Lawrence DiStasi (Author of "Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became 'Enemies' During WWII")

Quando 600.000 Italiani furono "marchiati" e discriminati negli Stati Uniti

Jan 08, 2018 9217 ITA ENG

Imagine 600,000 Italians in America, good honest hardworking people. Imagine them all of a sudden branded as enemy aliens, discriminated, questioned, moved to internment camps. Imagine that they are prohibited to work, to live in their own homes, to travel more than 5 miles. Imagine them forced to prove their innocence, for a charge they don't even know.

What movie is this? It's not a movie. It's history. It happened in the United States, after Pearl Harbour, between 1941 and 1942. In the first interview of 2018 on We the Italians, Professor Lawrence DiStasi guides us through one of the most painful experiences ever happened to the Italian Americans. Follow us 

Prof. DiStasi, you are one of the most popular and appreciated scholars in the Italian American community. Please tell us a little bit about you

I went to Dartmouth College in the United States and then I went to New York University for graduate in English actually, my field was English literature.

Then I joined the Western Chapter of the American Italian Historical Association, which is now called the Italian American Studies Association, and I'm still part of that organization. I joined them in 1976 and served as the President, during the 1980s. In 1994 we put together this project called "Una Storia Segreta", an exhibit about World War II, and I've been working on it ever since.

In the meantime, I have written and published 6 books: one is called "MAL OCCHIO: The Underside of Vision", published in 1981; then "The Big Book of Italian American Culture" in 1989, and then this book called "Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II", published in 2001 by Heyday Books. I also wrote a novel called "Esty" which was about my mother's story; then came "Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became 'Enemies' During World War II", published under my own imprint which is called Sanniti Publications (my father was from a little town called Telese, an area inhabited in pre-Roman times by i Sanniti).

The last book I've written is a book of my collected blogs, called "Earth Breath" and it came out just this year: right now I'm working on another book, a novel about the war time story in San Francisco called “Suspect Love”, and I expect to have it published within a year. That's basically my biography! Of course I've been working with the Italian American Studies Association all along!

Let's talk about the very informative book about the unknown story of the internment, evacuation and restriction of Italian Americans during World War II, "Branded: How Italian Immigrants Became 'Enemies' During WWII". Most of our readers know something about this, others don't. Please, describe to us what happened, and why

I started hearing about that story when I came to California and at first no one would talk about it. Then finally we got an exhibit together and now everybody wants to talk about it!

Here is the basic story: there were six different levels of government restrictions against Italians Americans, because the U.S. was at war with Italy during World War II; and there were about 600,000 of them who were not yet American citizens, they were immigrants but they had not completed their citizenship process. On December 8th of 1941 all 600,000 were branded as Enemy Aliens, by the presidential proclamation number 2527, and then they were restricted in various ways. This was the first phase.

Previously, the FBI had been keeping track of several among those 600,000, probably some 100,000, whom they considered to be potentially dangerous enemy aliens: some of them had links with Italy, or they were newspaper editors, people like that. On December 8th 1941, the FBI started arresting some of those people, and these arrests continued for several months until eventually about 300 or 400 of them were sent to internment camps, mostly in the south of the United States, run by the United States Army. Some of them were kept there until after 1943, when Italy finally surrendered.

These internees were given what the government called “hearings”, but they were not allowed to defend themselves, all they could do was try to prove their innocence. So, in other words, the usual process in the United States is that you are considered innocent until you are proven guilty; here they were considered guilty until they could prove their innocence. This was the second phase.

Then, in late December 1941 the enemy aliens were informed they could not possess what the government called "contraband", things like weapons, short wave radios, flashlights, cameras, maps: anything suggesting a link with Italy. They arrested people possessing these things and also arrested people for violating the restrictions. The basic restriction was the travel restriction: they could not travel more than 5 miles from home without a special permit.

But in early February 1942 the third phase of the restrictions meant that all the 600,000 enemy aliens had to re-register, even if they had just registered in 1940, and then they had to carry a pink booklet with their photo and their fingerprints and have their homes subject to searches: and if they were founded without this pink booklet, they could be interned for the duration of the whole war!

Then later in that month the government set up what they called "Prohibited Zones", all along the coast of California and the West coast, including Washington and Oregon as well. Some 10,000 of those enemy aliens were told that they could no longer stay in homes that were within these Prohibited Zones, including for instance San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River Delta: that’s what we call "The Evacuation". After that they were no longer admitted into the Prohibited Zones, and if they were found there they would be arrested and interned. At the same time, a curfew was introduced almost everywhere in California: all 52,000 enemy aliens had to be in their homes at 8 PM, and they couldn't be out again on the street until 6 AM the next morning. Of course, there were many people like waiters, restaurant owners, garbage collectors who were unable to work, because they would need to be out during the curfew hours.

The final movement was against immigrants who had already become naturalized. These people were already citizens, so they couldn't be interned or arrested, according to the enemy alien law. But the military insisted that the government move against these naturalized citizens. In May 1942 there were hearings held by California’s "Tenney Committee", against what they said was the fascist movement in San Francisco. This resulted in the removal of dozens of these already-naturalized citizens of Italian heritage from San Francisco and from other areas of the country. That's what we call "The Individual Exclusion Program".

Many of the excludees were prominent citizens. One of them was Sylvester Andriano, in San Francisco: he was the head of the draft board in North Beach, and he had to move out of his home and away from the coast. In fact, these excludees could not set foot in any of the 27 coastal States.

The restrictions also affected the fishermen: on the West Coast there were many Italians among them, mostly from Sicily and Genova, and once declared Enemy Aliens they were prohibited from sailing with their boats or even going to the docks. Then the Navy decided that it needed more patrol boats, and started the requisition of these fishing boats: these were big boats 80 feet long they were using to catch sardines, and the Navy requisition got well over 100 boats from Italian fishermen. They kept them during the war, and then they returned them at the end of the war, most of them damaged by that time.

And finally on Columbus Day 1942, on October 12, Attorney General Francis Biddle gave a speech and said that Italian Americans had proved their loyalty, and they were no longer Enemy Aliens, so that was the end of almost a year of very hard restrictions.

Was this just a West Coast situation, or did this happen on the East Coast too?

No, they did restrict the Italians on the East Coast too: they were under the same restrictions, but they didn't endure what we call "The Evacuation" on the East Coast. I mean, the Military tried to extend the Evacuation and the Prohibited Zones on the East Coast: we have documents from the Archives that show that the Military was pushing very hard to have an Evacuation Zone along the East coast, a Prohibited Zone, from Rhode Island all the way down to Maryland. But the Attorney General sent a memo to the President of the United States saying "If we intend to win this war, we'd better not do this, because we're talking about 17,000,000 people who'd be affected by this Prohibited Zone". So, after a lot of resistance from the Attorney General and others, President Roosevelt finally decided, in May 1942, that he would not extend the Prohibited Zone to the East coast. A lot of people think that these restrictions only happened on the West coast, but the whole story actually affected all the non-naturalized Italian Americans throughout the United States: what was limited to the West Coast was just the Prohibited Zones, the Evacuation Zones, where people had to move out of their homes.

Is or will the book be available in Italy?

I was recently in Los Angeles, giving a talk to California State University at Long Beach, and there is a Professor there, Clorinda Donato: she is the Head of the Graziadio Italian Studies Center, and she was the one who invited me down there. After the talk she said "We would really like to start a project to see if we can get the book translated into Italian." So there is a possibility. I'm not sure if it's going to happen, but Professor Donato is very interested in doing that and I am too, and I think it would be very interesting to people in Italy!

Back in 1994, you were the director of the traveling "Una Storia Segreta" exhibit, that premiered at the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco, and then toured the US for years. Please tell us about the exhibit, its contents and where it went all over the US

Right now the exhibit has been put in a museum in Pittsburg, a little town up in the Sacramento River Delta.

The exhibit started in 1994 and traveled for over 20 years. When we first started it, we thought "Maybe it will last for a couple of months or perhaps a year": instead it kept traveling, and it could still travel if it was still in good shape, but it's gotten pretty beat up!

We had been sending that exhibit to a different site every month: it traveled to over 50 different places throughout the United States, and every place that it went it got new publicity: there were front-page articles in major newspapers about it. This repeated publicity was fundamental to finally getting actual National Legislation passed, and that's one of the things I'm most proud of. This exhibit got a tremendous push thanks to a man named John Calvelli. John was working in Congressman Eliot Engel’s Office at that time, and he was working with NIAF as well. He called me, and he said: "We are trying to start some legislation, and you can help to put it together!" It took a while, we had to reintroduce it again a couple of years after we first introduced it in 1997, and then in 1999 we got judiciary committee hearings: it passed the Judiciary Committee, it passed in the Congress, and on November 7th of 2000 the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act passed and was signed into Public Law #106-451 by President Clinton! That is now the law of the land and it officially says that these events actually did happen, because the big thing that we wanted from our exhibit was to publicize this, since in the history books it routinely said "Oh, this happened to the Japanese, but it never happened to the Italians!" Well, now we have proof that it did happen to the Italians: and that was a big, big deal for me!

Una Storia Segreta was a very simple exhibit, just foam core panels on which we glued photos and documents. We just prepared it for its opening at the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco, and we weren't prepared for travel, because there were no borders, no frames on the panels! Then we sent it to Sacramento, and we started getting requests from all over the place, so finally a friend of mine in Monterey said that we had to put it together so it could travel more, because it could be traveling for 5 years. I told him he was crazy! Anyway, he finally put plastic (and later metal) frames around the panels, and he built crates so that we could send the exhibit to various places: after this, the first place we shipped it to was Los Angeles. Then there was another organization in Oakland that took up a collection and gave us the money that allowed us to do a little Catalog: we sold the catalogs to finance the exhibit. This was not a high-tech exhibit; it had no multi-media and things that you see in today’s exhibits, but it had a tremendous impact. When we had the exhibit at The Rayburn Office Building, in Washington DC, a professor from Harvard University was walking by, and he stopped, looking at it, and he said: "I can't believe it, I'm a Professor of American History and I have never heard of this in my entire Academic Career": that is the kind of impact the exhibit had, it was really, really important!

Now we are planning to turn it into an online exhibit, to let it be available to everybody worldwide.

This story deserves to be read and known by as many people as possible, not only Italian Americans. Can you please tell us a couple of anecdotes that you deem particularly significant to describe this important fact of American history?

First of all I would like to mention my father. When I was growing up in Connecticut, my father was a hairdresser and spoke perfect English, and I was sure he, an immigrant, was an American citizen. So I was going around the country saying "Can you imagine, there are people whose own families were affected by this and never knew about it!" And then it turned out I was one of those people! My daughter was looking into getting Italian citizenship a couple of years ago, and I had to get my father's citizenship papers. So I contacted a friend of mine in Washington, she sent me the information and it turned out my father was not a citizen during the war, he was an Enemy Alien, and I never heard a word about any of this! His father, my grandfather, actually became an American citizen in 1928: my father was born in 1902 and he came here to the US in 1913. So my father thought he was an American citizen, because his father was: but my father was too old to acquire Derivative Citizenship, he was 26 years old when his father became a citizen. So my father went along thinking he was an American citizen but he actually wasn't: and when the wartime came, he had to register as an Enemy Alien!

There is another story that we found after our exhibit started and this is about a man called Ezio Pinza. He was a celebrity in the United States: he was a singer, had his own television program, and in 1941 was the first bass at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. There was a rival bass at the Metropolitan Opera, who informed the FBI that Pinza was a sympathizer with the fascist government in Italy. So Ezio Pinza was arrested on March 13th, 1942: it was right on the front page of the New York Times, he was taken into custody to Ellis Island, where he was kept, and he was awaiting a hearing for possible internment. At the first hearing he had no idea of what they suspected him of, so he failed to convince the board of his innocence, and so he was about to be interned. His wife, however, decided that she was going to ask for a second hearing for her husband, because she knew he was innocent! So she went to Washington DC to the Justice Department, she stayed there for almost a week and finally burst into the office of the Assistant Attorney General, screaming and crying, saying: "You have to give my husband a new hearing!" Well, they gave him the new hearing.

His lawyer, who during the first hearing had been with him but could not speak or anything, figured out what Pinza was suspected of. One of the terrible thing about this is that the people who were arrested and interned were what they called "Potentially Dangerous": they hadn’t done anything, and they were never told about what they were charged with, they were just told "You have to prove your innocence!" Innocent of what? How can I prove my innocence, when I don't even know what I'm charged with? Well, Ezio Pinza's lawyer was able to figure out what they suspected him of, and this is another anecdote. The Metropolitan Opera used to have a Saturday morning radio broadcast, and they suspected that Ezio Pinza in this Saturday morning radio broadcast would subtly alter the tempo of his singing to send secret messages to Mussolini! So the lawyer was able to shoot all of that down, and finally, after that second hearing, Pinza was released on parole. That's one of the things I love to tell people, because Ezio Pinza was a very big star: after the war he was asked to sing the Star Spangled Banner to the troops who came home and marched down 5th Avenue, and this is the guy who was arrested and almost interned!

There are several other anecdotes I could tell you. Most of them are very sad, because they are about a lot of people who were really badly affected by this: there were 5 suicides among Italian Americans during the war, people who were so despondent over being considered enemies of their country, that they did things like jumping off the roof of a building in San Francisco. And another one threw himself under a train, while a couple more hanged themselves. There were also two internees who actually died in the internment camps, named Giuseppe Protto e Giobatta Gasparini; I have their stories in my first book "Una storia segreta".

And finally there is an interesting story about a guy named Federico Della- gatta. He used to work as a shoe shine boy at the Union Station in Providence, Rhode Island, and he was just a simple guy. Somebody accused him of talking about Mussolini and Italy in a favorable light, and in the record of his hearing it says "Federico Dellagatta talked about the greatness of the Italian People and the Italian Army!" That's what his dangerous activity, his subversive activity was! At first the hearing board said "Well, this guy is not dangerous, he's just a bigmouth, we think he should be paroled!" But when his case got to the Department of Justice, the Enemy Alien section, we found a note in his file from the Assistant Attorney General which said "… talking about the greatness of the Italian People and the Italian Army, constitutes downright subversive activity and therefore we think he should be interned": and Federico Dellagatta was actually interned for his ‘subversive’ words.

What happened to Italian Americans who were not guilty of anything was very wrong, and shameful. But, being something that happened as a reaction to Pearl Harbor, we think that the circumstances are also to be considered, in judging the American decisions. Are we wrong?

It is true that war always affects and damages innocent people. The United States certainly had to protect itself against Japan, and I certainly feel that the war against fascism, especially Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito, was fully justified, it was an important and moral thing for the United States to do, no question about it in my mind.

I also would say that if I had been in Italy, I would have been against Mussolini, I hope, anyway. I don't think that the people living in the United States who favored Mussolini were justified or knew the real conditions in Italy: but I would also say that the military during the war is always going to do the most harsh things to protect the Country.

There are also citizens who have to object if government measures cross the line. For example, in the case of the Japanese Americans, I believe the measures went over the line, and I also believe that in the case of Italian Americans: even though I would also say that the Attorney General of the United States, Francis Biddle, was in fact a civil libertarian, he eventually went on to become the Head of the American Civil Liberties Union. We have documents that show that in 1943 Biddle sent a memo to the Head of the FBI, Herbert Hoover, in which he specifically said that this classification of "Potentially Dangerous" was itself dangerous and should be abandoned and never be used again.

Now, about the concept of "Potentially Dangerous". I don't think it was justified in most cases, but regardless of that, it is important to all of us at any time, because what that classification did was say that the Government can arrest or jail people without any proof of wrongdoing, all the Government has to do is suspect or guess that this person might do something. And that, that is very, very dangerous! The Magna Carta in England in the Thirteenth Century was instituted specifically to stop this kind of thing, to stop Kings from simply arresting people just because they thought they might be opposed to their policies. To me, that's one of the most important things that our exhibit has uncovered. The second thing is that just the fact that this happened is important for the people of the United States to know: I don't care whether they agree with us or don't agree with us, but it's important to be in the history books, and that's what the main goal of our exhibit and our project was about. Once it's known, then people can decide if it was justified or not justified, but the important thing is to make it part of the received standard History, because it actually was part of it.

Is there a lesson from this story for the days we live today?

Specific groups were being categorized on the basis of what they might do, and some of them were picked up and arrested: it happens every time, when people get scared. One of the things we need to remember is that it always begins with the Aliens, that’s what happened during World War II, with people that seem to have no rights: and then, if you aren't careful, it spreads to citizens, to all of us. Japanese Americans and Italian Americans who were born in the United States, US citizens, were interned as well as aliens, with no charges, no evidence, no proof against them of having done anything wrong or even intending to do anything wrong. So that's what can happen if these kinds of government measures go unchecked, and I'm afraid we might see it again: so what I would urge people to do is to be aware, to be awake and to be ready to protest and defend people or groups who are innocent!

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