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Why America Targeted Italian-Americans During World War II

January 14, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Louis Berizzi was in his pajamas when FBI agents burst into his Manhattan apartment and arrested him. As his daughter, Lucetta, and the rest of the family watched, wiping the sleep from their eyes, he hurried into clothing and was taken away.

Soon after, FBI agents questioned Lucetta, too. Why did she speak such good Italian? Had her father engaged in suspicious activities? Was she a traitor? She was released without being charged, but soon after suffered the consequences of the anti-Italian sentiment that had spread like wildfire since the United States entered World War II. After being seen speaking Italian with a customer, she was fired from her job as a salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Her father wasn’t a traitor, either. His only crime was being born in Italy. During the early years of World War II however, that was enough to classify him as an “enemy alien”—and to justify freezing his assets, interrogating his family, and interning him for months.

The Berizzis were just a few of at least 600,000 Italians and Italian Americans—many of them naturalized citizens—swept up in a wave of racism and persecution during World War II. Hundreds of Italian “enemy aliens” were sent to internment camps like those Japanese Americans were forced into during the war. More than 10,000 were forced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands suffered curfews, confiscations and mass surveillance during the war. They were targeted despite a lack of evidence that traitorous Italians were conducting spy or sabotage operations in the United States.

A sign posted on Terminal Island in California in 1942 denoting it as an Alien Enemy Prohibited Area and states that all aliens of Japanese, Italian & German origin must vacate the area by midnight by order of the US government.

The roots of the actions taken by the U.S. government against Italian Americans can be found not just in Italy’s role as an Axis power during World War II, but in longstanding prejudice in the United States itself. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, Italians began immigrating to the United States in droves. By 1920, more than ten percent of all foreign-born people in the U.S. were Italian, and more than 4 million Italian immigrants had come to the United States.

Italians were the biggest group of immigrants to enter the U.S., and vibrant Italian American enclaves …read more


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