How foreign-born soldiers were integral to the United States’ WWI victory


Still an issue today, history provides lessons on the difficulties many groups have faced being accepted as “real” Americans, and being acknowledged for their contributions to the country. The New York Times recently published an article by historian Dr. Geoffrey Wawro on his new book Sons of Freedom: The Forgotten American Soldiers Who Defeated Germany in World War I. The story provides a fascinating look at how “Hyphenated Americans” – a term for certain foreign-born immigrants and their children – became integral to the U.S. military at a crucial time in world history.

Between the Civil War and the early decades of the 20th century, the Unite States’ population saw a relative decrease in the British and German majority and an increase of Italians, Hispanics, and Slavic people in particular. The derogatory term “Hyphenated American” was coined for ethnic groups who were considered non-white and foreign-born, and sometimes applied to the children of immigrants as well. The arrival of these groups was resented by the once-majority “white American” group. These new immigrants were looked down on as being inferior and not qualified to be “real” Americans. They were accused of taking jobs from real Americans as well, a phenomenon that modern Americans should recognize all too well.

Before the breakout of World War I, no less than Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson questioned the loyalty of Hyphenated Americans, and anti-immigrant sentiment was common and nasty, and ethnic slurs flourished. When the U.S. got involved in World War I, William Randolph Hearst used his publishing empire to shame “foreign slackers” into joining the military so “All-American boys” wouldn’t do all the fighting, while others framed the military as a path to assimilation. In the end, roughly 25% of recruits were foreign-born.

The Germans mocked this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual army they were facing. They called them “half-Americans” and attempted to use the tactic of divide and conquer, assuming diversity meant disunity and their enemy would fall apart. Even though many soldiers spoke in their native tongues, making communication and command difficult, their American identity ultimately proved durable, and their loyalty helped the United States and its allies win the war against German domination in Europe.

Today Americans that speak languages besides English or who are considered non-white are still targets of discrimination and inequality. For the first time in over a decade, the army has not met its target for enlistment, falling short by 6,500. Could the Trump administration’s policies toward immigrants and their children be one of the reasons?

For Dr. Wawro’s fascinating article, please see: