September 13, 2018


How 'Hyphenated Americans' Won World War I (Geoffrey Wawro, Sept. 12, 2018, NY Times)

Thanks to a wave of immigration, the United States had changed significantly at the turn of the 20th century, going from a nation whose white population was 60 percent British and 35 percent German at the start of the Civil War into a turbulent "melting pot" in time for the Great War: 11 percent British, 20 percent German, 30 percent Italian and Hispanic and 34 percent Slavic.

During the offensive, the Germans tried to use the army's multiethnic background as propaganda. The doughboys, as the American troops were known, were "half-Americans," the Germans sneered.

Many Americans were as contemptuous of the "melting pot" as the Germans. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, for example, tried in 1896 to extend the class of "excluded immigrants" from "paupers, convicts and diseased persons" to include all "Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks and Asiatics" who arrived on our shores and failed a literacy test. Ideally, Lodge wanted citizenship confined to the "original race stocks of the 13 colonies." The others, he averred, were chiefly "slum dwellers, criminals and juvenile delinquents."

With one in three Americans in 1918 either born abroad or of foreign-born parents, resentment of immigrants became as American as apple pie. Terms like yid, mick, dago, greaser, bohunk, polack, and uke were tossed around as casually as baseballs well into the late 20th century. As great an American as Teddy Roosevelt popularized suspicion of "hyphenated Americans" so well that even his political opposite, Woodrow Wilson, took to saying that "any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic."

It took the press baron William Randolph Hearst to make the paradoxical argument that these hyphen-wielding "foreigners" belonged in the Army. Let them serve, Hearst thundered from his three dozen newspapers and magazines after Wilson's declaration of war. If we send "All-American" boys to the Western Front, these "foreign slackers on American soil" -- these "birds of passage" -- will take American jobs and toil in profitable safety while "real Americans" die in France. Others saw service as a tool of assimilation: "The military tent," Roosevelt said, "will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization."

And so nearly a quarter of draftees in 1918 were foreigners, often recent arrivals. 

Posted by at September 13, 2018 5:34 PM