From the Melting Pot—An American Race

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"From the Melting Pot—An American Race"

Liberty 14 July 1945

Some of you may remember my column long ago about the cemetery at Guadalcanal.1 I have thought about that cemetery many times here at home when I have heard people say "Perhaps Hitler was not so far wrong in his attitude toward the Jews. They are shysters; they do not take their full part in the war"; or "Gee, when this war is over we will not have any more wops coming into this country." The "wops" referred to may be Italians, Russians, or people from any one of the Balkan countries. "You know the Negroes can't fight; all they can do is drive a truck," is another comment; or, "All the Catholics, the Irish Catholics especially, think they run this country." You may also hear someone say, "The Japanese-Americans are making a good record in Italy, but you can never trust these guys—you can't know what they are thinking about. They have Oriental minds."

Invariably such remarks bring that Guadalcanal cemetery before my eyes. The chapel there was built by the natives and given to the men of the United States. The altar, the cross, and the altar ornaments were carved by the natives. From the rafters hang the symbols they have preserved in their own religion—the fish and the birds which represent life to them. The flag of the United States flies in front of the chapel, and outside, row on row, are the graves of the men who were killed that all the people of the United States might be free.

As I walked along the rows of crosses, I saw adjoining graves of a man of the Jewish faith, a Catholic boy, and a Protestant. On each grave hangs the little tin dish, once part of his mess kit and now decorated by his comrades—the only sign of their affection they could leave. Some of them had scratched doves or candles with their knives, along with a religious verse, but all the dishes bear such tributes as: "A grand guy," "A great pal." The names of his pals are all signed for everyone to see.

Those names show plainly the origin of these U.S. soldiers. They came from Russia, Germany, the Balkan states, France, the Scandinavian countries, Great Britain, from every race in the world. Every religion is represented—a silent testimony to the fact that American boys fought side by side, and lie side by side in death. The place of their origin and their religion make them no less martyrs who kept their country free. All of them deserve equal honor from us, and all of them rise up to chide us when we mouth the utterances that breed disunity in our homeland.

In this country we have meant to be the great melting pot of the world. Wave after wave of immigration came to our shores. All of us, either ourselves or our ancestors, came from foreign lands. The only people who "belong" here are the Indians.

The variety of our backgrounds has been one of our great strengths. We owe our continued vigor over a long period of years to the adventurous blood which has been pumped into our veins. People who stay at home, too dispirited to get out and seek something better than they have known before, do not come to new worlds. For many generations we kept on adding pioneer strength and character that enriched our original stock.

Even the Negro slaves who came here against their will brought us a strong and adventurous spirit. It took not only health but character and a will to live to survive the conditions under which they were brought to this country, and their years of hardship and bondage. To find people of the Negro race emerging from slavery with the ability to adapt and improve themselves quickly is a sign that their ancestors who came originally were strong and vigorous, with latent powers far beyond what we might have expected.

It is estimated that the immigration from 1776 to 1820 did not exceed 250,000, but by 1840 it was nearly 100,000 for a single year. By 1850 it was just short of 400,000.

Between 1900 and the outbreak of the first World War, immigration soared to unheard-of figures, reaching an all-time high of nearly 1,300,000 in 1907. During the war period, immigration dropped to a little over 100,000 in 1918, but quickly recovered to 800,000 in 1920, and about 700,000 in 1924. Then it was cut sharply by law.2

But our melting pot has not melted too successfully. Instead of all being welded together into one American race, we find, despite occasional intermarriage, settlements which retain the characteristics of the mother country: Little Italys; Little Polands or Irelands; districts where primarily Jewish people or Negro people are found; German cities; Norwegian and Danish settlements in rural areas. All these make us conscious of our differences; there is not that complete flowing together and obliteration of old lines of difference which we should like to see.

The most optimistic among us will have to agree that there are barriers which keep us from integrating and intermarrying as rapidly as possible.

Let us consider what these barriers are.

Perhaps by far the greatest is that of language. Children born here of foreign parents go to public school and learn English; sometimes this erects a greater barrier between them and their parents than the one which separates them from youngsters of different backgrounds.

But there is one thing which they do not acquire in schools. That is the foreign names to which they are born and which they take to school and on into life. These names often segregate people as much as does color or religion, and keep them tied to their particular backgrounds and the homelands from which they came.

This question of a name is not just one of identification with a background or group, as Polish-Americans or German-Americans or Italian-Americans, for many men are proud of their origin and do not want to lose identity with it, but it has an economic facet as well. A boy may have graduated from the best college in the country, but when he goes looking for a job, he will find a foreign and unpronounceable name a handicap. The boy with the easy name, given approximately the same qualifications, gets the job.

Perhaps this is one of the very first things that we ought to consider in our effort to become actually one people.

Perhaps when a baby is born on our soil or when an individual becomes naturalized, he ought to be given the opportunity, if he desires it, to change his foreign name to its American equivalent. Nowadays, however, anyone doing this is liable to find himself accused of trying to hide his background and origin. What is wrong about changing Lowenstein to Livingston, Rabinowitz to Robinson, or any of these comparatively foreign names to a simpler version? Unkind things are said about people who change their names, yet we should welcome and honor people willing to take this step toward complete Americanization. It may prove to be a most important factor in bringing about a more unified American people.

Many and many a time in this country a romance has been disrupted when one or the other was reluctant to bring the new friend home to the family circle because of his foreign name. His looks were not against him, but his name awoke distrust. Obviously he belonged to a foreign group and therefore he might not be welcome in the girl's family group. If the name had not kept these young people apart, they might have come to know each other better and understood their respective backgrounds. Thus the way to romance might have been open.

This is a little thing, but it has its effect on marriage and keeps different groups from integrating. Of course love can conquer obstacles, but I want to point out that a foreign name unnecessarily hampers the beginnings of friendship.

Some might prefer to retain their own names under all circumstances. For them the way is clear. But to others it may seem obvious common sense to adopt an Americanized name as soon as possible. Having once Americanized our names, we can count, I think, on our schools and our communities doing much toward building a uniform pattern of living.

The second obstacle to amalgamation in the United States lies, of course, in the customs and habits in the home. School friendships will wipe out some of these differences or help the family to fit its habits, arts, and skills into its new life. Its foreign customs will become Americanized as they fit into the new pattern.

The American Christmas, for instance, is a curious mixture of habits and customs brought here from all over the world. People have often kept their Old World customs, but have adapted them to the American situation.

Probably the most difficult of barriers is the difference in religious beliefs. Our Constitution was based on the concept that we should all practice our religious faiths in complete freedom. So it is peculiarly American to insist that even if people of different faiths marry, all of them shall have a right to practice their religion in the way they consider fitting.

This theory is so deeply ingrained in most Americans that even people wholly ignorant of certain religious tenets are still willing to concede others a right to religious freedom. I think the only real danger of our curtailing religious rights lies in the possibility that some of our church groups might come to wield too much influence in the nation's political and economic life.3 I think that would provoke very serious opposition because of the strong feeling in this country that the church should confine itself to spiritual matters, leaving affairs of government and economy entirely free from church influence or domination.

Looking at the factors which seem to be barring us from making one nation out of our curiously variegated background, I think we will find our real obstacles are few indeed.

Liberty 22 (14 July 1945): 17, 89.

1. ER visited the cemetery on Guadalcanal on September 16, 1943, during her wartime tour of American bases and hospitals in the South Pacific. September 23, she told readers of My Day:

The natives of Guadalcanal completed a week ago the chapel which stands near the graves and it is a labor of love. The design of the matting on the sides and roof is intricate and beautiful. They have made candlesticks for the altar from young bamboo stalks, the cross carved of wood inlaid with mother of pearl is reversible, in order to be useable for Protestants or Catholics, since all faiths use this chapel. Many Jewish boys lie side by side with those of other faiths. As you read what their buddies have written, it brings home forcibly that the important thing is neither your nationality nor the religion you professed, but how your faith translated itself in your life.

A flag waves over the cemetery. Someday grass will grow, palms will wave in the breeze and cast their shade over the white crosses and it will be peaceful here. I think, however, the real memorial to show the love we bore for those who lie here, must be built where we live by the way in which we make our lives count. We must build up the kind of world for which these men died. They may never have put it into words, but I think they wanted a world where no one is hungry or in want for the necessities of life as they saw them.

I am sure they wanted freedom and opportunity, but I question whether for many of them the results of opportunity would have been measured only by the success in acquiring this world's goods. Too many soldiers have discovered that the things which bring them happiness cannot always be bought with money. Long ago a man told me the big thing men got out of a war was the sense of shared comradeship and loyalty to each other. Perhaps that is what we must develop at home to build the world for which our men are dying (MD, 23 September 1943).

2. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 restricted immigration and imposed annual quotas that greatly favored northern Europeans over those seeking to immigrate from southern and eastern Europe. The act allotted no quota to the Japanese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 already denied admission to the Chinese (RCAH, 361, 536, 781).

3. ER particularly feared the political and economic influence of the Roman Catholic Church. In July 1949 her strong stand against federal aid to private and parochial schools provoked a major public confrontation with New York Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman (Lash, Years, 156-67).

On Martin Niemöller, Part 1

ER had admired Pastor Martin Niemöller, whose 1937 detention for criticizing Hitler's interference with the Confessing Church made him a symbol of anti-Nazi heroism. She had helped to publicize his story in the 1940 anti-Nazi film, Pastor Hall, which her son James distributed in the United States.1 Yet her opinion of him changed dramatically after the June 5, 1945, press conference in Naples, Italy, where he admitted that he had volunteered to serve the German navy "in any capacity," declared that "the greatest shortcoming of the Weimar Republic was that it never could impose authority on the German People, who longed for such authority," and, after stating that as "a churchman he was not interested in politics," refused to denounce Nazi policies.

When Niemöller and his fellow detainees argued that "Germany is unsuited to any form of democratic government so far tried in western countries," he became a litmus test for the reconstruction of Germany.2 His many admirers saw him as a martyr who had suffered for speaking out against Hitler, while his detractors never forgot his early collaboration with the National Socialists and viewed his calls for forgiveness as nothing more than asking the world to forget the crimes of the Germans.

When ER chose to make her opposition public in My Day, she received stinging criticism from his supporters.

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From the Melting Pot—An American Race

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From the Melting Pot—An American Race