During the First World War, almost one in five soldiers in the United States Army were foreign-born. World War I marked the demise of the Progressive era, when reformers attempted to reorder the industrial society, socialize, and moralize the working class through new welfare agencies, and restructure the urban environment with the use of the scientific-management theories. However, the war ushered in an atmosphere in the civilian society of hysteria, mindless fervor, and the drive for cultural conformity. Immigrant civilians faced harassment, discrimination, and violence. All forms of media: newspapers, cartoons, posters, and speeches promoted a distrust and condemnation of immigrants and a drive for “100 Percent Americanization.”
With a concern for troop morale, the War Department attempted to use pragmatic military policies to uplift the morale of soldiers with the goal of creating a more efficient fighting force. To help meet the needs of the immigrant soldiers, the War Department created the Foreign-speaking Soldier Subsection and worked with both ethnic organizations and local ethnic community leaders to increase the morale of the foreign-born troops. The ethnic leaders helped the military to promote respect for the various cultures and religions of the foreign-born soldiers. The leaders pressured the military for observation of important religious holidays, fought for fair and just treatment of foreign-born servicemen, and educated military officials about other specific needs of the immigrant soldiers.
To create an effective fighting force with a high-level of morale, the military responded by celebrating ethnic traditions, applauding the contributions to the war effort made by immigrant troops, promoted immigrant soldiers to officer positions, and demanded that native-born soldiers respected their foreign-born counterparts. The military also sponsored patriotic Americanization programs in the training camps, with the assistance of ethnic organizations and community leaders who translated written materials into many different languages.
Although there is an abundance of primary resources between the War Department, the Foreign-speaking Soldier Subsection, Progressive reformers, and military officials, it is much more difficult to reconstruct the “voices” of the rank-and-file soldiers who served in the armed forces. (This was especially true when I was researching the book as on-line sources were limited.) From available military records and questionnaires, we can glimpse into the feelings of these immigrant soldiers. Like most soldiers during World War I, the immigrant experience was a mixture of “bewilderment, loyalty, anxiety, and heroism. Most immigrant soldiers reflected a positive experience in the American armed forces, some even referring to their American native-born counterparts as “buddies.”
With the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the War Department introduced a universal campaign for universal training of all young men in the United States. They also concluded that the military could produce skilled soldiers in future wars from their lessons learned during World War I. However, the continuance of a multiethnic army was not meant to be. Renewed anti-immigration hysteria fueled by postwar uncertainty and the growing Red Scare during the 1920s pushed Congress into enacting the 1924 National Origins Act. This law essentially closed the “Golden Door” to future mass immigration. The military soon dropped its “Americans All” dream and supported the immigrant restriction movement.
Future wars would be supplied with the children of the approximately 23 million immigrations who migrated to the United States during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. Today’s military role call still reads like the First World War Victory Loan Drive Poster: Du Bois, Smith, O’Brien, Cejka, Haucke, Pappandrickopolous, Andrassi, Villotto, Levy, Turovich, Kowalski, Chriczanevicz, Knutson, and Gonzales. (1)
During World War I, a German officer noted the ethnic diversity of the American Army: “Only a few of the troops are of pure American origin; the majority are of German, Dutch, and Italian parentage. But these semi-Americans…fully feel themselves to be true-born sons of their [adopted] country.” (2) The German officer was accurate except for one critical point. These men were not “semi-Americans,” they were “Americans All!”