Good Americans

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Christopher M. Sterba. Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. x, 271 pp. $19.95, ISBN 0-19-515488-6.

Summary

In Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants During the First World War, Christopher M. Sterba seeks to realign the understanding of Italian and Jewish immigrant experience in American during World War I. He argues that Italians and Jews did not face nativism, but that their experience during the World War I era was shaped more by their growing identity as Americans in the Great War than by their otherness as immigrants. Further, Sterba suggest that for Italians of New Haven and Jews of New York City, participation in World War I was their first involvement as national citizens in America. These new immigrants became part of wartime American society particularly through federal involvement via the conscription and their active participation in efforts on the homefront.

By methodically examining the Italian and Jewish experience through three distinct phases—pre-war communities, war preparation, and life on the home front—Sterba illustrates the distinctions between each population’s engagement with the war effort. He shows that though both were highly involved, their motivations and actions were vastly different. Throughout the book, Sterba connects certain characteristics with each group: the Italians, the importance of the local community and service tied to old world connections to home, and the Jews, internal divides within the community that drove dissent to the war and the interest in Zionism that was disconnected to European roots.

In New Haven, the settled Italian colonia of businesses, churches, and homes was manifest proof that the community was there to stay. By the time of the war, though limited in political power, the colonia had other resources—newspapers, banks, and political connections—to exert local influence (18). Driven by loyalty to Italy and limited by highly emotional one-sided press coverage in favor of the allies, the colonia was compelled to defend and protect both the old homeland and the new homefront. Sterba argues that this sense of community drove the success of the National Guard in Connecticut founded on the idea that “men would be friends, relatives, and neighbors while enduring the rigors of training and fighting ‘over there’…pitt[ing] a city institution with familiar faces against a federal juggernaut teeming with faceless millions” (43). The combination of military training steeped in tradition and a romanticized view of Italy stood in stark contrast to the modernizing efforts proposed by a post-Progressive era leadership in a war whose technological innovations had never been seen before.

Sterba suggests that because of key differences in ethnic identity, New York’s Jewish soldiers did not face such a limitation, nor such deep local ties. Unlike the Italians who had built alliances with local politicians and media to meet their needs, “Jewish men and women created their own powerful organizations, blending a political vision that emphasized education, social insurance, and upward mobility with a pragmatic reliance on arbitration and collective bargaining” (27) and as such, were “limited in their engagement with the larger American environment before the war” (24). Despite their resistance to the war and federal involvement in their lives, many soldiers and their families were motivated by the fear of Russian expanded oppression and a deep appreciation for the liberties they found in the U.S. (71) Further, given that the conscription process was overseen by reform-minded officers and welfare workers, the draft army in which so many Jewish soldiers found themselves serving “proved itself to be more inclusive, participatory, and respectful in the way it handles immigrant soldiers than its community-based counterpart” (85) and more matched to the needs of modern warfare even if it lacked in the ethnic connections of the Connecticut National Guard.

Back at home, ethnic ties shaped the response to the war. In New Haven, “the personal and the patriotic quickly combined” (134) as New Haven’s immigrants raised over $30,000 from a primarily industrial workforce. Further, rather than separating the ethnic Italians from potentially nativist Yankees, the colonia’s relief efforts proved the value of the melting pot. Unlike the Italians in New Haven, the Jews in New York continued to voice dissent to the war through growing political clout and envisioning a new cultural reference point in Palestine (174). The actions of both groups of immigrants in World War I further united the new immigrants to their new homeland and set the groundwork for growing political influence throughout the remainder of the century.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Good Americans is a solid addition to scholarship on the Great War for several reasons, but especially as related to works dealing with the war at the federal level. Sterba illustrates how federal policy, for example merging the Connecticut National Guard units on the dawn of deployment and stripping the Italian unit of the cohesiveness it worked so hard to build, had very real effects on war experience and expectation beyond any logistical issues. Further, through the example of the New York Jewish immigrants’ dissent of the war, we clearly see the homefront gains, made by women especially, further altering the character, perception, and future of immigrant experience. In Good Americans, we see that the changes in the U.S. through its experiences in World War I went beyond the Fourteen Points and other diplomatic and federal concerns to include how Americans saw each other, their place in the nation, and in the world.

Sterba’s argument is strongest when he shows these American attitudes toward the new immigrants and differences amongst and between the Jews and Italians. As such, the primary weakness is Sterba’s chapter, “They Were Good Americans” focusing on the wartime letters from the New Haven Italian soldiers and New York Jewish soldiers home. As Sterba himself admits, there is nothing different in these letters than from letters written by non-immigrants. After explaining in such compelling detail the complexity and uniqueness of the immigrant experience at home, before the war, and during training to then emphasize the commonness of the soldier experience is somehow out of place. The value of the chapter is to illustrate that because of these similarities in experience, the soldiers were not subject to discrimination, but found that “service overseas was a point of honor for most and bound them closer to their homes in America than ever before” (176) as good Americans.

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