“Are You Loyal?”: An Immigrant School Faces “100 Percent Americanism”

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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, 19151

Nativism was hardly new to American history, but it received new energy from 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,” 20% if the South is excluded from the calculation. One in four Minnesotans taking part in that census was not born in this country.2

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.3

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

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” attracted the most attention from those demanding immigration reform and more intentional Americanization.4 “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.”5 But Americans whose immigrant roots extended deeper than the Civil War tended to be deeply suspicious of most all “hyphenates.”

Fear that immigrants were not wholly assimilated was one of the factors undergirding Woodrow Wilson’s decision to maintain a strict neutrality as their mother countries went to war in July-August 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.6

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.7

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.”8

From the Edison Park community in Chicago, 1917 – Library of Congress

German-Americans, of course, bore the brunt of the nativist furor unleashed by the declaration of war. (Lynching was not unknown.) But groups like the Dutch who sent their children to Calvin College and the Swedes who patronized Bethel Academy and Seminary did not escape the notice of the “100 percenters.” As “hyphenates” who persisted in speaking a tongue that sounded Germanic, they ran headlong into a first in American history: an official, organized opposition to the use of any language other than English.

During the war about twenty states moved to limit the public use of German — and other languages. Iowa’s ban even extended to church services. “People weep,” grieved one Mission Covenant pastor, “because the Word of God has been taken from them and we are not able to communicate the Gospel in English.” Dedicated as he was to demonstrating that Swedes were model immigrants, University of Minnesota historian George Stephenson lamented that “…the patriotic zeal of the governor, who on his own responsibility issued a proclamation forbidding public worship in a foreign tongue, defeated its purpose by arousing a spirit of opposition to the government. Its effect was purely negative: it united the various racial groups, regardless of previous sympathies, in a determination to withstand the assault on what they believed to be their rights.”9 Across the border in Minnesota, meanwhile,

all foreign-language newspapers were required to submit to official scrutiny all materials related to American foreign policy, until it could be established that they followed the “patriotic” line. The stance of the Swedish-American governor of the state, Joseph A.A. Burnquist, and his Committee [sic, Commission] of Public Safety probably had a chilling effect on many who had previously used the immigrant languages both privately and publicly — including members of his own ethnic group.10

Swedish pioneers in North Dakota, 1888

Swedish immigrants in North Dakota, 1888 – Library of Congress

But easy as it is, as Stephenson warned, “to brand all measures indorsed [sic] by the foreign-born, of whatever nationality, un-American and even disloyal,”11 it is also easy to forget this fact: before April 1917 (and even after, in a few cases), Swedish-Americans overwhelmingly opposed American entry into the war and were far more likely to sympathize with Germany than with its opponents.

“This was hardly surprising,” points out Arnold Barton, since

Swedes were accustomed to regard the Germans as a closely kindred people and Germany as the home of Martin Luther and the true Evangelical faith, of poets and philosophers, musicians and scientists. Army officers and engineers, scholars and artists, industrialists and labor union leaders could all find inspiration in Germany. All could agree, moreover, that a strong Germany was Europe’s bastion against Sweden’s ancient enemy, the empire of the Russian tsars, oppressor of Sweden’s former domains in the Baltic Provinces and Finland. In Swedish eyes, the war appeared—initially at least—above all as the crusade of Europe’s civilized heartland against the forces of Eastern barbarism.12

For example, one week before Woodrow Wilson formally called on Americans to remain “impartial in thought, as well as action,” Minnesota’s largest Swedish newspaper mused about a different kind of alignment:

Russia is Sweden’s traditional enemy, the most treacherous and deceitful of all nations. If our Fatherland cannot remain neutral, an alliance with Germany is the most natural thing, since Sweden has so much in common with her — religion and culture, science and religion… For this reason Germany is a friend of Sweden; while history testifies to the fact that Russia has never been friendly except when her selfish interests could be advanced. It would be better to form an alliance with Germany than with Russia, with the knout or Siberia as possibilities for the future.13

Statements like this led Swedish papers on the other side of the 49th parallel, whose government had quickly joined Britain in declaring war, to call for boycotts of the “German-crazed” Swedish press of Minneapolis.14

Germanophile (but not Russophobe) sentiments waned after the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, but that event also caused the Swedish immigrant press to argue ever more strongly for American neutrality. When Theodore Roosevelt called for war, another Minneapolis paper, Svenska Folkets Tidning, resorted to English to make clear its horror:

As long as Roosevelt was president we stood by him and even admired him, but since he became dictator and agitator, we have no regard for him. We thank God that he is not president now, during these troublesome times. If a poor foreigner had written such articles as Roosevelt has written lately in the magazines, then Roosevelt himself would declare war against such foreigner…

Despite “the almost incurable inclination of the Swedes to vote” for his party, Roosevelt’s warmongering led most of them to support Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 election.15

Even when the Germans’ resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare (and the fall of the tsarist autocracy in Russia) led Wilson to opt for war in spring 1917, Swedes continued to argue for neutrality. As late as the end of March 1917, the Mission Covenant paper, Missionsvännen, asked, “Why should our boys… be sent out to battlefields for the sake of European intrigues and for the protection of greedy militarists’ interests?”16 One day after Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, twelve Mission Covenant pastors sent a joint telegram to Washington: “Humanity can not be helped nor our rights and honor vindicated by dragging our country into the war in order to help one violator of international law and American rights punish the other.”17

Charles Lindbergh, Sr. and Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in 1917

From his July 1917 book Why Is Your Country at War?, Rep. Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. – with Charles, Jr. (ten years away from his famous flight)

In the debate in the House of Representatives, Ernest Lundeen claimed that Minneapolis voters opposed the war ten to one. In voting no to the declaration of war, Lundeen was joined by three colleagues representing largely German-American districts in Minnesota; six in the delegation voted yes. That the resolutely anti-war Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. only narrowly lost the state’s gubernatorial election the following year to the vociferously pro-war Burnquist suggests to Arnold Barton “That many [Swedish Americans], if not most, kept their heads throughout the wartime hysteria….”

But George Stephenson unsurprisingly concluded that among that population “the response to the call of duty was as whole-souled and hearty as it was from those whose ancestors came from England.”18 Surveying Scandinavian-American literature from the period, Dorothy Burton Skårdal noted how often “immigrant sons marched proudly to battle, daughters knitted and made bandages and nursed and collected money, parents took up again farm work too heavy for their years and over-subscribed their assessment in all kinds of drives.”[19]

Even Barton acknowledges that their pre-1917 enthusiasm for neutrality meant that “the Swedes and other Scandinavians in the United States “faced a highly uncomfortable situation, causing many to overreact—or to keep quiet.”20

Both responses seemed to prevail at Bethel, where approximately one in three Academy graduates at the time had been born in Scandinavia and Swedish remained the language of instruction in the Seminary. Celebrating the Academy’s tenth anniversary in 1915, the influential pastor Frank Peterson recalled that Swedish Baptists had wanted to “establish a school of our own where our young men could secure the training needed for their life work and at the same time retain their loyal and sympathetic relationship with their countrymen and their denomination.”21

The Seminary seems to have avoided talk of the war in its publications (remember Minnesota’s regulation of non-English literature), but read the Academy’s half of the 1918 yearbook, and one gets a glimpse of what Barton means about Swedish-Americans perhaps overreacting:

So many ask us what attitude our school takes toward the present crisis of the world and toward the part our country plays in it. “Are you loyal?”—You bet we are!

The Bethel Academy Class of 1917

Of the fourteen students to graduate from Bethel Academy the spring that the United States entered World War I, five had been born in Sweden – Bethel University Digital Library

Writing in a year when ten of the Academy’s twenty-seven graduates had been born abroad, the anonymous editorialist wanted no confusion about which side the people of Bethel supported in the Great War:

Most of us, being of Swedish descent, have inherited the peculiar characteristics of our Swedish forefathers. The Swedish people are very little inclined to shout and make noise about their inner feelings. They do not even go wild about their patriotism. They are quiet but sure and dependable as the deep fathomless waves which carry the uneasy and excited foam of the surface. The past history of our country shows the Swedish sons to have been patriotic to the very marrow, and the past is now repeating itself very satisfactorily.

The yearbook writer held up Bethel’s service flag, with its twenty-eight stars (one in gold). He noted that over fifty students were volunteering two hours every Wednesday afternoon to help the Red Cross and that Bethel folk had raised nearly $2,000 for Liberty Bonds and Saving Stamps. While he demurred that “the patriotic sentiment has not broken out into wild demonstrations as it perhaps has at other schools, but rather into active doings,” he finished with a rhetorical flourish:

Since being patriotic means to “love one’s country and zealously support its authority and interests,” the spirit of Bethel is in full harmony with the spirit that must fill every true and loyal citizen of this great country. The President’s cabinet itself cannot be more true American than our Faculty, and the two Houses of the Capitol cannot breathe patriotism with more loyal lungs than the students of the two schools of Bethel. God speed the day when right defeats wrong and the world is made safe for democracy, and democracy is made safe for the world!22

The previous year’s annual featured not one but two student poems entitled “Our Country.”23

Patriotic student poetry in 1917 Bethel Academy yearbook

Student poetry from the 1917 Bethel Academy yearbook, The Acorn – Bethel University Digital Library

Not to be outdone, Academy principal A. J. Wingblade offered his own brand of conspicuous patriotism: “What now we hold dearest—liberty, freedom, security—for these men fought and died, women wept and suffered long before we were born. In the flag of freedom we find mingled the red and the blue, the suffering of the patriot and the kindness of heaven.”24

But even Wingblade couldn’t match the patriotism on display when Swedish Baptists held their annual meeting in Minneapolis in September 1918. After resolving to “solemnly pledge our allegiance to the President and government of the United States and affirm our loyalty to those principles for which our country and our noble allies stand,” delegates burst into a spontaneous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That evening soldiers, sailors, and nurses mounted the dais while the audience sang “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” After claiming that America was compelled to go to war against a “German culture that is contrary to all true humanity and divine righteousness,” Frank Peterson welcomed Governor Burnquist to the stage. The founder of Minnesota’s Commission of Public Safety gave a “powerful speech, full of a warm patriotic spirit” that was received with much applause, according to the minutes.25

The 1918-19 catalog’s boast that the Academy’s athletic facilities “offer special advantages to our red-blooded American youth” hadn’t been there the year before and would disappear the year after.26 But as late as 1931, the school handbook included “The American’s Creed,” a WWI-era document that defined a five-fold duty to the United States: “…to love it, to support its Constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”

Bethel historians Diana Magnuson and G.W. Carlson cited this example in support of their argument that one of the chief goals of the Academy was “Americanization,” or “assimilating its students to be effective participants in American society.” Now, another goal was the “preservation and perpetuation of Swedish language and heritage.” But the fact that the Academy required its pupils to study Swedish actually suggested how much they had already been assimilated, since such classes were meant to enable English-speaking students “to effectively communicate with parents and grandparents, and to better understand Swedish services in the churches.”27

— Chris Gehrz


Citations

1 Quoted in New York Times, Oct. 13, 1915.

2 On immigration and the Census, see Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-1990,” Population Division Working Paper No. 29, U.S. Bureau of the Census.

3 David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 63.

4 Ibid.

5 Abstracts of the Reports of the Immigration [Dillingham] Commission, vol. I (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1910), p. 42.

6 Woodrow Wilson, Address to the U.S. Congress, Aug. 19, 1914.

7 Wilson, Third Annual Message, Dec. 7, 1915.

8 Kennedy, Over Here, p. 67.

9 George M. Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish Americans Toward the World War,” Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association 10 (1918-1919): 93.

10 Nils Hasselmo, “The Language Question,” in Perspectives on Swedish Immigration, ed. Hasselmo (Chicago: Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, 1978), p. 240. On this troubling chapter in Minnesota history, see Carl H. Chrislock, Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991).

11 Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish-Americans Toward the World War,” p. 92.

12 H. Arnold Barton, A Folk Divided: Homeland Swedes and Swedish Americans, 1840-1940 (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994), p. 245.

13 Minnesota Stats Tidning, Aug. 12, 1914, quoted in Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish-Americans Toward the World War,” p. 81.

14 Per Anders Rudling, “Scandinavians in Canada: A Community in the Shadow of the United States,” Swedish-American Historical Quarterly 62 (July 2006): pp. 173-74.

15 Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish-Americans Toward the World War,” pp. 86, 88-89.

16 Quoted in Barton, A Folk Divided, p. 246.

17 Quoted in Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish-Americans Toward the World War,” p. 84n.

18 Barton, A Folk Divided, p. 248; Stephenson, “The Attitude of Swedish-Americans Toward the World War,” p. 92.

19 Dorothy Burton Skårdal, The Divided Heart: Scandinavian Immigrant Experience through Literary Sources (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), p. 313.

20 Barton, A Folk Divided, p. 248.

21 Frank Peterson, “The First Vision,” The [Bethel] Acorn, May 1915, p. 1.

22 “The Patriotism in Bethel,” Bethel Herald, May 1918, p. 22.

23 Jenny Skoglund, “Our Country,” and Athur Nelson, “Our Country,” The Acorn, May 1917, p. 18.

24 A. J. Wingblade, “Principal’s Corner,” The Acorn, May 1917, p. 24.

25 Minutes of Sept. 11, 1918, Årsbok – Svenska Baptistförsamlingarna inom Amerika, 1917-1918, pp. 16-17.

26 Annual Catalog of Bethel Academy, 1918-1919, p. 13. Italics mine.

27 G. William Carlson and Diana L. Magnuson, Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion: Celebrating Bethel’s 125th Anniversary (St. Paul: Bethel College and Seminary, 1997), pp. 31-32.

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  1. […] World War, Bethel was populated by first- and second-generation Swedish immigrants who had had to prove their patriotism to neighbors suspicious of their pre-1917 neutralism and German-sounding language. (For that […]

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