“100 Percentism”: Nativism in WWI America

There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism…. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.

Teddy Roosevelt, speaking on Columbus Day, 1915

One of the uglier aspects of American participation in World War I was the way it unleashed xenophobic rhetoric, legislation, and even violence against immigrants. German-Americans bore the brunt of it, but Scandinavians like those who sent their children to Bethel Academy and Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota were not immune. I’ll explore how the Great War affected Swedish-Americans, including the first- and second-generation immigrants of Bethel, in my next two posts, but today I’ll provide some background.

"Remember! The flag of liberty" - 1918 propaganda aimed at recent immigrants

1918 Liberty Bonds poster aimed at recent immigrants – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-9933

Nativism was hardly new to American history (cf. Know-Nothingism), but it had received new energy with the massive surge of immigration that stretched from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War. The 1910 U.S. Census found that about 15% of the population was “foreign-born,” with most immigrants settling in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. (If the South is removed from the calculation, the share exceeds 20% for 1910.) One in four Minnesotans taking part in that census was not born in this country.

For much of American history, writes historian David Kennedy,

The country had given no sustained attention to the problem of assimilating the immigrants who streamed through the coastal ports and into the virtually empty hinterland. Confidence in the equalizing effect of abundant land, and the familiar cultural background of the immigrants themselves, combined to underwrite a national policy of laissez-faire toward immigration. The melting pot, Americans believed, would automatically fuse the various foreign elements into an acceptably homogeneous national amalgam.

But this “laissez-faire” attitude was being questioned in the years running up to the start of World War I, as origins (southern and eastern Europe) and destinations (cities, not the “closed” frontier) of immigration changed. Italian, Russian, Jewish, and other newcomers from “the strange and suspect lands southeast of the Alps and beyond the Danube and Vistula” (Over Here, p. 63) attracted the most attention from those demanding immigration reform and more intentional Americanization. “The absence of family life, which is so conspicuous among many southern and eastern Europeans in the United States,” concluded the Dillingham Commission in 1910, “is undoubtedly the influence that most effectively retards assimilation” (p. 42). But Americans whose immigrant roots extended deeper than the Civil War tended to be deeply suspicious of most all “hyphenates.”

Woodrow WilsonFear that immigrants were not wholly assimilated was one of the factors undergirding Woodrow Wilson’s decision to maintain a strict neutrality in 1914:

The people of the United States are drawn from many nations, and chiefly from the nations now at war.  It is natural and inevitable that there should be the utmost variety of sympathy and desire among them with regard to the issues and circumstances of the conflict.

Some will wish one nation, others another, to succeed in the momentous struggle.  It will be easy to excite passion and difficult to allay it.  Those responsible for exciting it will assume a heavy responsibility, responsibility for no less a thing than that the people of the United States, whose love of their country and whose loyalty to its government should unite them as Americans all, bound in honour and affection to think first of her and her interests, may be divided in camps of hostile opinion, hot against each other, involved in the war itself in impulse and opinion if not in action.

The next year, in his State of the Union address, Wilson sounded almost as xenophobic as his rival Roosevelt:

There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue. Their number is not great as compared with the whole number of those sturdy hosts by which our nation has been enriched in recent generations out of virile foreign stock; but it is great enough to have brought deep disgrace upon us and to have made it necessary that we should promptly make use of processes of law by which we may be purged of their corrupt distempers.

When war finally came in April 1917, it only inflamed such paranoia. Kennedy observes that “a campaign for accelerated ‘Americanization'” of immigrants was central to the work of the powerful Committee on Public Information. Its leader, George Creel, recruited “liberal Americanizers” like social worker Josephine Roche. But in the end,  “rank nativism, tinged often with anti-radicalism, seeped deeper and deeper into the American mind as the war progressed, carried by the current of a newly fashioned phrase: ‘100 percent Americanism.’ The 100 percenters aimed to stamp out all traces of Old World identity among immigrants” (Over Here, p. 67).

“100 percentism” took many forms, including a streak of vigilantism that resulted in the lynching of Germans and other immigrants. But much of its energy was focused on eliminating — or at least privatizing — the use of languages other than English. That’s where I’ll start my next post, when we consider how Swedish-Americans and other Scandinavian populations experienced the war.

Read the next post in this series>>




  1. […] blogging project, Bethel at War, 1914-2014, where this past week I wrote about everything from nativism during World War I (and what it meant for Swedish-Americans) to the collision of patriotism and fundraising in […]

  2. […] professor, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week investigating the experience of immigrants during World War I. And since most of the faculty and students at Bethel in 1917-18 were either born in Sweden […]

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