framers of the Constitution couldn’t have anticipated this.
Forty-eight years later the United States said to the Japanese, ‘We made a mistake. We’re sorry.’ Have American attitudes and reactions changed since 1942? Is the country likely to act with greater prudence to a national emergency? Have Americans acquired the courage to look at people as individuals and the patience to design remedies for society’s problems, including national security, that do not assign labels?
Americans will continue to face difficult choices in moments of crisis, and the temptation to run with the mob will be overpowering. There is, then, a role for history. It serves as a national conscience, to give us pause, not during the heady days of summer, sunshine patriotism but during the cold, dark winter of national crises such as that of 1942 and those surely to follow.
"I tell you it was a crazy thing. Whoever thought up that law
had screws loose someplace." - Mary Tolomei