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Half-People: Different ancestries and identities in America

The United States may be the only country on earth where most of its citizens represent themselves by halves. Hyphenated Americans appear to be the whole, with almost all of them identified first by their ancestry, and second by their citizenship. Not only does this mock the term “united,” but it serves also to question the loyalty of the population. Are “African-Americans” loyal to this country or to the one of their racial origin? The same can be asked of all the others in the mix, from “Hispanic” to “Asian,” to “Irish,” “Italian,” “German,” “Jewish,” “Native,” etc. ad infinitum.

A Nation of Immigrants

True, this is a “nation of immigrants,” which makes it unique on the globe. True also, all the “halves” vote, serve in the military, and conduct themselves otherwise in patriotic manners. Yet, the very fact of a hyphenated citizenry carries with it, by definition, a question of both actual and potential divided loyalty. This fact has occupied American history from the beginning and has caused a number of deviations that have interrupted life to the national detriment.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is defined as the “savior” of democracy, both during the Great Depression and World War II. Yet, even he was forced to “intern” over 120,000 “Japanese-Americans” into camps for the duration of the war against Japan. The “necessity” of FDR’s action is not at issue and can easily be challenged. The issue is that he did it without significant protest within the rest of the country. His actions, thus, reflect the contradictions of a hyphenated people, not disloyalty per se.

During World War I, both Irish- and German-Americans, for obvious ancestral reasons, protested the Wilson government’s favoritism toward the Allies, especially the declaration of war against Germany. Both groups served heroically in the war, but the tensions between “civic duty” and the “old country” plagued the war effort, both during and afterward.

With Germany an enemy, German-Americans, the largest “minority,” became the new target. With the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine, causing 128 American deaths, and the increasing image of the German soldier as a barbarous “Hun,” the American people began a national campaign against anything remotely “Germanic.” This came with official sanction after the declaration of war, April 6, 1917.

President Wilson immediately declared all Germans in America as “alien enemies” and banned them all from seaports, airports, military facilities, and Washington, D.C. German-Americans had to disclose their bank accounts to an “Alien Property Custodian;” they had to register personal affidavits and undergo official fingerprinting. “Concentration Camps” were established in places like North Carolina, Georgia, and Utah, where thousands of suspect Germans were held. Localities, school systems, libraries, German place-names of towns, parks, buildings, theaters, etc. were changed to English.

Throughout the culture, nearly all remnants of “German” were closed or harassed. Thousands of “Schmidts” became “Smiths.” German churches were painted yellow. Libraries banned books on Germany. German-language newspapers were closed. Beethoven and Mozart were banned. German food was banned. “Sauerkraut” became “liberty cabbage.” “German measles” became “liberty measles.”

The effect on Irish-Americans, all anti-British, was similar but not as virulent. Irish nationalists held an anti-war rally in Madison Square Garden in June 1915, and the government closed all Irish-nationalist newspapers. Irish Rebel, an anti-war book of the time, declared the truism that “Ireland’s liberty would best be served by a German victory.”

Yet, Irish-Americans overwhelmingly served valiantly in the war, including the famous “Fighting 69th” of New York and “Wild Bill” Donavan, who went on to become America’s first head of a spy organization (OSS). The famous wartime song, Over There, was written by Irish-American George M. Cohan.


But the Wilson Administration, super-alert to the possibility of subversion within the public, passed two major anti-immigrant laws meant to prevent “hyphenated” Americans from interrupting the war effort. In announcing the legislation, the President  stated that, “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 of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our natural life … and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigues.”

Both the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) were passed by Congress and severely curtailed the speech, writing, and other demonstrations that may have undermined the war effort against Germany.

The heritage of World War I and, indeed, the anti-foreign legislation of the 1920s, remain as a cultural heritage of the American “melting pot” as we debate the influx of “foreigners” across the southern border in the Twenty-first century.


The issue is the same, and the question still dominates public discourse. What is the significance of a “hyphenated” personality?

Take “Native-American,” for example. It has two meanings: “my land,” and acceptance of a political culture. All other hyphens contain an identical contradiction: different and the same.

In conclusion, note this comparison. There is no such thing as an “English-American;” it is not used. Why? Because that reality began a revolution, and they fought to eliminate the first. They distinctly became only the second and have remained the same since.

That’s the model we should all pursue.

(Full disclosure: I sometimes have referred to myself as an “Irish-American,” but I meant it only on March 17th.)

About IWP Course on History of American Foreign Policy