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Old 11-09-2019, 01:55 PM
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Thumbs up The outbreak of World War I meant that thousands of immigrants could prove their Amer

The outbreak of World War I meant that thousands of immigrants could prove their Americanness on the battlefield.

DURING THE 1912 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, Charles White Whittlesey, the man who would arguably become the greatest hero of World War I — a man so famous that even the carrier pigeon who delivered his battlefield messages became a household name — cast his vote for the pacifist socialist Eugene Debs. Whittlesey, a tall, bookish 28-year-old lawyer, had taken to socialism as a student a decade earlier at Williams College. In the words of the historian Richard J. Laplander, he believed “socialism could be the only vehicle through which a wider cooperation of peoples of all types could come about.”

That was a pressing issue in 1912. Great waves of new immigrants had come to America starting in the 1880s, immigrants the United States Immigration Commission declared were “races” deficient in “intelligence, manliness, cooperation” and other qualities without which “democracy is futile.” About a third of the nation was foreign-born or the child of a foreign-born parent. One-tenth was black.

But the outbreak of a European Great War meant these derided groups could prove their Americanness on the battlefield. When immigrants and native-born Americans rub “elbows in a common service to a common Fatherland,” claimed the assistant secretary of war, Henry Breckinridge, “out comes the hyphen — up goes the Stars and Stripes … Universal military service will be the elder brother of the public school in fusing this American race.”

There were less martial versions of this idea. After a German submarine had torpedoed a British liner and killed 128 Americans, Woodrow Wilson even suggested to a crowd of 4,000 newly naturalized citizens, many from Germany, that it was immigrants themselves who helped define Americanness. “A man does not go out to seek the thing that is not in him,” he said, and “if some of us have forgotten what America believed in, you, at any rate, imported in your own hearts a renewal of the belief.”

Whittlesey assumed America would enter the war and that every honorable American should serve. Disillusioned with the Socialist Party’s pacifism, he entered military training in 1916. When the United States entered the war in 1917, he was assigned to one of the new regiments being formed in that most suspicious of places — New York.

“Patriots” had warned against raising troops there. New York was filled with blacks and immigrants, as the new regiments would reflect. The 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” were a black American infantry regiment whose service, civil rights activists like James Weldon Johnson believed, would help ensure “the right to claim the full rights of citizenship.” And then there was the 308th Infantry, part of the “Melting Pot Division” and heavily weighted with Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese and Jews. As one soon-to-be highly decorated soldier from another division that would train and fight alongside those men, Alvin York, described in his diary, “they put me by some Greeks and Italians to sleep. I couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand me.” It was in the 308th that Whittlesey would fight.

Whittlesey’s unit saw initial action in Alsace-Lorraine and acquitted itself well. In his diary York noted, “Those Greeks and Italians and New York Jews were sure turning out to be good soldiers.” And then, in late September in the Meuse-Argonne, they would earn their fame.

“Let’s go!” Whittlesey rasped, striding towards the Argonne Forest, over what one officer described as a “blind world of whiteness and noise, groping over something like the surface of the moon.” It was the first of several pushes over several days. Communication lines kept getting cut. Their left flank became increasingly exposed, a concern Whittlesey’s senior officer waved off as “nonsense.” On Oct. 2, Whittlesey led a further attack. It did not go well.

They lost contact with flanking units and were completely encircled by the most experienced Germans, as recounted by Jonathan H. Ebel in “G.I. Messiahs.” They shot American runners and repeatedly assaulted the unit. Whittlesey’s battalion had low supplies, then no supplies. They had to strip bandages off corpses to apply to the freshly wounded. Whittlesey kept calm, buried his dead and refused demands for surrender. For five days.

His men died in scores. And their death cries wouldn’t have been only in English. Of the total American Expeditionary Force sent over to Europe, nearly a quarter were foreign-born, speaking 49 languages. When friendly units reached Whittlesey, some 360 of his 554 men were dead, missing or injured. The survivors became instant heroes.

“The Forest of Argonne blazed all at once into russets and golds and purples,” wrote one reporter, “and here and there a scarlet tree, as though the roots had drunk deep of young American blood spent freely for an eternal cause once more defended on those hills.” But how, precisely, to define that “eternal cause”?

When President Wilson asked Congress to declare war, he claimed he simply wished to champion “the rights of mankind.” For Whittlesey, who would endorse the League of Nations, universalist idealism clearly resonated. For the rest of the country, though, it was a harder sell.

Wartime paranoia provided fodder for nativists who’d always despised those who, as the New York police commissioner put it in 1906, “can’t talk the English language” and “are in general the scum of Europe.”

So when Whittlesey delivered a speech in New York a mere two months after surviving the Argonne, he found himself out of step with his country. After recounting the heroism of the battalion’s Catholic chaplain, James Halligan, Whittlesey informed the audience, “Our men who have been facing and fighting the Germans won’t come back hating them. Why, they might even share their cigarettes with the Kaiser himself if they met him on the road.” One newspaper account noted, “Silence greeted this portion of the speaker’s address.”

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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