German and Italian detainees

In addition to the forced confinement of Japanese Americans in War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps, the United States interned 11,500 ethnic Germans and 3,000 ethnic Italians, many of whom were U.S. citizens. They were sent to camps scattered across the country.


President Roosevelt placed the FBI in charge of all counterespionage and counterintelligence operations. By 1938 the FBI had a list of 2,500 alleged communists and Nazis living in the United States. The FBI would arrest them in the event of national emergency. Most Germans and Italians included on these lists were actually U.S. citizens. Passage of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 led to nationwide registration and fingerprinting of 4.9 million resident aliens. These prewar activities set the stage for the Justice Department's creation of a formal Alien Enemy Control Program following the U.S. entry into the war.

Confinement Experience

Justice Department officials chose a policy of selective internment of ethnic Germans and Italians. Civilians whose names appeared on FBI lists were arrested immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack. Detainees were granted legal hearings, but not legal counsel.

The Justice Department was more likely to hold someone if they were members in organizations like the pro-Nazi "Bund." Although its actual membership was approximately 10,000, the Bund organized a 1939 rally in New York City that attracted 22,000 people. FBI officials also reviewed an individual's newspaper subscriptions, foreign bank accounts, overseas money transactions, purchases of war bonds, recent visits to Axis countries, and relatives' activities in foreign countries. FBI agents also collected statements from anonymous informants, whose testimony was not always reliable.

Refugees and naturalized citizens from countries occupied by Nazi Germany also came under suspicion, and the United States confined Austrians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, and Bulgarians. Abroad, the FBI compiled lists of “suspicious” individuals of German, Italian, and Japanese descent living throughout Latin America. The U.S. State Department pressured Latin American countries to deport ethnic Germans and Italians (along with people of Japanese ancestry) to the United States for the purposes of prisoner exchanges with Axis nations. These enemy aliens were held in camps together with Japanese detainees.

Comparison to the Japanese American Experience

Germans and Italians were the two largest foreign-born immigrant groups in the United States at that time. German and Italian immigrants retained their cultural identities, as shown by the existence of many German and Italian newspapers as late as 1942.

Most German and Italian-born civilians living in the United States in 1941 had already received American citizenship. President Roosevelt dismissed the idea that Italian Americans posed any danger to the American war effort. When the U.S. Army recommended the mass removal of ethnic Germans and Italians residing in coastal areas, a congressional committee rejected the proposal.

U.S. military authorities excluded hundreds of German and Italian nationals and U.S. citizens from coastal security zones, forcing those who lived along the coasts to move further inland.

Source: German and Italian detainees
© Densho 2017. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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