Somehow, the very nationalization of politics and economic life served to heighten awareness of ethnic and racial difference and spurred demands for “Americanization”—the creation of a more homogeneous national culture.
An Americanization Celebration. A photograph of a Catholic assembly on National Slavic Day, September 3, 1914, illustrates how immigrants strove to demonstrate their patriotism. Children wear Old World dress, but most of the adults are in American clothing or nurses’ uniforms.
1. What does this image suggest about whether these immigrants are seeking to assimilate into American society?
2. How does the image connect the ideas of liberty, war, and patriotism?
A 1908 play by the Jewish immigrant writer Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot, gave a popular name to the process by which newcomers were supposed to merge their identity into existing American nationality. Public and private groups of all kinds—including educators, employers, labor leaders, social reformers, and public officials—took up the task of Americanizing new immigrants. The Ford Motor Company’s famed sociological department entered the homes of immigrant workers to evaluate their clothing, furniture, and food preferences and enrolled them in English-language courses. Ford fired those who failed to adapt to American standards after a reasonable period of time. Americanization programs often targeted women as the bearers and transmitters of culture. In Los Angeles, teachers and religious missionaries worked to teach English to Mexican-American women so that they could then assimilate American values. Fearful that adult newcomers remained too stuck in their Old World ways, public schools paid great attention to Americanizing immigrants’ children. The challenge facing schools, wrote one educator, was “to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government.”
A minority of Progressives questioned Americanization efforts and insisted on respect for immigrant subcultures. At Hull House, teachers offered English-language instruction but also encouraged immigrants to value their European heritage. Probably the most penetrating critique issued from the pen of Randolph Bourne, whose 1916 essay, “Trans-National America,” exposed the fundamental flaw in the Americanization model. “There is no distinctive American culture,” Bourne pointed out. Interaction between individuals and groups had produced the nation’s music, poetry, and other cultural expressions. Bourne envisioned a democratic, cosmopolitan society in which immigrants and natives alike submerged their group identities in a new “trans-national” culture.
With President Wilson declaring that some Americans “born under foreign flags” were guilty of “disloyalty... and must be absolutely crashed,” the federal and state governments demanded that immigrants demonstrate their unwavering devotion to the United States. The Committee on Public Information renamed the Fourth of July 1918, Loyalty Day and asked ethnic groups to participate in patriotic pageants. New York City’s celebration included a procession of 75,000 persons with dozens of floats and presentations linking immigrants with the war effort and highlighting their contributions to American society. Leaders of ethnic groups that had suffered discrimination saw the war as an opportunity to gain greater rights. Prominent Jewish leaders promoted enlistment and expressions of loyalty. The Chinese-American press insisted that even those born abroad and barred from citizenship should register for the draft, to “bring honor to the people of our race.”
Graduates of the Ford English School at the conclusion of their 1916 graduation ceremony. Dressed in their traditional national costumes, they disembarked from an immigrant ship into a giant melting pot After teachers stirred the pot with ladles, the Ford workers emerged in American clothing, carrying American flags.
A 1919 Americanization pageant in Milwaukee, in which immigrants encounter Abraham Lincoln and the Statue of Liberty.