Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas provides a significant contribution to our understanding of the experience of Italian enemy aliens and Italian American citizens during World War i. Her detailed analysis of the interplay between the governmental figures involved in the decision-making process that led to the construction and varying implementation of policies applied to Italian enemy aliens is interwoven with stories of the subsequent impact on individuals and families within this ethnic community at large, and the first, and only to date, social profile of the 343 Italians interned at camps on American soil. The book consists of four chapters, with the first establishing the prewar context of the political and social standing of Italians as an ethnic group in the United States and the intelligence activities of the federal government in preparation for policymaking concerning enemy aliens. The three chapters that follow cover the wartime measures, and the resultant implications for and impact on Italian enemy aliens and Italian American citizens. Drawing from a range of sources and fields of scholarship, this work offers a comprehensive account of the Italian case study, but also casts into relief critical insights into the concept of justice and the effects of policymaking in times of crisis, and the construction of ethnic identity, which might have otherwise been missed by a more narrow approach.
In 2000, the United States Congress acknowledged that the federal government intentionally sought to conceal the measures taken against Italian Americans during wartime from the public. But Searching for Subversives suggests that this ethnic community did not need to know the full extent of the wartime measures nor the legality of such actions at the time to understand the impact of the injustice, as the policies implemented in the name of national security were built upon the presumption of guilt before innocence. The arrest and detention of Italian enemy aliens, as well as some Italian American citizens, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor and thereafter pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 2527 were based on suspicions related to their ethnicity and affiliation. Chopas presents accounts of those affected by the above alongside the historical narrative of the process by which these measures were carried out in order to humanize the experience on the ground. She also puts a face to selective internment with her well-documented analysis based on archival material regarding the 343 Italian internees, and the hearing board process initiated by the US Justice Department. Her detailed study of their social profile, across a range of variables, is remarkable not only for the wealth of empirical data it provides for future scholarship, but also because it reveals the extent and nature of the injustice of this program – a program often based on unsubstantiated and outdated reports. Furthermore, her analysis of the Justice Department’s hearing boards exposes the implications of rendering justice on the fly. For example, she documents the lack of regulatory standardization, procedural inconsistency, and the various violations of the democratic principles of justice through the telling of individual cases, which, in turn, brings to light the type of frustration and uncertainty that Italian internees experienced as a result. Chopas contextualizes the experience of Italians vis-à-vis the Japanese case, as she rightfully reminds readers that the wartime measures taken against Japanese enemy aliens and Japanese American citizens were far more discriminatory, extensive, and long-lasting. Despite the vast differences between the Japanese and Italian case study, this book offers another example of the real-life implications of justice served unequally in the United States, which is of principal import in thinking about questions concerning the violations of civil liberties in times of crisis, real or imagined, and the dangers of framing ethnic communities as the enemy.
Chopas is skilled at cross referencing as she balances alternating legal and historical analysis with narrative accounts. Doing so she lays bare the repercussions of policy-making done in haste and executed with inconsistency on the intended subjects. Chopas details the intergovernmental exchanges, often marked by contention and confusion, which shaped the implementation of evacuation orders and the individual exclusion program pursuant to Executive Order 9066. The disagreements amongst the heads of federal agencies, misunderstandings of given power, and debates within government at all levels is paired here with stories of the resultant impact on Italian communities across the nation. Chopas traces the origins of the discrepancies in the enforcement of measures on the West and East Coast to a variety of forces, including a shift in authority over this domain, from the Department of Justice to the War Department, whereby the military commanders on their respective coasts came to interpret and carry out separate policies. The collective anxiety amongst Italian communities about their fate on the East Coast was a product, Chopas shows, of those affected by mass evacuation of Italian enemy aliens on the West Coast. The human toll of a haphazard approach to making decisions by leaders in times of crisis is emphasized by the structure of this book.
The disparate application of justice and implementation of policies during wartime reveals the constraints that the people of Italian descent, enemy aliens and American citizens alike, faced. It is clear from the evidence put forward in this book that any expressed sentiment short of unbounded loyalty to the United States would end in reprisal for individuals and the ethnic community at large. In other words, the only means to safety and so-called greater freedom was the public denial of any commitment and affiliation to the ancestral homeland. Except, as chapter four brings to the fore, some ethnic ties and cultural practices remained in domains seemingly less threatening to the government, such as food and sport.
Searching for Subversives thereby opens up a series of questions about the longer-term impact of forced patriotism on an ethnic community, the alternate means by which suppressed loyalties lie, and the implication for the expressions of ethnicity that endure.
Chopas succeeds in bringing together the various voices that shaped the wartime policies in the Italian case. However, greater attention to Italian American activism vis-à-vis mass demonstrations of loyalty to the United States on the home front, and the role that ethnic brokers played in influencing the decision-making process at the highest levels of governments is often missed by the author. Chopas’ work would be strengthened with a broader historiographical context in immigration and Italian American history which have looked at the period from other angles.
Nevertheless, Searching for Subversives is an essential text and reference source for any student or scholar of Italian American history and studies. Chopas advances this field considerably with her book, as research on the wartime experience for Italian enemy aliens and Italian American citizens is still relatively new. More importantly, this work offers an invaluable case study for scholars interested in the comparative analysis of the three enemy alien groups deemed dangerous to the national security after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in terms of policy enforcement, perceptions of threat and loyalty, group status, and violation of civil liberties.
Antonia Cucchiara (Queens College, City University of New York)