As we focus on Tsarnaev brothers, their country of origin, and if we should worry about threats from other ethnic Chechens, I’m reminded of my Italian ancestry and two terrible legacies when our nation branded Italian immigrants and Italian-American citizens as “traitors.” One is the still mostly unknown internment of Italian-Americans during World War II. In September 1939, when Britain and France declared war against the Axis nations of Germany and Italy , President Roosevelt asked FBI Director Hoover to compile a list of people to be arrested in case of national emergency. The authority for these arrests was based on the 1798 Alien and Sedition acts, which gives the government power to detain aliens in times of emergency. By June of 1942, the total reached 1,521 Italian aliens arrested by the FBI, many
simply for curfew violations, with hundreds sent for up to two years to military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. In Fort Missoula, Montana, these American citizens joined 1,000 Italian nationals who had been interned there since May, 1941. [American-Italian Historical Association, and the book Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II]. Given that most of these people lived in east coast cities, and many of them had family members fighting in the American Armed Forces, the shock and sense of betrayal of dislocation was significant and lasting.
But the precedent for unfair treatment of Italian immigrants had actually been set decades earlier, with the famous—or should I say infamous—trial of Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists accused of armed robbery and executed in 1927. It’s too long a story for this blog, but the short take is the public was afraid of these foreigners, and partly for good reason. Two days after they were indicted, an anarchist sympathizer—also Italian— allegedly orchestrated the Wall Street Bombing, where a time-delay dynamite bomb packed with heavy iron sash-weights in a horse-drawn cart exploded, killing 38 people and wounding 134. [Wikipedia, relying on Paul Avrich’s book Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background] Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?
There were no questions that Sacco and Vanzetti were members of an anti-government, militant organization. But there have been ongoing concerns about the fairness of the trial. Historians and legal scholars agree that anti-Italian, anti-immigrant prejudice affected the way the trial was conducted, and ultimately the outcome. And in 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation to that effect, declaring “any disgrace should be forever removed from their names.”
Today we love our Italian brands. Ferrari and Fiat. Ferragamo and Fendi. But in the new normal, when we are under a constant state of threat, a foreign name or heritage that is as unfamiliar today as “Italian” was in the last century, can be a negative brand that is hard to overcome, even in a country founded by immigrants.