Searching for Subversives: The Story of Italian Internment in Wartime America

Searching for Subversives: The Story of Italian Internment in Wartime America

Searching for Subversives: The Story of Italian Internment in Wartime America

Searching for Subversives: The Story of Italian Internment in Wartime America


When the United States entered World War II, Italian nationals living in this country were declared enemy aliens and faced with legal restrictions. Several thousand aliens and a few U.S. citizens were arrested and underwent flawed hearings, and hundreds were interned. Shedding new light on an injustice often overshadowed by the mass confinement of Japanese Americans, Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas traces how government and military leaders constructed wartime policies affecting Italian residents. Based on new archival research into the alien enemy hearings, this in-depth legal analysis illuminates a process not widely understood. From presumptive guilt in the arrest and internment based on membership in social and political organizations, to hurdles in attaining American citizenship, Chopas uncovers many layers of repression not heretofore revealed in scholarship about the World War II home front.

In telling the stories of former internees and persons excluded from military zones as they attempted to resume their lives after the war, Chopas demonstrates the lasting social and cultural effects of government policies on the Italian American community, and addresses the modern problem of identifying threats in a largely loyal and peaceful population.


As to differentiating between different nationalities … there is a
difference; that many of our old Italian people who came here
years ago and who worked and raised families, and who have been
law-abiding citizens, have very little, if any, respect for their native
land and which would in no way interfere with their loyalty.
Moreover, conditions in European countries are such that many
Italian people here today feel that the only solution for their
problem over there is for the United States to win this war.
These people, naturally, are going to be loyal to us. Locally, a very
great percent of our young men who are joining the Army are of
Italian parentage, and before any action should be taken to move
their parents away from their homes, I believe we should consider
seriously the result that that may have upon them as soldiers.
— john P. fitzgerald, District Attorney of Santa Clara County,
to Hon. Earl Warren, Attorney General, California, February 19,

During World War ii the U.S. government categorized persons within the United States from belligerent nations based on citizenship and race, making assumptions about their loyalty and the national security risk they presented. This study examines how federal agencies interacted to create and implement restrictions on nearly 700,000 Italian aliens residing in the United States, including internment for certain individuals, and how and why those policies changed during the course of the war. Federal decision-makers beginning in 1941 created policies of ethnic-based criteria in response to national security fears, resulting in the selective internment of Japanese, German, and Italian aliens identified as dangerous, and later the exclusion, removal, and detention of approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese descent, mostly American citizens, in camps.

The U.S. government’s evolving calculation of the danger posed by Italian nationals on American soil was strongly shaped by American policymakers’ beliefs that Italy’s military forces were not as formidable as those . . .

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