A hundred years ago this week, on a bend of the Meuse River in northern France, Gen. John Pershing launched the final major Allied offensive against Germany, an assault that would bring an end to World War I two months later.
Without American intervention, the war would have probably ended in a German victory, or sputtered to a stalemate, leaving the Germans in possession of much of France, Belgium and Russia. The victory, though, came at significant cost: In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, as the operation came to be known, the Americans alone suffered some 122,000 casualties, including 29,000 dead.
That more than a million Americans were fighting in a European war was surprising enough. But even more surprising was the men themselves: Pershing’s soldiers, known as the American Expeditionary Force, were in some units as likely to be foreign- as American-born.
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. Sen. 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. The Army’s 32nd Division, made up of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin, was nicknamed the “Gemütlichkeit Division” — the German word means “coziness” — because it included so many German immigrants. Its rosters, one officer remarked, “sounded like Hindenburg’s staff.”
How did this “half-American” army do in World War I?
They were splendid. Even though the doughboys spoke 49 different languages, making training and command difficult, the immigrants fought as bravely and desperately as native-born Americans. Germans deployed against the United States 77th Division in the Argonne Forest, hearing the mix of voices from the other trench, assumed that they were fighting Italian troops who had been sent north to reinforce the French. They weren’t Italians; they were Americans, from Little Italy in Manhattan.
The Germans were fascinated by the Americans they captured on the battlefield. The Germans had assumed that with all its immigrant soldiers the United States Army would shatter into demoralized ethnic pieces when pressured. “The majority of them are the sons of foreign parents,” a German staff circular reminded interrogators. But German hopes of disintegration were dashed on the battlefield. “These half-Americans express without hesitation purely native sentiments. Their quality is remarkable. They brim with naïve confidence,” the Germans despaired.Comment on this story
“Naïve confidence” is as fine a description of what it means to be American as any — a superiority complex born of transformative, class-blind opportunity: the opportunity sought by the men and women who flooded into America at the turn of the last century, just like those who arrive today and continue to see the military as an avenue for gaining citizenship and respect.
Americans wandering in our nation’s World War I cemeteries in France today will be struck by how many of those “foreign slackers” and “half-Americans” reside there. The unassimilated names on the gravestones — Ottavio Fiscalini, Aleksandr Skazhkows, Olaf Knutson — confirm that, through what Lodge called the “unguarded gates of American citizenship,” passed thousands of men ready to die for America.