I was pleasantly surprised on Columbus Day when President Bush made his commemorative speech honoring Italian-Americans.
The Presidential tradition of effusively praising specific ethnic groups on their "special day" is a custom long carved in stone. Still, I found it reassuring that Bush hasn't forgotten about the dwindling numbers of Italians living in the United States.
[Note to VDARE.COM readers: Come to think of it, I was more irate than anything that Italians get a token, crummy, canned three-minute speech while the our clueless President George W. Bush recently dedicated an entire month to Hispanics. Remind me again how much longer I have to wait to vote against him?]
Said the president, somewhat inaccurately, "For nearly 70 years, our country has celebrated in honor of Columbus." What Bush purposely omitted—since it would not be a fitting observation on such a festive occasion—is that over the last couple of decades, Christopher Columbus has fallen on hard times. Parades, in the name of political correctness, have been canceled. The great explorer has been reduced to a mere footnote in many high school textbooks.
Nevertheless, Bush was in good spirits when he introduced several Italian-American members of his administration. And Bush's remark that "America is a stronger and finer nation because of the influence of Italian Americans" drew heartfelt applause.
Toward the end of Bush's speech he said, "You can take special pride in the deep tradition of service to this country. People of Italian descent oftentimes hear the call to serve something greater than themselves. Twenty-four Italian Americans have won the Congressional Medal of Honor, that's high service to something greater than yourself."
Bush—like most Americans—is probably unaware of the dark chapter in our history during World War II when hundreds of thousands of Italians living legally and peacefully in the US were the victims of civil rights abuses.
While the internment of Japanese Americans is well documented, much less publicized was that after the US declared war on Italy in 1941, the federal government classified 600,000 innocent Italians as "internal enemies."
From February through June 1942, 100,000 Italians living in California could not travel more than five miles from their homes. A curfew was imposed between the hours of 8:00 P.M.-6:00 A.M.
Because of these restrictions, many lost their jobs. Fisherman Giuseppe Di Maggio, father to New York Yankee great Joe, had his boat confiscated. He could not go to downtown San Francisco to visit his boy at his Fisherman's Wharf restaurant.
On the east coast, 500,000 Italians were forced by the J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I. agents to surrender their guns, cameras, flashlights and shortwave radios. They had to register with the federal government, carry identification cards and report job changes immediately.
Citing as authority several World War I statutes and the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, several dozen Italian-born (but naturalized citizens) were ordered "relocated" and sent to Nevada or Montana.
FBI agents arrested hundreds of prominent Italian-Americans without charges or even warrants. They were suspected—on flimsy evidence—of being "enemy aliens."
The victims appeared before the Department of Justice without benefit of counsel. And, since no formal charges were ever made, no one was ever found innocent. Instead, the unluckiest among those arrested spent the rest of the war imprisoned in concentration camps.
In a particularly cruel irony, Italian Americans were prevented from visiting their sons who were serving in the US military and assigned to domestic military installations. During World War II, more than 500,000 Italian-Americans were in the US armed forces. Italians were one of the largest ethnic groups in the 12 million-strong US Army.
When the Italians were targeted, only 25 years had passed since Italian Americans had proved their allegiance to the US by volunteering in large numbers to serve in World War I.
To add to the implausibility of it all, during World War II, the mayors of two of America's largest cities were Italian-American: Angelo Rossi of San Francisco and Fiorello LaGuardia of New York.
These stories have been kept secret because after the war the government classified all the information related to Italian American civil rights abuses.
And Italian Americans preferred to put their experiences behind them and move on.
But in 2000, Congress passed the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act that declassified the records. Part of legislation provides for educating the American public through documentary films. The Justice Department report is available online at the US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee website or by calling 202-514-4224.
If you are interested in learning more, I suggest viewing UNA STORIA SEGRETA: THE SECRET STORY. Other valuable sources are "Prisoners in Our Own Home: the Italian American Experience as America's Enemy Aliens" and the National Italian American Foundation in Washington, DC.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.