Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas: The Lessons of World War II Selective Internment

Searching for Subversives Today, we welcome a guest post from Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas, author of Searching for Subversives:  The Story of Italian Internment in Wartime America.

When the United States entered World War II, Italian nationals living in this country were declared enemy aliens and faced with legal restrictions. Several thousand aliens and a few U.S. citizens were arrested and underwent flawed hearings, and hundreds were interned. Shedding new light on an injustice often overshadowed by the mass confinement of Japanese Americans, Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas traces how government and military leaders constructed wartime policies affecting Italian residents. Based on new archival research into the alien enemy hearings, this in-depth legal analysis illuminates a process not widely understood. From presumptive guilt in the arrest and internment based on membership in social and political organizations, to hurdles in attaining American citizenship, Chopas uncovers many layers of repression not heretofore revealed in scholarship about the World War II home front.

Searching for Subversives is available now in both print and e-book editions.


The Lessons of World War II Selective Internment

When the United States entered World War II, Italian nationals (as well as Japanese and German nationals) living in this country who had not become American citizens were declared enemy aliens and subject to restrictions. Several thousand were arrested and detained for hearings, and hundreds were interned. The story of Italian families affected by internment orders and various government policies, such as nighttime searches of homes for shortwave radios and signaling devices and restrictive curfews, illuminates how the executive branch and the military in the 1940s responded to perceived threats to national security. There were multiple layers of repression—presumptive guilt in the arrest, internment based on membership in social and political organizations and expression of undemocratic ideas, and bars to citizenship.

The story of the internment of Italians during World War II raises the same questions that we ask today about how liberal democracies may wage war and remain true to democratic values. The debate over the constitutionality and implementation of the travel ban affecting foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim countries wishing to enter the United States poses the issue of whether persons may be barred from entry without having undergone an individualized determination of security threat based on specific intelligence.[1] What “extreme vetting” means in practice remains unclear. The historical precedent of World War II selective internment provides a relevant exploration of how the government might strike the proper balance between ensuring the nation’s safety and guaranteeing the protection of civil liberties in times of crisis.

President Roosevelt’s administration grappled with the same questions about how the U.S. government assesses the loyalty of individuals, namely what role various categories of citizenship play, the type of evidence that is productive and predictive of subversive activity, and the form of process that should be afforded suspects in the determination of loyalty. Alien enemy hearing boards across the country, under the direction of Attorney General Francis Biddle, examined the loyalty of Italian aliens in hearings that followed ad hoc form procedures similar to administrative hearings for deportation. They contained some semblance of due process, yet case files of individual internees reveal that the procedure did not allow the aliens, many of whom were illiterate, to answer to suspicions of disloyalty, since attorney representation was prohibited in the hearings and translators were not routinely provided. Through a series of remedial instructions to the boards, Biddle tried to make the adjudicatory process fairer by requiring transcripts and the statement of charges, and allowing rehearings. But Biddle could not remedy the misjudgments that hearing boards made, because they lacked information on the mission of many Italian American organizations and the particular role that each suspect Italian alien played in that organization. The procedural changes came too late to insert greater due process into the alien enemy hearings, and too late to save many aliens from a sense of disillusionment with the U.S. government. We can only hope today that adjustments can be made soon enough in the government’s antiterrorism policies to prevent civil liberties violations and to save affected groups from the feeling of powerlessness that accompanies deprivations.


Mary Elizabeth Basile Chopas has been an adjunct professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.