WW2 Internment Was No Big Deal

July 8, 2016

Some people like to make a big deal out of the internment of Italian American "enemy aliens" during World War 2 and claim that it's been unfairly ignored by history (German American internment gets ignored too, but whatever). The reality though, is that it was simply nothing worth mentioning compared to what the Japanese suffered, because Italians benefited from white privilege.

The contrast between treatment of the Italian Americans and the Japanese, the other non-Nordic group subject to being linked by ancestry to the fascist war effort, was stark. As 120,000 Japanese Americans — 40,000 of them classed as enemy aliens — went to detention camps, Italian American aliens suffered only relatively brief harassment, especially directed against Pacific Coast fisherman and waterfront residents. With a congressional committee holding that evacuation policies for Italian Americans were "out of the question if we intend to win this war," Roosevelt urged caution. In May 1942, almost two-thirds of all enemy aliens were Italian Americans but less than one-seventh of enemy aliens in federal custody were. The following month New York City's Italian American mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, led the New York at War procession, which banned Japanese Americans. In the context of the 1942 election, Roosevelt rescinded the enemy alien designation against Italian Americans and expedited naturalization processes for them. Japanese aliens, who unlike Italians had never had the opportunity to naturalize, stayed in custody. Earl Warren, a supporter of Japanese internment who later served as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, explained that Italians were "just like everybody else" and therefore should not be held. A remarkable article published by the NAACP found the Japanese to be victims of "barbarous treatment [as a] result of the color line" and Italians able to escape such treatment because they were "white."

Even the most notorious racist in U.S. politics, Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo, seemed to reluctantly agree that Italian Americans could not be racially attacked. Bilbo had responded to an Italian American supporter of fair employment practices by addressing her as "My Dear Dago." When [Congressman Vito] Marcantonio rebuked him, the Mississippian additionally called his adversary a "political mongrel." However, as the controversy garnered press attention, Bilbo reigned in his tendency to demean "racial" and "ethnic" minorities in the same screeds. He assured all that he acted out of "the respect and love I have for the Caucasian blood that flows not only in my veins but in the veins of Jews, Italians, Poles and other nationalities of the White race [whom] I would not want to see contaminated with Negro blood."

David R. Roediger. Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. New York: Basic Books, 2006.