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Ethnic Group Complexities

Only the war could have established the fact that living in the same country does not mold the various nationalities into one nation...America is now learning its most important lesson: That it is not at all necessary for liberty, security, and prosperity of America to fuse all the nationalities here to a point where they will lose their identity entirely.  On the contrary, it is much better that they should treasure dearly the inheritance which they brought with them from the old world - their language, their songs, and the beautiful traditions of their past.

- "The Fire Beneath the Melting Pot," Daily Jewish Courier, June 5, 1918


America in 1917 was a nation in the throes of wartime mobilization.  This went far beyond mustering men for military forces.  The initial unpopular nature of the war, the threat of draft resistance, and the diversity of the United States transformed World War I into a “War for the American Mind.”(1)  In its attempt to sell the war, the United States government implemented a national propaganda campaign that utilized new mass-media communications.  The dark side of this effort was the encouragement of a society that manifested itself in mistrust and suspicion.  The nation’s immigrants were particularly targeted.  However, for far too long, historians have lumped together a variety of ethnic groups, from different areas, and with very diverse goals and different responses to the war.

Even before the United States joined the war, many ethnic groups organized to influence America’s foreign policy and homeland war-relief effort.  German and Irish Americans fought for a continuation of American neutrality.  Immigrants from the “oppressed races” of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire wanted America to join the war effort to help defeat the Empire they reviled, and were more than willing to serve in the U.S. military to help defeat the enemy.  Immigrants not eligible for the American army asked for special permission to create fighting Legions attached to the French and British armies.

Overall, ethnic patriotism in the United States during the First World War was extremely complicated.  Traditionally, historians viewed the immigrant experience as a forced assimilation in which ethnic groups surrendered their own cultures to adopt to American ideals.  However, research suggests that immigrants did not simply dispose of their old world culture to adopt the new American culture.  Instead, immigrants displayed devoted loyalty to the United States while at the same time intertwining their culture with that of their new and adopted country.   Ultimately, ethnic displays of patriotism were complex and often incorporated the language of Americanism along with ethnic cultural pride and homeland agendas.

 German and Irish

  • “He kept us out of war.” This is the re-election slogan used by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and the German and the Irish Americans living in the United States couldn’t agree more.  In fact, the two groups had been attempting to persuade the United States to continue its neutral position in World War I since the war began two years prior.  Americans of German descent represented one of the oldest and largest groups in the United States and one of the most organized and politically powerful.   
  • The National German-American Alliance was created in 1907 as an educational society with the goals to preserve German language, literature, and customs.  By 1914, over two million members had joined the Alliance, and it represented one of the most influential German ethnic groups in the United States.   
  • As the Great War continued, the German-American Alliance and German-American newspapers became increasingly concerned with the possibility of the United States entering the war on the side of the Allies.  This would mean Americans of German descent along with German immigrants would be fighting against their “brothers.”
  • Using editorials, speeches, rallies, demonstrations, resolutions, and energetic lobbyists, German Americans pressed for strict neutrality.  They argued that the British violation of “international laws” had pushed Germany into extreme countermeasures such as submarine warfare. 
  • However, after the United States joined the war effort in 1917, German-Americans supported America’s decision to join the Great War.  The National German-American Alliance decided to keep a “low profile” until the war ended, and by April 1918, the Alliance was dissolved through a membership vote.(2)
  • During the war, German Americans became the primary target of American propaganda that often led to super-patriotism.  "Hamburgers, sauerkraut, and German measles became liberty sandwiches, liberty cabbage, and liberty measles."  Many schools removed all references of Germany from their textbooks and canceled all German language courses.  City officials across the United States removed both German art and music. 
  • Worst of all, anti-German sentiment would lead to cases of anti-German mob violence and even death.
  • The Irish Americans also attempted to keep the United States out of the war effort, since they knew American would enter on the Allied side.  Most Irish saw themselves as long-time victims of the British Empire, and they protested against American favoritism toward Great Britain.  But, World War I created multiple divisions within the Irish-American community due to differing opinions among radicals, moderates, and Roman Catholic Church leaders.(3)
  • For some Irish Americans, it represented a prime opportunity for the group to prove their loyalty as citizens to the United States, as well as an opportunity to dismantle the last frontiers of nativism. 
  • Moderate Irish nationalists led by Catholic religious leaders had adopted the ideology that in order to obtain a free Irish state, they would need to gain “respect” from the United States.  They promoted temperance, condemned literature that promoted Irish stereotyping, and attempted to intertwine Catholicism with American patriotism and citizenship. 
  • For the more radical Irish Americans, American neutrality during World War I was important for Irish nationalism and their drive to obtain Ireland’s independence from Great Britain.(4)
  • Despite the efforts of both the German and Irish communities for the United States to remain neutral during the war, the U.S. Declaration of War on April 6, 1917 destroyed the remaining hope for neutrality of these two ethnic groups.

Southern and Eastern Europeans

  • Many ethnic communities living in the United States pledged their allegiance to America and demonstrated their loyalty with "resolutions, parades, and fundraisers" that were ingrained with American symbolistic and patriotic language but also emblems of ethnic pride. 
  • There were two reasons why these ethnic groups exerted so much time, money, and resources into pledging their allegiance to the United States.  First, these acts represented a response to nativism and served as an attempt to confirm immigrant loyalty.  Second, these acts also served as a median to obtain their own ethnic community goals.  For these ethnic groups, World War I presented the opportunity for these immigrant groups to shed anti-immigrant stereotypes, but also a way to push for the independence of their homelands.(5)
  • This was certainly the case for many immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Czechs, Slovaks, Jews, Poles and other immigrants who fled the Austrian-Hungarian Empire sought to persuade the United States to enter the war effort with the hope of bringing independence for their homelands.  
  • Between 1914 and 1915, a wide variety of Czech and Slovak groups appeared all across the United States including the American Committee for the Liberation of the Czech People, the Czech Pressure Bureau, Czech Sokols, the Slovak League, Slovak Catholics, and others. 
  • By 1915, many of these smaller groups consolidated to form the Czechoslovak (Bohemian) National Alliance.(6)  When the proclamation of war was signed on April 6, 1917, ethnic leaders called on the members of their communities to enlist in the armed forces.  Ethnic group recruiters used patriotic fever of the Czechs and Slovaks by using catchy slogans to entice men to join the American army: "Fall in rank! Brothers join your bothers here! All ye who bear the name of Slovak!; Fatherland, oh Fatherland! To conquer or duel!; “Seize arms and join our ranks, all ye of Czechoslovak birth!; The country calls! Prepare to act."(7)
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire continued to hold power over the Czech and Slovakian areas in Eastern Europe, but once the United States and the Austro-Hungarian Empire officially declared war, Czechs and Slovaks immigrants in America were now labeled as “enemy aliens.”  Among other things, this meant they could no longer service the U.S. military.(8)

 Foreign Legions

Czechslovak Legion

  • Once foreign-born Czechs and Slovaks were considered enemy aliens, they received sought to form a “Foreign Legion” of Czechs and Slovaks to fight with the French Army.   This Czechoslovakian Legion gained permission through the Enemy Alien Bureau, took oaths of loyalty to America and France, and pledged to free their homeland from the enemy.
  • Once the new nation of Czechoslovakia was acknowledged by the United States in September 1918, Czechs and Slovaks immigrants in America were no longer “enemy aliens” and once again willingly accepted their draft eligibility in the U.S. Army.

Polish Legion

  • Polish-Americans also believed that World War I would lead to independence of their homeland.  They organized a wide variety of fundraising efforts to assist in the cause for independence.  Poles sold flags of their native country along with “Polish Refugee Dolls” to raise money for the Polish Committee for Emergency Aid. 
  • President Wilson dedicated January 1, 1916 to the Poland war-relief effort.  Once the United States entered the war, over 138,000 Poles served in the American Army.(9)  Immigrants that were not eligible for the U.S. draft enlisted into the Polish Legion.(10)  In 1917, Polish community leaders began to search for officers of the legion in Pittsburgh.  By July 5, 1917, the response was so overwhelming that they decided they would no longer accept additional applications.  Polish doctors, lawyers, and other upper-class Poles created plans for the training of the Polish Legion as well.(11) 
  • The last obstacle that remained in the way of the Polish Legion was to persuade the United States government to formally recognize and integrate the Polish Legion into the armed forces in June 1917.  However, the Polish Legion received support from the French  to create a Polish Legion in France.  Eventually some 20,000 Polish American volunteers served in the Polish Army in France.
  • By September 1917, the U.S. government decided to allow the Polish Legion to serve coexistent with the United States armed forces.  When a soldier enlisted in the Polish Legion, they were required to sign a dual loyalty oath that read:  “I, the undersigned, declaring my readiness to fight for a united, free and independent Poland and for the honor of the Star - Spangled Banner of the United States.”(12)

 The Story of the Jewish Legion

  • Jewish communities across the United States believed that the Great War represented the opportunity to liberate the European Jews and the possibility of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  By wars end, approximately 250,000 Jews served in the United States armed forces.  Prominent Jewish leaders established the American League of Jewish Patriots in April, 1917 with the ultimate mission of promoting the enlistment of Jewish Americans into the armed forces. 
  • Like the Czechs, Slovaks, and Poles, the Jewish Americans also established their own foreign legion.  A Russian Jewish journalist, Vladimir Jabotinsky created the Jewish Legion.  After Turkey joined the Central Powers, Jabotinsky felt compelled to turn the Great War into his own personal conflict.  He believed that the only way to revive Palestine was through the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.(13)  In 1917, the War Department recognized the formation of the Jewish Legion to fight in Palestine.  In return for the Jewish war effort, Britain proclaimed that Palestine would be designated as a Jewish homeland.  Recruitment in Britain, the United States, and Palestine soon followed.  Due to such a large recruitment, the Jewish Legion was highly diversified.  The languages spoken included Hebrew, Yiddish, and English.  A wide variety of occupations such as “artisans, storekeepers, professionals, students, teachers, writers”, etc. joined the ranks of the Jewish Legion.(14)  By the end of the war, the Jewish Legion comprised of almost 10,000 soldiers, with approximately half of them being recruited from the United States.(15)  However, despite the efforts of the Jewish Legion and the victory for the Allied powers, the end of the war did not produce a Jewish homeland in Palestine as so many had hoped and Great Britain had promised.  It would take another world war, continued bloodshed and a strong Zionist Movement until Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948.(16)

 Other Attempted Legions

  • There were also a wide variety of other ethnic groups that struggled to contribute to the war effort by establishing their own ethnic legions.  Armenians within the United States attempted to create an Armenian Legion in an effort to defend Armenian Christians from the Turks in Armenia.  However, the United States government denied this request, explaining that the Armenian-American population was too small to support a legion, and that the United States was technically not at war with Turkey.  The Armenian Legion was denied twice from existence being labeled as “impracticable”.(17) 
  • The Russian American population also attempted to establish a Russian Legion.  However, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker explained that the establishment of a Russian Legion would deprive the city of Pittsburg ten thousand Russian laborers which were crucial to the region.  Because of this, the Russian Legion never came into existence, much like the Armenian Legion.(18)


During the Great War, ethnic group patriotism in America was complex. Despite an organized and harshly poignant conformity campaign, ethnic groups did not simply assimilate to the “official culture” of the dominant society, nor did they blindly demonstrate their loyalty under nativist threat.  Instead, immigrants utilized patriotic rhetoric and images by both reigning nativists and the government propaganda machine to prove their loyalty to their adopted country- America.  But at the same time, they also used image of their own traditional culture from their ethnic group to draw attention to their own international goals such as to free their homeland from Austrian-Hungarian rule or to run fundraisers to collect money to provide relief to their war-torn homeland.  Prior to the United States entry into the war, German and Irish Americans pressured the government to stay the course of strict neutrality.  Once it was clear that the United States was entering the Great War on the side of the Allies, both groups gave up their campaigns and supported the war effort. 

1. David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, p. 45.

2. Deutsche-Amerikanischen National-Bundes, pp. 3-5; Clifton James Child, German-Americans in Politics, 1914-1917, p. 4,173; Sally M. Miller, Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook, pp. 146-47. Miller, Ethnic Press, pp. 146-49.

3. Thomas J. Rowland, “Irish-American Catholics and the Quest for Respectability in the Coming of the Great War, 1900-1917,” Journal of American Ethnic History 15, no. 2 (winter, 1996); Thomas J. Rowland, “Strained Neutrality: Irish-American Catholics, Woodrow Wilson, and the Lusitania,” Eire-Ireland 30, no. 4 (winter, 1996); Miller, Ethnic Press, p. 177.

4. Rowland, “Irish-American Catholics”; Rowland, “Strained Neutrality”; Miller, Ethnic Press, p. 177.

5. Robert Zecker, “The Activities of Czech and Slovak Immigrants during World War I,” Ethnic Forum 15, nos. 1-2 (spring-fall, 1995): p. 36. (24)

6. Edvard Benes, My War Memoirs, pp. 98-101; Thomas Capek, The Cechs in America, pp. 265-78.

7. “Czech and Slovak Recruitment Postcards,” folder 152/151-158, Political Activity during World War I, The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, Philadelphia.

8. “Furlough for Czechoslovak Soldiers,” Denni Hlasatel, Sept. 14, 1918, “From the Czech Campaign Office,” Denni Hlasatel, Oct. 9, 1918.

9. Joseph A. Borkowski, City of Pittsburgh’s Part in Formation of Polish Army – World War I, 1917-1920, pp. 3-26; Joseph T. Hapak, “Recruiting a Polish Army,” pp. 25-28.

10. Hapak, “Recruiting a Polish Army,” pp. 6, 14-16, 24-28, 195; Borkowski, City of Pittsburgh’s Part, pp. 13-14.

11. From the “official Bulletin of the Committee on Public Information,” quoted in Hapak, “Recruiting a Polish Army”, p. 96.

12. Hapak, “Recruiting a Polish Army,” pp. 195, 2-7, 195-201, 141-53. 

13. Vladimir Jabotinsky, The Story of the Jewish Legion, pp. 29, 30.  See also J. H. Patterson, With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign (New York: Macmillan, 1932).  Lieutenant Colonel Patterson served as the commander of the Jewish Legion of Palestine. 

14. Elias Gilner, War and Hope, p. 166. 

15. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, pp. 103-104, 164; “The Jews in the World War,” Jewish War Veterans of the United States, Miscellaneous Papers and Pamphlets, 1938-1950, Jewish War Veterans Papers; Address of Mr. M. Newman. 

16. Jabotinsky, Story of the Jewish Legion, p.182. 

17. Office of the Chief of Staff, rpt. 13549, July 14, 1917, WDGSS RG 165, N.A.; Ibid., rpt. 14773, Jan. 4, 1918. WDGSS RG 165, N.A.

18. Office of the Chief of Staff, rpt. 14099, Oct. 16, 1917, WDGSS RG 163, N.A.

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