Senate Owes Simple Justice to Italian Americans
by Marie Cocco
(used by permission of the author)

    History is wrong. It is not true, as the Justice Department said officially in 1992, that Italian Americans as a group were not targeted, relocated and interned as official enemies during World War II-that only a few, unlucky individuals were probed and held without trial.

    It is not true, as Tom Brokaw wrote in his 1998 best-seller, "The Greatest Generation," that Italian Americans were not subject to wholesale revocation of their civil liberties. "They may have had some uncomfortable moments during the war, but they retained all their rights," Brokaw wrote.

    That is false.

    History is wrong. The U.S. Congress now has a rare chance to make it right.

    Through the efforts of Reps. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) and Rick Lazio (R-Brightwaters), the House has passed a measure that would require the federal government to acknowledge what really happened to Italian Americans during the war and to make available for inspection the 60-year-old - and still-classified - record of it.

    The House vote was unanimous. It came after members of the Judiciary Committee heard the true stories. Not the versions that appear - if they appear - in the books.

    They heard from retired Army Col. Angelo de Guttadauro. His father, Nino - an accountant and a naturalized U.S. citizen - was under FBI investigation and repeated interrogation for more than a year. He was never given names of accusers. Or the nature of the accusations.

    Without seeing evidence against him, Nino Guttadauro (who belonged to an Italian vetersns group because of his Italian military service during World War I) was expelled from his California home, separated from his wife and two young children and banned from living in so many states that the prohibited areas amounted to half the country.

    "Due to the swiftness of the expulsion order, household goods were either stored or simply abandoned," Guttadauro told the panel. "We were forced to rent, in numerous cities, furnished apartments or homes at high cost due to our transient status. We had become, by military fiat, a family of involuntary gypsies."

    They heard form Doris Pinza, elderly widow of the opera and Broadway star Ezio Pinza, about the day the FBI showed up at the couple's house in Mamaroneck and searched "every room, closet, drawer and file and found nothing of interest."

    But they took Pinza to Ellis Island. He was prosecuted and interned on vague charges - the couple never knew what they were, or who made them. No lawyer was allowed. Pinza was held for three months, and was released after the couple won a rare second hearing.

    All 600,000 Italian Americans were declared enemy aliens during the war. About 10,000 were forced out of their homes along the California coast. Fishermen from Boston to San Francisco, including those who were citizens, had their boats confiscated.

    At least 228 - that's the official government figure uncovered in the scant wartime records available - were interned. Some new research hints the number might have been five times that.

    No charges of sabotage were ever brought. The systematic raids on homes that yielded Philco radios and bulky family cameras turned up no espionage or subversive conspiracy.

    It is fashionable, nowadays, to rant about the "politics of victimization." Behind the complaint is annoyance that too many groups - women, gays, racial minorities, ethnic groups - want some-thing to which they are not entitled, which society should not give. This is an argument made, usually, by someone who does not belong to a group whose history has been denied.

    The Senate should follow the House and pass a law that says the government must own up to what happened. This must be done not for the victims, many of whom are dead or dying off, but -for the simple truth of the historical record," said Lawrence DiStasi, a California writer and a driving force behind a traveling exhibit about this secret story.

    To turn the cheek, yet again, is to let history remain a lie.