A Special Contribution Courtesy of
Nancy Gentile Ford and Texas A&M University Press

Excerpted from:
Americans All! Foreign-Born Soldiers in World War I

Copyright 2001; published by Texas A&M University Press. Used with permission. Available in hardcover ($32.95). To order call toll-free 1-800-826-8911 (8-5, Mon-Fri) or go to http://www.tamu.edu/upress/BOOKS/2001/ford.htm

How America Trained Her Immigrant Army


Nancy Gentile Ford

Foreign-born Soldiers Learning English Using National Geographic

During the First World War, the U.S. government drafted into military service nearly half a million immigrants of forty-six different nationalities, creating an army with over 18 percent of its soldiers born in foreign countries. In addition, thousands of second-generation "immigrants" also served. This new influx of Old World soldiers challenged the cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions of the American Army and forced the military to reexamine its training procedures. The military invited Progressive reformers and leaders of various ethnic groups to assist them in formulating new military policies. As a result, these policies demonstrated a remarkable sensitivity and respect for Old World cultures while laying the foundations for the Americanization of these immigrant soldiers. Cooperation between military officers, Progressive reformers, and ethnic group leaders allowed the military to avoid a conformist path of "100 percent Americanism" and helped foster an atmosphere in which immigrants could express both pride in their ethnicity and patriotism to their newly adopted country.'

Far from harshly implementing 'Anglo-conformity" or automatically forcing the foreign-born soldier into an 'American mold," the United States military showed a remarkable sensitivity and respect for its immigrant troops. Military policies indicated a clear understanding of the connection between efficiency and high morale. While expecting loyalty from their soldiers, the military remained "mindful of the traditions" of the foreign born. War Department policies also were the result of a complex alliance with leaders from the immigrant communities and the power and strength of America's ethnic organizations. Ethnic leaders assisted in training immigrant soldiers and instilling American patriotism within their communities and servicemen, but they also championed ethnic pride and pushed for fair and just treatment of the foreign born soldiers. In addition, these leaders put pressure on the military to meet the cultural needs of the troops. The resulting military policies created an atmosphere that made dual identity and dual pride acceptable and the nonnative soldiers' duty personally easier.

. . .Public war hysteria [had] created an atmosphere of mindless fervor and a crusade for moral righteousness that knew no bounds, and immigrants faced harassment, discrimination, and even violence. Newspaper articles, cartoons, posters, and speeches fostered ethnic distrust and continued to depict immigrants in a negative and stereotypical manner, repeating the need for 100 percent conformity.

During the war, the War Plans Division of the General Staff distributed a copy of Maj. Gen. David C. Shank's The Management of the American Soldier to all officers responsible for morale, since the book contained "valuable suggestions. . , of assistance to those who have charge of the education, recreation and character building of the Army." According to Shank's book, officers should know the names of all men in their companies, treat the soldiers in the same manner they would like to be treated, discipline without nagging, and avoid destroying self-respect by instilling pride. Shank regarded efficiency as the key to the success of any officer and concluded that true efficiency came from managing men as a way of preserving harmony...

At the start of conflict, the War Department hired a number of well-known Progressive reformers, among them Raymond Fosdick (former settlement worker and New York's commissioner of accounts), Joseph Lee (president of the Playground Association of America), and Joseph Mott (secretary of the Young Men's Christian Association [YMCA]). Secretary of War Newton D. Baker had previously been a municipal Progressive reformer during his days as mayor of Cleveland. Leading social welfare organizations assisted the military in the socialization of both native-born and foreign-born troops. This included the YMCA, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Salvation Army, the Playground Association of America, the American Social Hygiene Association, and the American Library Association. The War Department also enlisted the help of the Knights of Columbus and the Jewish Welfare Board to provide for the needs of its Catholic and Jewish soldiers. Similar to their work in the civilian societies, the goal of these social welfare organizations was to keep soldiers away from negative influences such as prostitution, alcohol, and gambling and direct them to positive alternatives like sports, music, and reading. As venereal disease quickly spread through the ranks and crippled several divisions in the Allied armies, socializing American soldiers became even more imperative. Adopting a social welfare philosophy resulted in revolutionary changes within the military structure, including innovative training methods that emphasized social, educational, recreational, and character-building activities, all designed to socialize and "morally uplift" the soldiers to create an effective military.'

Normal Military Training Methods Were Not Neglected

All these factors-Progressive socialization and Americanization, the "management of men," and the new emphasis on morale-came together with the training of foreign-born soldiers during the First World War. The War Department approached the training of immigrant soldiers with a rational pragmatic approach in the "managing of men," and they also adopted social welfare techniques in socializing, Americanizing, and bolstering the morale of these foreign-born men. World War I foreign-born soldiers were part of the largest group of immigrants to arrive in the United States in its history. Between i88o and 1920, over 23 million people, primarily from southern and eastern Europe, came to the United States. They were alienated from their homelands by severe economic, political, and religious conditions and attracted to America with the promise of economic security and the hope for religious and political freedoms.

Historians traditionally portray the immigrant experience in the First World War as one of forced assimilation, ruthless xenophobia, and harsh Americanism. . .

In considering World War I, it would be wrong to assume that immigrant groups were simply accommodationists falling in step with local nativists or the U.S. government s propaganda machine. Many ethnic leaders had their own goals and agendas, and ethnic patriotism became a complex issue. John Bodnar recently examined the intricacies of public memory, commemorations, and patriotism in the twentieth century. Although his discussion on immigrants focuses primarily on the decades after the Great War, his findings help one understand the complexities of ethnic patriotism during that conflict. Bodnar found that all patriotic commemorations contain "powerful symbolic expressions-metaphors, signs, and rituals-that give meaning to competing interpretations of past and present reality."

What made the training of immigrant soldiers complex was the military's desire to both increase the morale of the foreign-born soldiers and instill American patriotism and loyalty. The military was, therefore, faced with two serious challenges that at first seemed to be practically contradictory: instilling Americanization and building morale. Ultimately, the War Department did not simply force a choice between America and one's native culture. Instead, they used Americanization methods similar to those of social welfare reformers who respected Old World ways while laying the foundations of Americanization. This required a complex alliance between military officers, Progressive reformers, and prominent ethnic leaders. New civil-military relationships forged a union between the United States military and hundreds of prominent leaders of immigrant groups who played a key role in helping define military policies concerning foreign-born soldiers.

Ethnic community leaders gave patriotic speeches, taught English, translated social hygiene literature and war propaganda material, and worked to counter enemy influences. Much of this effort had the underpinnings of American patriotism. However, these leaders participated on their own terms; they also pressured the military to recognize and meet important cultural and religious needs of the foreign-born troops and demanded fair and just treatment of the men. Immigrant leaders argued that celebrating ethnicity and meeting the cultural and religious needs of the foreign-born troops could only increase troop morale. They successfully convinced the military to grant special leave for religious holidays, secure immigrant clergymen, celebrate cultural holidays, hire foreign-speaking secretaries in hostess huts, and forbid officers to use ethnic slurs. Leaders alerted the War Department to specific problems faced by foreign-born soldiers and protested unjust treatment by officers or civilians that affected the morale of these troops. Prominent members of the ethnic communities also acted as intelligence agents in immigrant communities and in army training camps with large immigrant populations to assist the military in countering enemy influences.

Using Picture Texts to Teach English

Combined with this socialization of foreign-born troops, the military also engaged in some effort at Americanization. This included providing classes in the English language, civics, and citizenship. In a letter dated June 12, 1918, explaining the role of the FSS [Foreign-speaking Subsection of Military Intelligence], Brewer wrote that he "personally regret[ted] the use of the word Americanization,' while fully understanding the patriotic object of those who use it." Brewer concluded that the foreign-born did not like to be "patronized" and were "more readily assimilated through classes in English and American history and also in the teaching of the fundamental things which lie at the base of American citizenship." Brewer's successors, Perkins and Horgan, understood that the time spent in the development battalions was far too limited to Americanize the foreign born fully, so instead, the FSS strove to give the immigrants "a foundation upon which to build." Civilian organizations also assisted in this effort. The YMCA, in its manual of 1918, noted that "the native population" had neglected to "train" immigrants to American "standards," but also acknowledged that the native born "have not appreciate[d] sufficiently [the immigrants] standards." They, along with the CTCA, sought to assist the military and FSS with their 'Americanization work" through education. So, in addition to the typical forty-hours of military drill each week, the foreign-born also received special training.

The War Department knew that knowledge of the English language was imperative for the foreign-speaking soldier to communicate and understand military orders. This would lessen confusion on the battlefield and create a more efficient system by "saving time and labor." Initially, training-camp commanders selected an officer to head each camp school, but as thousands of immigrants poured into the training centers, the War Department asked for the assistance of a number of educational agencies. In July, 1918, Assistant Secretary of War Frederick Keppel directed the implementation of new English instruction programs for non-English-speaking soldiers. He was assisted by the Bureau of Education, the YMCA, the Jewish Welfare Board, national educational organizations, universities, bilingual soldiers, and native-born and foreign-born civilian volunteer instructors. English-language education became standardized when the War Department provided detailed instructions on the development of training-camp English schools. Immigrant soldiers attended three hours per day of English classes as part of their mandatory military duties. This instruction normally lasted four months, although some programs were shorter.

The War Department provided a "vocabulary and phrase book" entitled Topics for Instruction in Enlisted Men Schools based on the teaching methods designed by Capt. Emery Bryan, intelligence officer at Camp Upton, New York. This lesson plan included military-related vocabulary words that taught English while giving particular military instruction such as reveille, inspection, drilling, marching, saluting, double time, officer recognition, and other necessary information. The National War Work Council of the YMCA provided school supplies and publications such as the Spelling Book for Soldiers. The military also utilized methods developed by the Reverend Dr. Peter Roberts of the Industrial Department of the International Young Men's Christian Association and special textbooks such as The Soldier's Text Book, by Mrs. Cora Wilson Stewart, and the Camp Reader by J. Duncan Spaeth (educational director at Camp Wheeler). The YWCA's National War Work Council recommended Robert's English Reader for more advanced students and scheduled classroom space in huts and auditoriums. The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Education circulated its pamphlet Teaching English to Foreigners to aid camp educators. The War Department instructed teachers to impress upon immigrant soldiers in development battalions that they were not "segregated for any fault, but only to give them a deserved opportunity."

While many German and Austrian soldiers joined the U.S. Army prior to the war, others were mistakenly drafted once the fighting began. The War Department asked all camp commanding generals to interview these soldiers to find out if they wanted to remain in service and to evaluate their loyalty. Pvt. Charles J. Gottwald of the 77th Division wrote an emotional letter (through military channels) to the adjutant general of the army. Gottwald, who took out his first papers in January, 1913, and took the oath of allegiance to the United States on September 14, 1917, wrote: "I made no reservations of any kind when I took this oath of allegiance; I stand willing in view of the fact that war is existing between Austria Hungary and United States, to take again the oath of allegiance to the United States; there is nothing in the country of my birth to cause me to have any hesitation in taking up arms against the government or the subject of that country. In view of the above facts, I pray that as soon as may be, I be granted by final papers establishing me as a citizen of the United States and I further pray that I be allowed to remain in the military service of the United States."

During World War I, a German officer [had] noted with some complexity the ethnic diversity of the American Army: "Only a few of the troops are of pure American origin: the majority are of German, Dutch and Italian parentage. But these semi-Americans...fully feel themselves to be true-born sons of their [adopted] country." Despite the acute perception of this officer, he was wrong on one very important point. These men were not "semi-Americans," they were "Americans All!"

Sources and thanks: The author's assistance and that of Wendy Lawrence of Texas A&M University Press were greatly appreciated. Herb Stickel provided the image of mass calisthenics. MH

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