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"Enemy Aliens": The Italian American Experience

For years, I've commemorated a "day of remembrance" in February, where I've focused attention on the internment, during World War II, of Japanese Americans, by executive action from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Less known is the internment of German Americans during that same period, and while I was aware of similar actions taken against Italian-Americans (and I'm half-Sicilian by ancestry), I was taken aback by the level of political and cultural repression faced by my ancestors.

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently completed an enormous re-organization of my library and file system and have quite a collection of newspaper clippings, which I've organized by topic and which will become the subject of various blog entries in the coming months. I am going to get into the habit of posting on Notablog and on Facebook, links to some of these articles, which, I believe, provide enlightenment on topics of interest.

As some may know, there was a recent Twitter war that erupted when Chris Cuomo of CNN was caught on a YouTube video, going ballistic in public. Out with his family, he was confronted by a person who referred to him as the "Fredo" of the Cuomo family. President Trump had a little devilish Twitter fun with Cuomo (brother of the current New York governor, Andrew Cuomo), after Cuomo's "meltdown" over being so characterized. Cuomo saw it as an ethnic slur against Italians. Trump responded that he too believed Chris to be the "Fredo" of the Cuomo family. And Trump's son, Donald Jr., piled on, saying: "Take it from me, 'Fredo' isn't the N word for Italians. ... It just means you're the dumb brother."

Now, with all due respect to the Trump and Cuomo 'families' (no ethnic slur intended), I couldn't care less who scores points in any Twitter slug-fest. But aside from a note in a Roderick T. Long Reason Papers essay, "The Justice and Prudence of War: Toward a Libertarian Analysis," I have to confess to an embarrassing ignorance of the history of bigotry and violence against Italian Americans in this country. I remain an unreconstructed fan of "The Godfather Epic" and don't agree with some of what Rosario A. Iaconis states in a New York Daily News op-ed piece, "Cuomo was Right to Be Offended" about "The Godfather" reference. Iaconis believes that the Coppola classic "has been as toxic to Italo-Americans as 'The Birth of A Nation' was to African Americans." To me, there are fewer films that depict so brilliantly the rise of organized crime in America with such transparency, or that illustrate the corruption of the human soul through the inversion of values, allegedly designed to protect loved ones from harm. From its sprawling, truly epic storytelling to its magnificent editing, cinematography, and score, it remains one of the triumphs of the American cinema.

But here's the takeaway material from the Iaconis essay that shattered my illusions of the government's relatively "hands-off" policy toward Italian Americans in the wake of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into World War II:

In his landmark book Vendetta, Prof. Richard Gambino states that between 1870 and 1940, "Italians were second only to blacks in numbers of lynch victims." And this murderous spree spanned such states as Colorado, Mississippi, Illinois, North Carolina and Florida.
In a missive to his sister regarding the 1891 massacre of Italians in New Orleans, Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.”
After Dec. 7, 1941, as the result of FDR’s executive order, some 600,000 Italian Americans were labeled “enemy aliens.” On both coasts, Italian-American homes and businesses were confiscated; newspapers ceased publishing; and draconian curfews were established. Fishermen were not permitted to sail their boats and earn a livelihood.
In California, 10,000 were evacuated from coastal areas and sites near power plants, dams and military installations. Another 257 Italians were shipped to internment camps for up to two years.

Sacco and Vanzetti and the Mafia to the contrary, many of my own relatives fought and died in World War II for the Allied cause.

As Karl Marx once famously said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."

With continuing talks of the "enemy aliens" among us, it's a sobering reminder that my own ancestors were often treated as enemies of the state. My crystal ball tells me that both tragedy and farce will continue to haunt the American experience.