Usually lurking somewhere in today’s ongoing immigration debate is an idealized notion of times when the vast majority of those coming to our shores were Europeans. One of those periods was the early part of the 20th Century when eastern, central and southern Europeans came en masse. More than 1 ¼ million immigrants arrived in 1907 alone. By 1910 foreign-born residents accounted for almost 15 percent of the country’s total population. By 1914 one of every three Americans was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.
Yet as David Laskin explores in The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, the influx of Italians, Poles, Slavs and Jews has become a golden age thanks to the perspective of a century of history. At the time, immigrants tended to have low-paying jobs, often lived in their own sections of cities where little English was spoken and were commonly referred to as dago, kike, polack, bohunk, wop, yid or some other slur. Laskin suggests that the service of immigrants in the American military in World War I was a significant step in the American melting pot.
The Long Way Home casts that motif around the lives of eleven individuals who came to the country from places as diverse as Norway, Italy, Poland and the Russian Pale of Settlement and an American-born son of Slavic immigrants. Relying heavily on government documents, family records and memories, Laskin traces their stories from their native lands through their arrival in the U.S., their service in the U.S. armed forces in World War I and their lives after the war for those who survived. In fact, more of the book details their pre-war histories and issues confronted by the service of immigrants in the military than their experiences once the U.S. entered the war.
The fact most of the immigrants were not citizens was not the only concern about them enlisting or being drafted into the U.S. military. Some ethnic groups opposed the war for political or religious reasons. To illustrate this, the book details the stories of Hutterites from South Dakota who were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military on religious grounds. Much of the concern arose from the fact that 15 percent of the country traced their heritage to nations America was fighting and some immigrants had fathers, brothers, cousins or uncles in the armies of those nations. As a result, there were questions about not only who immigrants supported in the war but where the loyalties of immigrant draftees might lie. It was a legitimate concern for the military, given that at the peak of America’s involvement in the war nearly one in five of its soldiers were foreign-born.
The dozen individuals Laskin particularly focuses upon never doubted their loyalty. They served admirably, some died and some were honored with medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Where the book struggles a bit is largely in terms of the problems facing anyone trying to tell the personal stories decades after the fact.
Laskin, the author of The Children’s Blizzard, was able to interview only one of the dozen men he follows, an Italian immigrant who was 110 years old at the time of the interview. Although he strives to personalize the story through their individual tales, he is limited by forced reliance on government records, the stories and research of others, and family history and lore. Not all the dozen individuals left records of or are mentioned in official military accounts of the battles in which they participated. As a result, the diaries or written records of other participants “serve as kind of a proxy” for the experiences of those followed in the book. This at times means The Long Way Home feels more like a broad history of the war and America’s immigrants than one of the particulars of the lives of these individuals.
Laskin also occasionally uses language that seems a bit too lofty, leaving a sense of trying to bolster stories that are exceptional in their own right. In addition, like far too many recent popular works of history, the book would benefit from a map or two showing the locations of various places, battles or troop movements.
Yet these concerns don’t undermine the book’s thesis. The Long Way Home illustrates how military service during the war helped Americanize the immigrant soldiers — and not just by earning citizenship. From their perspective, they became and felt part of an American whole that blurred ethnic backgrounds. Their fighting units were American fighting units, no more and no less. From the perspective of native-born Americans with whom they served, immigrants became individuals rather than ethnic stereotypes. With the rigors and dangers of military service working as a great equalizer, even terms like “Woppy” moved from slur to friendly, albeit insensitive, nickname.
Laskin suggests the Americanization of these soldiers had an impact on a broader scale because part of the social contract between a country and its citizens is service in times of war. The men he follows and thousands of others held up their end of the bargain before actually having a citizenship contract with the country for which they were fighting.
In the streets of America they were aliens–but in no-man’s-land they were expected to fight as fervently as native-born Americans. And, for the most part, they did. It was that loyalty in action that changed everything. They righted the imbalance of the social contract not by protesting but, paradoxically, by submitting. Their pride in serving won them, and their families, the status they could never have gained without the war.
Yet The Long Way Home also points out an ironic result. Although their experiences may have transformed immigrant soldiers into Americans, the years following World War I raised barriers for those who may have wanted to follow in their footsteps. The Russian Revolution helped create the Red Scare and soon “everything alien was suspect.” Anti-immigrant sentiment increased and Congress limited immigration from Europe to the point where, for example, the number of immigrants from Italy dropped from more than 220,000 in 1921 to just 6,200 four years later.
That, of course, isn’t the fault of America’s immigrant soldiers. Not only did World War I fail as “the war to end all wars,” even these veterans may have felt some of the anti-immigrant backlash of the 1920s. Laskin, though, helps demonstrate how their service and loyalty were vital in making them and their descendants an integral part of the country and its future.
Sidenote: As part of his book tour, Laskin is scheduled for a talk and book signing at the Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 27, and at the Freeman Public Library in Freeman at noon on Wednesday, April 28.
It was a war in which slaughter invariably overwhelmed strategy.
David Laskin, The Long Way Home