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How ‘Hyphenated Americans’ Won World War I

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 ancestry 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. Senator 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 ukewere 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.” ...

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