Ethnicity and War

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Ethnicity and War. Throughout American history, war has often had a strong Americanizing influence on ethnic groups, increasing each group's acceptability and promoting assimilation and acculturation. Support for the war effort by the ethnic group itself has been well received by the majority. But assimilation and acculturation usually mean the erosion of the cultural and social life of the immigrant group. In addition, during wartime, pressures to conform have often become oppressive, and discrimination against immigrants—and sometimes ethnic groups—from countries with which the United States is at war has at times been appalling.

Although non‐English immigrants to America during the eighteenth century helped legitimize the ideal of a composite national identity, in the succeeding century pressures for cultural conformity increased, partly as a result of America's wars. The greatest pressures on cultural diversity occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when identity was most narrowly and rigidly conceived and group loyalties the most suspect. Since World War I, the United States has moved toward less rigidly defined ethnic and racial boundaries and a more inclusive sense of national identity, with the notable exceptions of the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the increase of ethnic and racial tensions during the Vietnam War.

During the colonial period, the homogeneity resulting in part from the English cultural background of most colonists and the common dangers encountered in the New World began to change by the eighteenth century. As the frontier moved westward, much of the fighting was done by recent non‐English immigrants who joined expeditions or settled in frontier areas. Engagement in warfare, particularly during the French and Indian War of 1754–63, drew many new immigrants into the political and social life of the general community. At the same time, the English language, customs, and dress became more common and new heroes, traditions, and memories were created.

The Revolutionary War was even more significantly Americanizing. Despite a greater tendency among non‐English immigrants toward loyalism or neutrality than among those of English ancestry, immigrants responded during the crisis to their immediate situation rather than to Old World loyalties or antipathies. The Revolution resulted in increased immigrant participation in the political and economic life of the new nation; it also furthered geographic mobility, and, with France as an ally, lessened anti‐Catholicism. Ties with Europe were disrupted, snapping religious and cultural bonds, and leading to a further decline of European languages and the ethnic press. Although the Revolution was conceived of largely in ideological, not ethnic, terms, it did legitimize the idea of a composite national identity and gave new emphasis to the concept of America as an asylum for oppressed peoples. Group identity, however, was discouraged, and a common and effective “melting pot” was assumed.

The Mexican War in the mid‐1840s coincided with an emerging nativist movement and heightened suspicions of Roman Catholics, although the winning of the war resulted in the addition of a large Spanish‐speaking Catholic minority to the United States. In the 1850s, tensions over the issue of slavery led to the decline of nativism, and immigrant groups largely reacted to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 with strong sectional loyalties. In addition to patriotism, gratitude for the benefits of living in the United States, and a relative lack of local attachments, Northern immigrants responded to recruiting appeals, bounties offered, and the trade depression at the beginning of the war. Initial British hostility toward the Union cause heightened Irish support in the North for the war, and Irish American nationalists saw it as a way to further the Fenian movement to overthrow British rule in Ireland.

Strong immigrant support for the war—except for a minority of Catholic Democrats—also led to new prestige and improved status for ethnic groups in the North. Because their patriotism was often expressed collectively, many groups remained distinct and conscious of their identity and separateness. Latent hostility toward the foreign‐born would again be triggered by a new wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s, but the immediate postwar period was one of relative calm. In the South, foreign‐born participation in the war and a postwar need for labor led to attempts to recruit European migration to the southern states. In general, immigrants were seen as supporters of the existing order, not threats to stability.

During the Spanish‐American and Philippine Wars, the pressure to conform was great, especially for Catholics. There was, however, a greater reluctance among ethnic groups than among the general population to support American entry into the Spanish‐American War, and a greater tendency to be more critical of American imperialism, especially in the Philippines. In some instances, intraethnic issues played a role, such as the realization by the largely Irish clerical hierarchy that an appeal for unity would help to undercut the “Cahenslyite” controversy, in which non‐English‐language groups were seeking more autonomy within the Catholic Church. Much stronger reactions occurred among immigrants when war broke out in Europe in 1914: whatever choices the United States might make would raise strong ethnic feelings and loyalties, particularly among immigrants from the central powers and among subject groups from the Habsburg Empire.

The strength of ethnic feelings, combined with fears of the “new immigration” from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the dislocating effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization, led to a movement to “Americanize” the immigrant and thus dissipate group loyalties. Particularly unsettling, as the United States was drawn closer to the Allied cause, were anti‐British sentiments and calls for neutrality by German Americans and Irish Americans. After American entry into the war in April 1917, a wave of hysteria against all things German engulfed the nation, resulting in a permanent weakening of German culture and identity in America. Although groups not from the central powers found increased acceptability during the war by displaying “100% Americanism,” this did not protect them after the armistice as a wave of antiradicalism, often targeting aliens, swept the nation; a renewed and virulent nativist movement emerged by the early 1920s.

The war strengthened the Zionist movement in the United States, and for groups such as Italian Americans, resulted in the creation of a hyphenated national identity. Such group strengthening, however, occurred within the larger context of enhanced loyalties to the American nation. The increased visibility of ethnic groups made the native‐born more aware of Old World ties and of the fact that American foreign policy inevitably affected the social order. Although the Americanization campaign, which continued after the war, aimed at eradicating foreign languages and customs, it did emphasize education and vocational training to the benefit of ethnic groups. Illiteracy declined during the war years, secondary education became almost universal, and higher education also expanded after the war. The excesses of the Americanization movement led liberals largely to reject the ideal of thorough assimilation and the melting pot, and concepts of cultural relativism began to emerge.

In the late 1930s, uneasiness about the loyalties of ethnic minorities, increased as Americans reacted to the activities of the German American Bund, to a suspected “fifth column” in the United States, and to the open sympathy for Mussolini shown by many Italian Americans. Pro‐Fascist sentiment was always limited, however, and almost disappeared as the horrors of Nazi Germany became better known. Most immigrants increasingly favored aid to the Allies, and the attack on Pearl Harbor created unprecedented unity among all Americans.

World War II, was perceived primarily in ideological rather than ethnic, racial, or class terms, as reactions to the Axis powers led Americans to reemphasize a common unity based on such shared values as democracy, individual liberties, and respect for minority rights. Ethnic groups were represented on the Common Council for American Unity to foster cooperation, and even substantial tension and violence, such as the “zoot suit” riots of servicemen against Mexican Americans in Los Angeles in 1943, did not disturb a generally harmonious pattern of ethnic relations. Wartime prosperity also muted tensions.

Mobility during the war, especially into the military and to cities to join the urban labor force, brought previously isolated groups into the mainstream. Mexican Americans, for example, were drawn out of a rural agricultural and urban barrio existence. In response to an acute manpower shortage, Mexican “braceros” were recruited for agricultural labor, creating an emigration pattern that would continue after the war as large numbers migrated to cities to work in industries. Italian Americans, especially after being removed from the “enemy alien” category on Columbus Day, 1942, also moved rapidly toward assimilation. German Americans experienced much less hostility than in World War I, as they were now better assimilated and politically and economically important, and as Americans distinguished between the Nazi regime and the German people. The same distinction was not made about Japanese Americans, however, as more than 110,000, two‐thirds of whom were American citizens, were removed from the West Coast and incarcerated in ten relocation centers in isolated parts of the western, mountain, and plains states. Despite such treatment, the large majority of Japanese Americans remained steadfastly loyal to the United States; a majority returned to the Pacific Coast after the war, although others located elsewhere. Fortunately, prejudice and discrimination against Japanese Americans decreased markedly in the postwar years.

The 1930s pattern of discouraging the entrance of refugees from Nazi Germany continued during and after the war; only 21,000 were admitted during the war years, about 10 percent of those eligible under existing quotas. In January 1944, President Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board, but by then it was too late to save many Jews from the Holocaust.

The ideological orientation of the war years intensified during the Cold War, and anticommunism never stimulated a strong nativist movement. Senator Joseph McCarthy targeted the establishment rather than the foreign‐born, and was even accused of being a “crypto Jew” because two of his closest aides were Jewish. Many immigrants from Eastern Europe were fervently against Soviet expansionism, thus increasing their acceptability. Richard Polenberg has argued that McCarthy's rise to power would not have been possible had it not been for the frustrations of fighting a limited war in Korea, but the Korean War did not create anti‐alien sentiments or inordinate civil tensions, in part because of its brevity.

Unlike the war in Korea, the Vietnam War tore at the fabric of American society and created sharp racial, ethnic, and class cleavages. Although the war most notably affected African Americans, leading to the assertion of Black Power and rejection by blacks of racism at home and imperialism abroad, it also called into the question the ideological consensus of the World War II and Cold War years, resulting in the reassertion of ethnic particularism and a promotion of the cohesiveness of the ethnic group as a model. Americans felt obliged to accept a large number of Vietnamese refugees, although attempts to disperse them throughout the country failed, and they migrated to states like California that had significant Asian communities and generous welfare benefits. The continuing turmoil in Southeast Asia after the American exodus prolonged the refugee crisis.

A general trend toward lessening ethnic pressures and tensions since the 1920s is heartening. It has been argued that, given the right conditions, hysteria and a subsequent antiradical scare such as took place in the World War I era could reoccur. It is to be hoped that the pessimists are wrong and that the nation will finally accept its increasingly multicultural nature.
[See also Economy and War; Ethnicity and Race in the Military; Holocaust, U.S. War Effort and the; Internment of Enemy Aliens; Japanese‐American Internment Cases; Labor and War; Race Relations and War.]


Richard Polenberg , One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States Since 1938, 1980.
Winston A. Van Horne and Thomas V. Tonnesen, eds., Ethnicity and War, 1980.
John Whiteclay Chambers II , To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America, 1987.
William L. Burton , Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union's Ethnic Regiments, 1988.
Maldwyn Allen Jones , American Immigration, 1960; 2nd ed. 1992.

Bruce White