In World War I, one out of every five soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces was an immigrant. For some it was a path to citizenship. For the nation it proved pivotal to a more inclusive definition of “American.”Share
Between 1880 and 1910, 17 million immigrants came to the United States; by 1914, nearly 15 percent of the population was foreign-born. While earlier immigrants largely originated from Northern Europe (Britain, Ireland and Germany), many of these new émigrés were from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, introducing unfamiliar languages and cultures to American society.
When World War I broke out in 1914, there were some concerns over how America’s immigrant population would respond, as many had familial ties to countries involved in the conflict. These sentiments increased when the United States formally entered the war in April 1917. Native-born Americans often saw immigrants in a negative light, perceiving them as “hyphenated Americans” who spoke little English and retained old world values. This initially appeared to reflect reality, as newly inducted recruits and draftees struggled to understand orders and prejudice and suspicion between native-born Americans and immigrants resulted in violence. The U.S. military addressed such problems by reorganizing immigrants into units with others who spoke their language and providing classes in English and American history.
On the home front, George Creel’s Committee on Public Information used an array of propaganda, especially posters, to ensure that “hyphenated Americans” became full-fledged Americans who stood behind the war effort, regardless of their home country’s stance in the war. This dual Americanization of the country’s immigration population contributed to the unified image Woodrow Wilson and his government sought to project to the Allies in Europe.
Despite American immigrants’ support for the war effort and their service on the battlefield, the U.S. government pursued new restrictions on immigration, most notably through the Immigration Act of 1924. Immigrant veterans remained proud of their contributions in World War I, however, and their wartime transition into American society helped pave the way for greater acceptance of a generation of new Americans.
SUBJECTS: U.S. History, Human Geography, Language Arts
GRADE LEVELS: 5-8, 9-12