In 1916, while a deadly war raged in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson successfully ran for reelection on the slogan, "He Kept Us out of War." But by April 1917, however, events had pulled the United States into what was then called the Great War, a conflict that Wilson subsequently declared a crusade to "make the world safe for democracy." Reacting to the unpopular nature of the war, the growing peace movement, the fear of radicalism, and the ethnic diversity of the nation, the U.S. government created a high-pitched propaganda effort designed to instill patriotism, promote the war, and reaffirm the cultural hegemony of traditional white Protestant values. The campaign fueled a jingoistic fervor that escalated into mass hysteria and vigilantism. The result was a harsh Americanization movement that demanded nothing less than total conformity. Especially targeted were ethnic groups from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Once the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the government's new propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), hired an impressive group of writers, historians, photographers, and entertainers to sell the war to the American public using innovative advertising and marketing methods and the new film medium to promote loyalty and conformity by bombarding the nation with millions of official bulletins, pamphlets, and news releases, as well as articles and ads in mass magazines. Over 150,000 people served on CPI committees. The Liberty Loan campaign capitalized on the patriotic fervor with posters that draped the nation's cities and towns, presenting the purchase of war bonds as a demonstration of loyalty. A team of 75,000 Four Minute Men gave short, passionate patriotic speeches, and volunteer groups such as the American Protective League joined the small army of volunteers promoting the war. Some went to extremes in their attempt to unify the nation, keeping a watchful eye on their fellow Americans, reading private mail, bugging telephones, breaking into homes, and physically assaulting those suspected of disloyalty.
Throughout the country, nativists called upon the foreign-born to prove their allegiance to America. Consequently, the immigrant experience of World War I was one of oppression, forced assimilation, ruthless xenophobia, and harsh one-hundred-percent Americanism. The CPI directed much of its propaganda efforts at immigrants through foreign language materials designed to
strip them of their native cultures and loyalties. Public schools instructed the children of immigrants in "proper" Anglo-Saxon values and traditions and strongly encouraged them to take their lessons home. Ethnic presses fell under the sharp inspection of the U.S. government and faced financial burdens placed on them by the U.S. Postal Service, which demanded the right to scrutinize translations prior to publication. Many foreign presses shut down under the strain. Eventually, the U.S. government also forced all immigrants born in countries under the Central Powers to register with the government, labeling them enemy aliens. In this emotionally charged atmosphere of superpatriotism, the voices of the foreign-born, like those of radicals and pacifists, were effectively stifled.
Although many ethnic groups became victims of harassment, German Americans were particularly targeted. Many school boards instructed students to cut all references to Germany out of their textbooks and canceled classes in the German language, which was now considered treasonous. Libraries removed books on Germany, officials in many cities forbade public orchestras to play Bach and Beethoven, and German art was removed from some city museums. Hamburgers, sauerkraut, and German measles became liberty sandwiches, liberty cabbage, and liberty measles. For many German Americans, war hysteria resulted in harassment, loss of employment, violence, and even death.
During the war, many ethnic communities demonstrated loyalty to their adopted nation with parades, speeches, fundraisers, and resolutions. Although many immigrants must have felt coerced into expressing loyalty to the United States, the situation was complex. Many immigrants, especially those from territories under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, genuinely supported the war effort. Many of them had fled the tyranny of the empire and sought freedom in America. They hoped that a war against the Central Powers would finally free their homelands from oppressive rule.
The foreign-born also expressed their loyalty through military service, and eventually almost one in every five soldiers in the U.S. army was foreign-born; the U.S. army included soldiers from forty-six different nations. With America's declaration of war, leaders from the Czech-, Slovak-, Polish-, and Jewish-American communities encouraged members of their ethnic groups who were not eligible to join the American military to join the Czechoslovak, Polish, or Jewish legions attached to the French and British armies.
At the end of the war, the hysteria that made so many immigrants suspect did not simply end. The war's end marked a period of upheaval. The excitement and permissiveness of the Roaring Twenties challenged traditional Victorian morality. Modernity did battle with traditionalism. The social stress and the zeal of war gave way to new fervors and culminated in the Red Scare, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, fundamentalism, labor strikes, and prohibition. Anti-immigration hysteria fueled by postwar uncertainty and the turbulence of the 1920s pushed Congress into enacting the 1924 National Origins Act. This unequal quota system dramatically reduced the number of immigrants allowed into the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe, all but closing the door to future immigration. World War I and its aftermath helped usher in dramatic changes in American identity, culture, and society.
Ford, Nancy Gentile. Americans All: Foreign-Born Soldiers in World War I. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860–1925 (1955). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Nancy Gentile Ford
"Americanization." Americans at War. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/americanization
"Americanization." Americans at War. . Retrieved April 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/defense/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/americanization
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