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Homeland InsecurityAliens, Citizens, and the Challenge to American Civil Liberties in World War II
By Stephen Fox
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Stephen Fox
All right reserved.
"What we've got here is a lot better than what we left. Let's just keep our mouths shut. Everybody will realize that we're not opponents of the United States. It'll take some time, but it will all be realized in this beautiful country where we're all free." That was the attitude. -DOMINIC BANDUCCI
There is little mystery about what lay behind the exodus from Europe to America at the turn of the twentieth century: a combination of depressing social, economic, and political conditions spurred tens of thousands of desperate people. In Italy, over 80 percent of the people depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. They were, as one historian describes them, a peasant proletariat. Land ownership was restricted; in overpopulated provinces, the soil belonged to landed gentry that reinvested very little. Tenants paid high rents and turned over a large portion of their crops to landlords. Sons and daughters had little reason to be optimistic about the future. There was a psychology of scarcity, and in 1913, one person in fifty left the country.
Italians were the last great immigrant group to arrive in the United States before the Second World War and the least assimilatednumerically. By the early 1920s, the first generation of Italian immigrants averaged only seventeen years residence as compared to thirty-four for the English, fifty-one for the Irish, and thirty-eight for the Germans. Nearly three-quarters of the Germans in the United States in 1920 had been naturalized, in contrast to 28 percent of the Italians. Asians, of course, were even less integrated (melted).
Had the Italian immigrants assimilated in other ways? Historians and sociologists do not agree, but most believe not. If assimilation means the casting away of vestiges of old-world culture and the speedy adoption of American citizenship, the answer is that they had not. If, however, the term means the integration of the immigrants into the American economy and the education of second-generation Italians in American values, while retaining respect for Italian tradition and culture, the answer is yes. The historian John Diggins believes the Italians were unwelcome strangers torn between two worlds, so they retreated into ethnic enclaves to fend off the wave of one-hundred percent Americanism sweeping the country in 1919 and 1920. They felt betrayed by Woodrow Wilson's rejection at Versailles of Italian control of Fiume and the discriminatory immigration laws of the 1920s. The Italian American journalist Max Ascoli writes that when war broke out in 1941, a large section of the Italian-American population was still not thoroughly absorbed into American society.
When war came in December 1941, 42.5 percent of the Italian and 25.4 percent of the German aliens had not obtained American citizenship. Were they contemptuous of American democracy? Were they waiting to strike a mortal blow at the United States, as some officials and citizens feared? Or were they too busy supporting and nurturing growing families to find time to meet naturalization requirements? Was it essential for them to become citizens to get along on a day-to-day basis in America or to feel American?
Naturalization required seven steps: 1) procuring a certificate of arrival, 2) declaration of intent (first papers), 3) petition for naturalization (second papers), 4) an open court hearing, 5) the oath of renunciation and allegiance, 6) an order admitting aliens to citizenship, 7) and a certificate of naturalization. After Pearl Harbor, Germans and Italians qualified if, on December 8, 1941, their first papers had been filed at least two years before, they were entitled to derivative citizenship (no declaration of intent necessary), or their second papers were already being processed. There was nothing to prevent a qualified alien filing second papers in wartime, assuming they were not interned.
As the government contemplated the status of enemy aliens in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it was troubled-like many citizens-by the fact that so many aliens had not become citizens. To those outside the immigrant communities, the adoption of American nationality was the most tangible means of judging allegiance. That so many immigrants evidently preferred to remain aloof persuaded officials that they were under the ideological spell of their respective Fascist and Nazi homelands.
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Fascist and Nazi attempts in the 1920s and 1930s to enlist the Italian- and German-American communities via the foreign-language media alarmed many Americans. Following Hitler's humiliation of France in June 1940, this fear took on near-hysterical proportions. John Molinari, a San Francisco lawyer during World War II, remembers the influence of one local Italian newspaper:
Ettore Patrizi was the editor of L'Italia, one of those earlier newspapers. He was very vocal in favor of Mussolini. Of course, he was asked to leave [excluded]. Here again, he was an Italophile and probably believed that Mussolini was a great man. My generation all read the American dailies, but my folks, of course, subscribed to L'Italia. They liked it, and many Italians in the outlying areas were subscribers. I'm sure there was some propaganda in those papers, at least until the Ethiopian campaign. Again, I remember Italians who thought, "Well, England didn't give us what we wanted as far as colonies are concerned, so we have the right to go out and get one."
Max Ascoli believes there was no reason to be surprised at Mussolini's appeal; he was the "wop" on the front page. An Italian fisherman at Hunter's Point near San Francisco told an interviewer in 1935 that he wanted to return to Italy to see Mussolini: "Everyone wants to meet Mussolini. He's a great man." Lily Boemker, a second-generation Italian American, recalls her father's feelings about Il Duce:
When I came home from school, where we were taught the events that were going on in Italy, I would try to explain to my father about Mussolini, what he was doing. Our views were so different, though. My dad, he was a true Italian. We would go 'round and 'round about Mussolini: He "did a lot of good," and so forth. That's all he could see, what Mussolini did. We wouldn't argue, but we had misunderstandings. It got so that when I'd walk in from school I'd say to my dad, imitating Mussolini, "Viva Italia!" Oh, Dad would hit the ceiling. He spoke from the heart, though.
The Italian-American community's politically impassioned newspapers were an important source of ethnic solidarity. They took to Fascist propaganda, according to the historian John Diggins, with ravenous gusto. It did not occur to non-Italians that, for a largely unassimilated and illiterate immigrant audience, Italian radio broadcasts were also a major source of information.
If the number of foreign-language publications is the standard by which to measure the danger posed by aliens in general, the Italian and German threat far outdistanced that of the Japanese. Of more than one thousand such publications in the United States in 1937, only nineteen were run by Japanese (eighteen other immigrant groups published more newspapers and magazines than the Japanese), and the two most prolific publishers were the Germans (197) and the Italians (135).
Anti-Fascist sources claimed that in 1940 all but a few of the German-language dailies and weeklies (178) gave favorable treatment to the Nazis, and that 80 percent of the 120 Italian-language periodicals were pro-Fascist. Fortune magazine, however, listed only about a dozen German papers as being pro-Nazi in 1940. Another survey from 1942 estimated that at least one-fifth of the German-language press still displayed a divided loyalty and attempted to skirt war issues. Most Italian-American editors believed the Italians did not have to shun fascism (meaning Italy) for American democracy.
President Roosevelt worried about what he called seditious and subversive newspapers, although he also had in mind such publishers as Detroit's radio-priest Father Charles Coughlin, R. R. McCormick (Chicago Tribune), and Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson (Washington Times-Herald). Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who thought Attorney General Francis Biddle a dilettante when it came to subversion, began a campaign in the fall of 1940 to create an anti-Fascist propaganda agency or newspaper to counter the effects of pro-Fascist papers on Italian Americans. Most of this came to naught, but FDR did promise to send Fiorello LaGuardia to North Africa in 1942 to soften up Italy with a propaganda barrage, and then allow him to cross the Mediterranean with the invasion forces. LaGuardia lobbied the president heavily to get into combat, but Roosevelt told him he was too old and too fat.
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Francis Biddle (1886-1968) was a great-great-grandson of Edmund Randolph and a half second cousin four times removed of James Madison. He had been born in Paris while his family was living abroad. He earned degrees from Harvard University in 1909 (AB) and 1911 (LLB) and first worked as a private secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He spent the next twenty-seven years practicing law in Philadelphia.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected Biddle to be chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. Four years later, he became a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He only served one year before leaving to serve as solicitor general. This also turned out to be a short-lived position; Roosevelt appointed him to the position of attorney general in 1941.
Biddle is perhaps best remembered for his actions in directing the FBI's roundup of enemy aliens after December 7, 1941, the precursor to Executive Order 9066.
At President Truman's request, Biddle resigned after Roosevelt's death. Shortly thereafter, Truman appointed him a judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. In the early 1950s, he was named chairman of Americans for Democratic Action.
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The rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Italy in 1929 also disposed Italian Americans to look more favorably on Mussolini. To follow up this successful initiative, the Italian government used Italian organizations in the United States as propaganda conduits during the 1930s. These included the Italian embassy and its network of consulates, the Dante Alighieri Society (intended to promote Italy's cultural heritage), the Italian Fasci Abroad, the Sons of Italy (over 300,000 members in the 1920s), chambers of commerce, and, of course, the Italian-language media. Italian consulates distributed Fascist textbooks and worked closely with "educational agents," who were sent from Italy to serve as curricular aides for teachers of Italian descent in special after-hours Italian-American schools. John Molinari recollects how Mussolini's government attempted to subvert his school:
When Mussolini came to power, I was aware that my Italian school was beginning to become an agency for propaganda. The students would march in the Columbus Day parade, and they wore the Balilla uniform. It was a uniform similar to that worn by Mussolini's youth organization known as the Balilla. Balilla was a young Italian boy of Genoese descent who, according to history, threw a rock at a French general when Napoleon occupied Genoa, starting a riot that resulted in the expulsion of the French. Balilla was always considered a patriot, particularly for the youth. Moreover, Mussolini had this youth organization, which had a special kind of uniform with-I think it was-a black shirt, much like the others. I can remember these young students marching in the parade. Whether they did it voluntarily or they were told to do it, I don't know. It was known that the teachers who had been sent over were sympathetic to their own government. Of course, the school closed down when the war broke out.
Italy's initial approach to its American cousins, put forward by cultural societies and consulates, was soon eclipsed by the more blatant propaganda controlled by the Ministry of Popular Culture. Because Italian Americans wanted to believe in Mussolini and his regime, the new program enjoyed some success until 1935. Then, several events heralded a period of withdrawal: the visit of Piero Parini, Director General of the Italian Fasci Abroad, which galvanized anti-Fascists in the United States; the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of the Fascist threat; and disgust among America's non-Italians with Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. Nevertheless, for many Italian Americans, the Ethiopian War was cathartic, and they reacted positively for the same reason they liked Mussolini: they were tired of humiliation. Parish priests blessed the steel rings that Mussolini exchanged for gold wedding bands sent to him by Italian Americans to help the war effort. Benito Vanni's father "was pro-Fascist, 150 percent! He loved Mussolini very much":
In 1939, Mussolini asked people to send their gold rings over to Italy, and in return, he sent back a steel band. Naturally, after wearing a steel ring for a while, your finger'd turn green.
They had their Columbus Day parades, too. Dad dressed up in his Italian uniform with the sash. The uniforms were kind of tan or beige. They had those high boots where your pants tucked in and the Italian march step. [San Francisco's] North Beach had many Italians that belonged to the Ex-Combattenti, all ex-military people. He was also an officer in the Figlii d'Italia, the Sons of Italy. I remember seeing one of his membership cards.
He figured Mussolini had no choice but to be hooked up with Hitler. Germany and Italy were next door to each other. He was all for Italy; he wasn't really for Hitler and the German army. When he came over here, he was 100 percent Italian and American second. He was happy to be here, but he was still an Italian at heart.
If Italian Americans stood accused of harboring pro-Fascist sentiments, what is to be said of the American government, which accepted the rise of fascism in Italy for several years with an air of nonchalance? Official American policy toward Mussolini and fascism in the 1920s was friendly and hopeful. Throughout the 1920s and until the Ethiopian war, Republican and Democratic administrations shared four assumptions about Mussolini: he was bringing economic and social progress to his people; he was a dictator, but popular; he had the capacity to moderate Hitler's behavior; therefore, he was good for Italy and the United States.
In truth, most Americans initially admired Mussolini. He was that rare breed of politician, a charismatic leader with a program. To middle-class property owners in the United States, he was a savior of capitalism in a world struggling against Communist revolution. His contempt for the League of Nations drew the applause of those who rejected Wilsonian idealism. Former progressive reformers and Protestant fundamentalists approved of his attacks on materialism and his anticlericalism. In addition, Mussolini's brand of fascism appealed to those in the United States whose disillusionment with democracy was nearly total in the 1920s and '30s. In the rush of events after June 1940, it was conveniently forgotten that the Fascist disease "had been a national phenomenon rather than an ethnic importation."
Excerpted from Homeland Insecurity by Stephen Fox Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Fox. Excerpted by permission.
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