Becoming White: How Mass Warfare Turned Immigrants into Americans

Report Author: 
Soumyajit Mazumdar
Original Date of Publication: 
December, 2017

The major thesis of this paper is that the state can play a central role in helping immigrants forge a national identity. The mobilization of millions of men to fight during World War I, many of whom were immigrants, following so soon after a great period of migration, provides an excellent test case. Based on data gathered from the 1930 U.S. Census, Mazumdar investigates the relationship between war service and cultural assimilation. The author posits that individuals from the "social periphery," such as Italians, Jews, and other eastern European immigrants, who served in the military were more likely to assimilate to the nation's "social core." Mobilizing for war facilitates assimilation through contact with individuals from the dominant group, shared experiences and indoctrination of national values. The author measures periphery groups' efforts to assimilate by marriage to U.S.-born spouses, naming conventions and naturalization. He concludes "that on average immigrant veterans of WWI are substantially more likely to assimilate across a wide variety of measures relative to non-veterans." Observing members of periphery groups risk their lives for the nation may help the social core become more accepting of periphery groups because of their sacrifice for the nation. Without core group acceptance, however, assimilation was hindered. German veterans, for example, were less likely to become citizens because of the forced repression of German culture during World War I.  The paper argues that, unlike mass education, mass warfare can reshape social identities. The paper contributes to an ongoing conversation about the ways in which contemporary society can incorporate immigrants into the body politic. (Sakura Tomizawa for The Immigrant Learning Center's Public Education Institute)

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  How Mass Warfare Turned Immigrants into Americans


Mazumder, S. (2017). Becoming White: How Mass Warfare Turned Immigrants into Americans. SSRN Electronic Journal.

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