Americanizing the Immigrant, Past and Future

By Otis Graham
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 4, Number 2 (Winter 1993-1994)
Issue theme: "An international perspective on migration"
http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc0402/article_299.shtml



[Authors' introduction It is commendable that a U.S. philanthropic institution interested in immigration-related issues should seek guidance from the historical record. In an effort to assist your institution in making decisions in this area, we have, at your request, surveyed the secondary historical literature on the Americanization movement of the early years of the 20th century, as well as some published accounts of the Americanizers themselves, and offer here an assessment and analysis of that historical experience and its implications for contemporary policymaking on immigrants and their assimilation.]

An Overview of the Project

America in the 1990s is being reshaped by a surge of large-scale immigration now in its third decade. Such massive immigration has not been experienced in the United States since the three decades prior to World War I, a situation almost no one alive today can remember. In those years the perceived benefits of immigration were countered by complaints of a wide range of social costs - job displacement and downward wage pressures, urban congestion, crime, unsanitary conditions, boss politics, and much else. Such complaints led to two major policy responses to large-scale immigration - a movement aiming at immigration restriction, which was ultimately successful, and an effort to 'Americanize' the immigrant.

The Progressive-era efforts to reinforce and accelerate the assimilation process do indeed deserve renewed attention in our own circumstances. Massive immigration to the U.S. has resumed, with the annual volume now exceeding the totals experienced prior to World War I, and concerns about the assimilative process are again being voiced. Commentators cite contemporary evidence that the incoming millions of immigrants are increasingly tending to cluster in linguistic and geographic isolation and note that the expanding Latino population, especially in a border belt of states from Texas to California, receives constant cultural reinforcement by communication and transportation across the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, which can only become more active and porous if the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) becomes a reality. Assimilation may also be impeded by a central theme in our contemporary intellectual life praise and encouragement for any group that maintains its culture intact, as a sort of anthropological resource for today and tomorrow.

Concerns over assimilation and national cohesion are intensified by evidence from outside the U.S. - the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s, along with separatist movements in Canada, India, and tribal civil wars across Africa. Inside the U.S., evidence may be found that the attractions of adaptation to American norms remain strong among immigrants. Yet this evidence must contend with a stream of reports of social tensions between ethnic, religious and racial communities, reaching a crescendo in what could be called the nation's first immigration riot in Los Angeles in June, 1992. In this climate, the general public, some of our intellectual elites and many civic and political leaders, including voices from racial and ethnic minorities, express concern about the faltering process of assimilation. For several reasons, this concern is likely to strengthen. At least three factors that made the assimilation of foreigners easier a century ago are no longer present - a robust, even arrogant host culture of British origins, a growing industrial economy with an appetite for low-skilled labor, and a fortuitous, four-decade lull (1921-1965) between immigration waves so that assimilative processes were not overwhelmed. Some would add that the nation's public schools, perhaps the central institution transmitting the national culture, are caught in a crisis that makes them far less effective than in the earlier period of massive immigration.

In light of these changed circumstances we are likely to hear more, rather than less, of the need both to restrict immigration numbers and to intervene to assist and accelerate the assimilative process. Many private groups and public agencies at local levels around the country are actively involved in what a historian would call Americanization efforts, such as English-language education or programs to acquaint immigrants with the steps to be taken toward natu-ralization and/or to become politically active. Some of these activities are made possible by foundation funding. But such efforts are not seen as a national movement, and have not taken on a generic name.

'...we are likely to hear more,

rather than less, of the need both

to restrict immigration numbers and

to intervene to assist and accelerate

the assimilative process.'

Today's situation thus invites reflection upon the years just prior to and after the turn of the century, when assimilation-assisting efforts by many local groups were vigorously pursued, especially in eastern cities. These at first operated without a national framework or sense of purpose. In time they were perceived as the Americanization movement, and both the errors and achievements of that enterprise should be pondered by any institution contemplating activity in this area. The lessons of the past that are ignored often allow the misdirection of future policy. As often, policy error comes from the influence of superficial and incomplete presumed lessons that are hastily assembled from a single historical source, or worse yet, from individual or collective hazy memory.

Have the historians supplied us with a usable history of the Americanization movement of nearly a century ago? The answer appears to be yes and no. A small number of historians have addressed the Americanization movement of the first years of this century, and a considerable body of knowledge has been compiled. Yet there are many unanswered questions, and if one consults only the most recent literature, the one-sided account mostly presented there carries misleading implications for today. What follows, at your request, is a report on what has been written since the topic first engaged historians, and an assessment of the implications of this historical knowledge for contemporary policymaking in this area.

In Response to the Great Wave

Throughout most of American history, concerns about assimilation of aliens were never absent, but a conscious social effort to assist that process did not emerge. This contrasts with the experience of many nations, where governments made strenuous and organized efforts to suppress minority cultures and to encourage primacy of some national set of norms and traditions. In the U.S. much ethnic and cultural variety has always been tolerated by society and its government, as it was usually assumed that the mechanisms of assimilation were sufficiently robust to absorb the non-English stock immigrants - German and Irish, primarily, in the first century of nationhood. This level of confidence in assimilation of immigrants was to erode at several points in the 19th century, producing at the end of the century the 'Americanization' campaigns which are our topic. That effort should be distinguished from the much smaller contemporaneous reform efforts to do something to promote the integration of African Americans and Native Americans. It was assumed for at least a century after the nation's founding that Blacks and Native Americans were not expected to assimilate, and there was no issue when they did not. Thus we take Americanization to be the nationwide effort usually meant by that term in the decades of the 1890s to the 1920s, one aimed at the European populations, most especially the 'new immigration' from southern and eastern Europe.

For the European immigrants under consider-ation, the good fortune of geography, which supplied an oceanic separation from the homeland, meant that these white non-English immigrant groups tended to come to the New World with assimilationist expectations and to find the Old World ties attenuated by distance. Benjamin Franklin's fears about German separatism were not well founded. The assumption across the 19th century was that these fair-skinned groups would become Americans (whatever that meant) because they intended to do so and anything else was unthinkable. In the words of John Higham

In Europe most minorities were fixed in place and rooted in the soil of an ancient culture they were determined to preserve. But immigration brought the U.S. uprooted peoples who wanted to share in large degree in the new national life; cohesion developed without coercion.

When this did not seem to be the case, when either the scale or composition of immigration eroded native residents' confidence in assimilation, as in the 1840s and '50s or the 1890s, there arose conscious social efforts to restrict immigration. Thus, as the 20th century arrived, two main modes of reacting to immigration had developed - confident acceptance, alternating with efforts to restrict the flow.

A third idea, social intervention to assist assimilation by 'Americanizing' the immigrant, arrived with the Progressive-era enthusiasm for social engineering. The Americanization movement was never a single enterprise, but flowered in many forms under many sponsors - immigrant leaders them-selves, employers such as U.S. Steel or the business leadership in the Chamber of Commerce, churches, the YMCA, unions, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and - in time - governments. 'The extent of the movement is difficult to exaggerate,' is the view of one scholar. More than thirty state governments and many cities joined in, launching programs to educate the new immigrants in citizenship and hygiene, or to celebrate American national holidays and heroes. The Americanization effort, directed by governments as well as voluntary associations, and operating throughout the country, lasted for more than two decades. It peaked after World War I, and, when immigration restriction in 1921 drastically reduced the flow of foreigners, shrank back to a residual role mostly in the public schools and organizations such as the YMCA. Americanization as a prominent social movement had ended.

A Closer Look Is Needed

This generation-long experiment with American-ization has not attracted enough attention among historians. An early book, Edward Hartmann's The Movement to Americanize the Immigrant (1948), was a sound, informative, and little-read account which depicted Americanization as having two faces a generous and welcoming visage, and an anxiety-driven, coercive one. It remained for the influential historian John Higham, in his widely-read Strangers in the Land (1956), to give this interpretation a clarity and a wide recognition it could not have achieved when contained within a dry academic monograph.

Higham also discovered two varieties of Americanization, which he called the nativist and the democratic - or, in another place, 100% Americanization and Liberal Americanization. He believed the liberal version, which came first, was born in the settlement houses and among social workers, civic leaders, and some immigrant groups. It preached the doctrine of 'immigrant gifts,' worked to convey a sense of national welcome, and combined acceptance of foreign cultural inheritances with assistance to accelerate the transition to the American norm. The '100% American' version derived mostly from cultural anxiety - worries that middle-class values would be inundated by rural, peasant hordes, that American democracy would be undercut by the influx of millions who had not known liberty and its responsibilities.

Higham described the two decades of American-ization as an evolution toward a collision between these two emphases. You could see both impulses at work in two branches of the same organization, the North American Civic League. The Boston branch focused on what Higham summarized as 'the menace of ignorant, incendiary foreigners.' Since the businessmen who were the League's founders hoped to keep immigration flowing to provide cheap labor, they believed Americanization had to be tried. Boston's League sponsored evening lectures on patriotism, while sending spies into immigrant communities to keep track of unionist sentiment. By contrast, the New York branch, under leading liberal Americanizer Frances Kellor, investigated living and working conditions, sponsored protective legislation to reduce housing and workplace abuses, and arranged evening classes in English language skills. 'Nation building is to be in the future a deliberate formative process,' she wrote, 'not an accidental ... arrangement.' By 1912, there seemed to be a rough balance between these inclinations. Henry Ford was already attempting to remake his immigrant workers into ideal employees, believing that 'these men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live.' Ford's Americanization plan authorized investigation of all aspects of the immigrant workers' lives to be sure they celebrated American holidays and exhibited proper company loyalty.

'The Great War engulfed

America in 1917, and decisively

tilted Americanization toward

the nativist impulse, but this

did not mean the end of

the liberal agenda.'

At the same time, the Progressive Party platform of 1912 denounced 'the fatal policy of indifference and neglect which has left our enormous immigrant population to become the prey of change and cupidity,' and went so far as to propose federal legislation to 'promote their assimilation, education and advancement.'

The Great War engulfed America in 1917, and decisively tilted Americanization toward the nativist impulse, but this did not mean the end of the liberal agenda. As before, its main force came from social workers and progressive educators. Liberal Americanizers welcomed 'the best of the culture, the arts, and the crafts of the Old World, that ... we may be enriched with this spiritual inheritance.' Educator and philosopher John Dewey and social worker Jane Addams continued to sing the praises of immigrant gifts, and, as historian Rivka Shpak Lissak explained, 'preferred a looser or more liberal definition [of Americanization], namely, like-mindedness' on certain unspecified civic principles, while tolerating considerable cultural difference in matters marginal to citizenship.

When war came, however, the issue of national unity came to overshadow all else. Was the recent immigrant - the 'Hyphenate' - loyal to the Allied cause? Many suspected or feared disloyalty, especially in those of German and Irish origin, anarchists, socialists, or pacifists. As feelings intensified, culminating in the Red Scare of 1919-20, the repressive sort of Americanization seized the upper hand. 'Much creditable work continued to be done,' Higham wrote, 'with humanity and under-standing, in teaching English to foreigners ... but as a general movement Americanization now took on its most frightened and feverish aspect.'

Patriotic societies adopted Americanization programs, which to them now meant hortatory, patriotic lectures and pamphlets in the schools, instructions to immigrants to revere the Constitution, to refrain from dropping rubbish in the streets, and sermons against Bolshevism. There were calls for federal aid to the states for the teaching of English to aliens, heightened interest in citizenship classes in public schools, all of which Higham cast in the context of the Red Scare - that is, as coercive and reactionary. Earlier educational opportunities, night classes in English or civics, had been voluntary, and immigrants had flocked to them. With the war, compulsory classes made their appearance, along with a hard note of insistence that native languages be given up. The U.S. Congress in the Revenue Act of 1918 doubled income tax rates on 'non-resident' aliens - an ill-defined term, but clearly intended to increase pressures to naturalize. Fifteen states in 1919, Higham reported, decreed that English would be the sole language of school instruction; other states required that schoolteachers be citizens, an Oregon law required foreign-language newspapers to publish English translations, and a California law mandated that aliens pay a special poll tax of $10.20. Thus, the war had decisively shifted the balance of sentiments and forces within the Americanization movement. According to one historian

The conformist tendency became paramount and the permissive, humanitarian side almost vanished. Frances Kellor herself, in her book Straight America published in 1916, called for loyalty, discipline, and universal military service. The national crisis had tipped the delicate balance of this reform effort toward its hard, repressive aspect. To be American-ized after 1917 meant to be watched, to be forced to stop attending the local socialist club or workers' meetings designed to organize the shop.

The Tension of Dualism

Higham's seminal portrait of Americanization, rendered in his classic Strangers in the Land (which was to go through two hard-cover editions and sell over 116,000 paperback copies, reaching college classrooms as well as the general public) was a subtle and balanced picture that left many questions unanswered. Americanization, he explained, was not one thing, but a continuum with many possibilities. On occasion, Higham presented a dualism between two poles

One ideal called on America to enlarge its national character by accepting contributions, the other to protect that character by a quarantine of infections. One pictured the nation as great in the universal range of its ties and sympathies, the other as great in the purity of its separateness. One looked toward the future growth of a still unfinished nationality; the other looked back to the past perfection of a completed pattern.

Always there had been a mixture of and a tension between the 'liberal/democratic' and the '100% American' impulses. The narrow version, with which Higham obviously had no sympathy, seized the upper hand just at the end of Americanization's generation of activity.

This style of Americanization was not only unattractive to contemporary sensibilities, it was possibly counter-productive. Immigrant communities, especially toward the end of World War I, began to fight back to defend traditional cultures against the Americanization reform movement, and a surge of cultural self-assertion arguably more than offset the assimilation promoted by Americanizers. Formerly and for two decades enthusiastically receptive to the English-language classes and other assistance of the Americanizers, immigrant spokesmen hardened against the war-transformed movement. 'The future of the United States belongs not to Americanization but to Americanism,' editorialized a Russian-American newspaper in 1919, groping for a distinction between invited and coerced assimilation.

This was the portrait of Americanization brought forward by Higham's 1955 book. In his account, the movement had an attractive, positive side, and was perhaps in some of its forms an important element in the process of assimilation that accelerated social adjustments beneficial to individuals and society. But this crusade also had the potential, especially under pressure of total war, to veer off into coercive and intolerant channels. Even in that national emergency of 1917-1919, however, it had been 'mild indeed' when compared to similar movements in other countries, Higham thought.

The Dark Side Dominates

If Americanization efforts in the past could turn out to be either a positive complement for the natural processes promoting assimilation in times of heavy immigration, or futile exercises and a source of social friction, the history of the Americanization movement should help us to understand how such efforts are channeled in one direction or the other. Unfortunately, historians and other students of immigration have displayed too little interest in the topic, most of them mis-reading Higham to mean that the movement was a dark passage with no light, carrying only harmful potential. 'Americanization is an ugly word,' summed up one Italian editor in a judgment on the movement in 1919, a verdict that has come to dominate the few references to this vast effort to bring outsiders into the American mainstream.

Daniel Weinberg and Stuart Ewen offer what became a typical assessment Americanization was an arrogant effort by a small professional class of social workers to remake immigrants in accordance with their image of what the modern world required, and nothing good can be said for it. Another historian, John F. McClymer, found an even more sinister purpose to wed a certain definition of patriotism to the power of the State, as when national patriotic organizations arranged federal programs to dissemi-nate textbooks and teaching aids of a propagandistic nature. This reached its peak under the Department of Justice. 'More threatening both to aliens and to other federal agencies,' wrote McClymer, 'were the activities of the Department of Justice, which defined Americanization as the prevention of espionage and sabotage.' The roots of McCarthyism can be found in this, he thought. Daniel Horowitz described an effort by a 'crumbling genteel culture' to resist a 'mass culture' which the historian assumed to be healthy and admirable by contrast. A composite of such views is found in Milton M. Gordon's influen-tial Assimilation in American Life (1964), in which the only Americanization we see is the extreme version emerging at the end of World War I

Anglo-conformity received its fullest expression in the so-called Americanization movement, which gripped the nation like a fever during World War I. ... The semi-hysterical attempt at pressure-cooking assimilation which was the Americanization crusade after World War I, while it contained worth-while instrumental elements [although not specified], was fundamentally misguided in its demand for a rapid personal transfor-mation and a draconic and abrupt detachment from the cultural pattern and memories of the homeland.

Roger Daniels, in his recent Coming to America A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (1991), barely distinguishes Americanization from the harsh nativism of the period. Lawrence Fuchs' American Kaleidoscope Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture (1990) is a more balanced account, describing the Americanization impulse as initially well-meaning, aiming only at civic loyalty

The leaders of the movement acted on the assumption that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and their children could be remade by the American environment ... the path to Citizenship was still clear, quick, and simple. The obligations of citizenship, far from being onerous, called for participation in the American system of self-government.

But under pressures brought on by the war, Americanizers then and after insisted upon more, upon a cultural conversion which required that ethnic schools and other institutions and values be given up. 'Acceptance into the political community was tainted,' Fuchs thought, 'by inhospitable actions towards expressions of ethnicity....' Americanization, in this view, erred when it concerned itself with language and other cultural issues. Participation in political life was common bond enough as a goal, and did not really need the reinforcement of Americanization campaigns, which were a mischievous, when not futile, mistake.

In Defense of the Defenders

The historical literature on Americanization is thus an instructive but ultimately unsatisfactory one. It consists of a number of articles and passages in books on larger topics, and one book-length monograph published forty-four years ago. Recent articles increase our information, but there has been no effort at book-length synthesis for half a century. 'Americanization may well be the least studied major social movement in American history,' astutely observed John F. McClymer. Beyond the disappoin-ting size and the fragmentation of the literature on a topic of this importance, a major insight of the first two historians to investigate the subject has not been further developed, but instead has been distorted into a decidedly incomplete picture with misleading policy implications.

'...many historians conclude

that the [Americanization]

movement was harmful

in several ways.'

Thus America approaches a fourth decade of large-scale and mounting immigration with an historical memory - assuming anyone is paying any attention to the historians of Americanization - that seems to condemn those who contemplate active assistance to the assimilation process rather than trusting to social forces. The historians, especially if one consults only recent work and reads Higham too quickly, seem to have concluded that the natural processes of assimilation were working quite well in that pre-World War I time of massive immigration despite many worries to the contrary. The clear implication, even if unstated, is that Americanization was entirely unnecessary, and many historians conclude that the movement was harmful in several ways. It focused and intensified nativist resentments, and reinforced middle class and corporate manage-ment fears of radicalism. It offended and antagonized immigrant communities with its imperious demands that their culture and languages be given up at once, both in public and private. Observing Americani-zation as it expressed itself in 1919 at the height of the Red Scare, historian Philip Gleason was justified in saying, in the Harvard Encyclopedia of Ethnic Groups, that 'the major legacy of the movement was to make Americanization a bad word, even in its generic sense of assimilation.'

This, in our view, is truncated history one part of the past allowed to distort the larger story. Hartmann and Higham found a movement which began in immigrant communities a generation before the Red Scare, and one that developed two faces and sets of effects. Americanization of the '100% American' variety did flourish amid the strains of war, but it never entirely superseded the original 'liberal Americanization' that arose out of a desire to welcome immigrants and enfold them in the Amer-ican community.

'...recently historian John Bodnar

pointed out that the most

effective Americanizers were often

the immigrants themselves...'

The original impulse combined a cordial acceptance of much of the ethnic cultural inheritance of these newcomers even as it vigorously promoted a core of American values thought to be the key to the future well-being of the immigrants. It wished to accelerate political empowerment and social mobility by insisting that American civic norms and the English language be adopted. And it was vigilant to defend the immigrants from exploiting 'scamps' ('con men' might be the contemporary term) who met them at the dock and preyed upon them thereafter, as well as from unscrupulous slum lords and employers. (Note that the largest Chicago organization promoting Americanization named itself the Immigrant Protective League.)

These motives and the methods chosen to advance them - stressing voluntary education, and working through settlement houses, religious and civic institutions located in immigrant neighborhoods, and the schools - have been largely forgotten. So too the fact that immigrant leadership itself often launched such initiatives, and immigrant participation in the evening classes and meetings was voluntary, substantial, and therefore can be taken as an endorsement not to be dismissed. This face of Americanization has almost completely fallen out of the recent synthesis of the role of immigration in American life, while the '100% American' side remains to teach us very different lessons.

A few journal articles keep the larger picture intact, for those who search them out. Neil Batten, for example, has written that Gary, Indiana's Americanization program deserves a decidedly positive interpretation. Its emphasis on the work ethic improved corporate profits in Gary's mills but also worker compensation. Knowledge of the English language and the ability to read and understand safety manuals and instructions improved safety records. Gary's Polish-American steelworkers did not reject management-sponsored evening classes and education, and responded well to patriotic messages that defined the meaning of America in terms of liberty, democracy, and equality. Historian Robert Carlson noted that state adult education legislation 'might not have passed so easily had it not been for the crusading zeal of the Americanizers.' And, recently, historian John Bodnar pointed out that the most effective Americanizers were often the immigrants themselves, a point made by Hartmann in 1948 and obscured or neglected since. It was a 'German-American archbishop,' Bodnar writes, 'who sought to curtail the use of the German language in Cincinnati,' German socialists who supported public rather than private (Catholic German) schools, German Jewish leaders in New York who took part in Americanization programs in that city, and Mexican-Americans who organized the League for Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1929 in part to resist pressures within their community to limit school attendance - so that 'excessive education' in American schools would not render young women of Mexican descent unfit for marriage. Joseph Dorinson has recently written that New York's Educational Alliance, a Jewish social work organization founded in 1889, possessed an 'Americanizing, educational, social and humanizing character.' Indeed, immigrants were known to use the word themselves, suggesting long-forgotten attractive qualities. Finnish-American women in Calumet, Michigan, just prior to World War I, organized an 'Americanization Club' to learn American songs, history, civics, and the English language, all 'to eliminate the hyphen' so that Finnish-Americans might become more American. The point is worth special emphasis. In Alan M. Kraut's words, 'often, newcomers were pressurized most heavily by members of their own group to quickly become Americanized and not be embarras-singly different.' Americanization was very substantially an immigrant-generated enterprise, impressive evidence that rapid assimilation was seen as the key to making it in America.

Recovering the Positive Side

What are the policy implications of this more balanced, sounder view of the Americanization experience? The historians of the topic do not deal explicitly with the implications of their work for future policy. Yet, implicitly, most of their writing shouts policy advice of a misleading sort. Ameri-canization, most recent historical accounts convey, was - and thus presumably still remains - an effort both ineffective and possibly a source of new problems. The implication is that citizens and governments, as well as foundations such as yours, should leave immigrant assimilation out of their social causes and organizational work. It has been tried and found wanting.

'...['Liberal' Americanizers] would

allow respected place for foreign

cultures while insisting on and

assisting immigrants toward that

common core of values and skills

that promoted the upward mobility

of individuals and reinforced the

country's working consensus.'

It is our view that critical dismissals of the Americanization efforts of a century ago as either ineffective or shamefully 'nativist' are based on the story of only one wing of the movement, toward the very end of the entire enterprise. They ignore the record of a more substantial wing that struck a positive response among immigrants themselves, and often originated there. Those Higham called 'Liberal' Americanizers sought to strike a constructive balance between unity and diversity, out of a conviction that the social forces of their own era were not producing it. Unity and inclusiveness was their starting point, but they pursued it with a positive emphasis upon immigrant cultures and a commitment to sort out the claims of each. They would allow respected space for foreign cultures while insisting on and assisting immigrants toward that common core of values and skills that promoted the upward mobility of individuals and reinforced the country's working consensus.

Recognizing this dual aspect of Americanization alters the policy implications of that history. Did the Americanizing reformers do useful work, or useless and even harmful work? And what do the answers mean for us, at the other end of this century?

Most historians, at least in recent years, have found no useful work done, and have dismissed the Americanizers' concerns. This seems to us insupport-able and mistaken. While some Americanizers, especially during and after World War I, certainly were unhelpful either at securing national unity or accelerating the incorporation of immigrant com-munities into the larger union, it goes too far to strip the many others of any credit for what followed. The social crisis of the pre-war era eased, and national divisions were manageable. A workable national consensus has been sustained throughout (we must hope) this century, no small achievement. A substantial degree of upward social mobility has fortified the American middle class and even ruling elites with the daughters and sons of people of Ireland, Italy, East and Central Europe, Africa, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere. A Roman Catholic has been elected President, the son of a Greek immigrant nominated for President, a Native American now sits in the U.S. Senate. Assimilation has been slower than anyone's ideal, especially for African Americans and Native Americans whose years in this nation reinforce their claims to full participation. Even so, the American record with respect to both social unity and inclusiveness, in comparative focus, is an admirable one - indeed, the best in the world, among multi-ethnic societies.

How much of this achievement should be credited to three decades of Americanization campaigns early in the century, followed by similar efforts in the public schools and other remnants of this period, extending well into the second half of the century? Historical and social science scholarship has no firm answer to this question. To begin with, no one should exaggerate the role of organized social intervention in a process such as assimilation, which is primarily driven by underlying social trends and forces. Assimilation moves forward on the fast rails of participation in the economy, the influence of the mass media, the experience of public education and military service, and through that quintessentially private decision intermarriage. Social intervention, of course, can under certain circumstances wield a powerful hand. The assimilation of the millions of pre-World War I immigrants was given a major, probably indispensable assist by the four-decade pause from million-a-year immigration between the 1921-24 immigration restriction laws and before the 1965 immigration law once again widened the gates. The unifying experience of World War II, another public policy measure, also accelerated the formation of a more unified and ultimately more tolerant society.

'...it is clear from the histories

we have that engagement in the

Americanization effort was a

positive influence in the

building of a more

unified democracy...'

Even so, somewhere below these forces on the list there may be a respected place for the work done in settlement houses, night classes, and free public lectures of the years before World War I. The historical literature is almost mute on this question because historians have not been interested in it, and have in any event not looked in the right places. Any positive contributions from Americanization efforts must be measured primarily in the lives of individual immigrants themselves. But historians of the move-ment have not drawn much from immigrant sources with respect to the question In the struggle to become an American in the fullest sense, what helped the immigrant the most, what were the turning points? No Studs Terkel moved among the immigrant masses, drawing out the oral histories of their gradual adjustment to American life. The Carnegie Foundation in 1918 initiated studies of the immigrant experience with respect to assimilation, and some of the resultant ten volumes were informed by interviews with immigrants. These fragments, along with immigrant biographies, letters and similar primary evidence, deserve more analysis. The Carnegie volumes, which are not histories but contemporary reports, made it clear that foreigners became Americans in the public schools, working in urban, English-language settings, marrying out of the group, or through exposure to mass media, and that some ethnic and racial groups moved up into the mainstream more quickly than others, the children of all groups most effortlessly and the elderly and rural most haltingly. The limited evidence has been poorly analyzed, but suggests that evening classes for adults, study groups and lectures on American traditions and the rest of the Americanization movement apparatus were thought useful in principle by both immigrants and natives, and surely in practice they made some contribution to accelerating the process where it lagged. It is even more clear that the 'coercive,' 'compulsory,' or in the words of Alejandro Portes and Ruben Rumbaut 'subtractive' assimilation that surfaced so suddenly in 1916-17 was resented, and some historians theorize without much direct evidence that it delayed assimilation in some way.

Yet even now it is clear from the histories we have that engagement in the Americanization effort was a positive influence in the building of a more unified democracy, through its impact on the older-stock natives themselves. For while all American-izers, whether old-stock or immigrant, wanted the unassimilated immigrants to change in important ways, it was perceived at the time, by the settlement community especially, that assimilated Americans of northern-European extraction had some changes of their own to make. For them there was an agenda of opening up, of enlarging themselves while including others, and some, such as Jane Addams, expressed great excitement at the prospect. The receptivity of progressives such as Addams to new immigrant cultures, their 'buoyant optimism' in Hartmann's phrase, made the pre-war social crisis appear as a time of opportunity, and lent an important affirmative tone to public life.

The alternative to plunging into Americanization activities in order to unite the nation was to withdraw into apathy and separatism, retreating to the enclaves of the middle and upper-classes already assimilated into Anglo culture, abandoning human contact with the immigrant masses. Instead, liberal Americanizers worked to break down ethnic divisions. If current historical research leaves us unsure whether the immigrants were transformed in positive ways by such efforts, we have solid historical evidence that the Liberal Americanizers most certainly were. They placed themselves back into the ghettos, intellectually and emotionally engaging the social realities of the turn-of-the-century American city. To stigmatize this impulse as 'nativism' and ineffective is by implication to discourage it in the United States of the 1990s, a judgment that would be based upon a mistaken and partial reading of history.

Cautious Affirmation

Thus the policy implications of a closer look at the historical literature on Americanization are not the implications loudly implied by the most recent historians who have forgotten the original version of that movement and remember only the wartime aberration. That aberration, '100%' or 'subtractive' Americanization, was indeed a poor way of going about a good cause that needed doing - social activism aiming to hasten individual and group advancement and social assimilation, and promote national unity. In similar circumstances, if we are ever in similar circumstances, we should not go about Americanization in that way.

But an interpretation of the Americanization campaign ought not to begin with a distorted form of it, coming toward the end. We should first reach an appraisal of the original version, with its little-studied two decades of experience before the unexpected emergency of world war transformed the social and political dynamics. Both immigrants and altruistic older-stock natives, believing that immigrant assimilation was not proceeding satisfactorily when left to itself, organized to devise forms of inter-vention primarily through voluntary associations. The evidence suggests that the results were beneficial in a limited way, more clearly so for the old-stock volunteers who had a habit of leaving behind diaries, letters, and autobiographies, than for the immigrants whose story is less well documented. Presumably the policy implications of this assessment of this part of our history point toward a cautious affirmation of the value of social intervention to assist the assimilation process, should there come a time of massive immi-gration in which there is convincing evidence of impaired or uneven assimilation. Such activism runs the risk of perversion into decidedly negative formulations should war engulf the society. Finally, the best ally to the assimilation process is a lower rate of immigration itself.

Is There a Future for Americanization?

The problem with such history lessons ought to be acknowledged. The America of today is not the same country described by the historians of this earlier period. Our charge was to review the historical literature with an eye to its applications, and we should point out the hazards of deriving and applying history lessons. Some historians lean toward what might be called the 'Santayana' end of the spectrum, impressed by his dictum that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. For them, history teaches lessons for future policy, and ignoring them leads to trouble. Others incline toward the view allegedly expressed first by Heraclitus, that you can't step in the same river twice, implying that historical analogies are a bad guide to policy in a changing world. We offer our thoughts on the implications and even applications of early 20th century Americanization history from a middle position, respectful of both viewpoints.

'...Americans in the 1990s have

many reasons to compare their

circumstances to a century ago.

There is again large-scale

immigration, and worries

about assimilation.'

Despite the truths embodied in the comment about rivers never being the same, Americans in the 1990s have many reasons to compare their circum-stances to a century ago. There is again large-scale immigration, and worries about assimilation. A foundation considering avenues of intervention to address the problems of the 1990s will find in the history of the earlier Americanization movement both cautionary stories and strategic hints.

Organized Americanization efforts of the Liberal Americanization variety at the beginning of this century might well be a part of the solution as the century ends. We hope that this paper has adequately defined the essential character of this approach to Americanization, and also of the coercive aberration that was so unhelpful. Certainly, the notion that immigrant assimilation should be seen as a 'two-way street' was an insight of the most perceptive and creative Americanizers of a century ago, an affirmation of the importance of mutual cultural respect.

Yet even a review of this liberal experience in organized altruism must conclude with a cautionary observation to any institution contemplating activities of this sort. Giving up native languages and customs is the hardest work of life in immigrant-receiving societies, and the voyage to assimilation is always contested. The immigrant, especially the young and the ambitious, wishes nothing so strongly as to become American for purposes of economic success and reasonable social acceptance. But history reveals that from within the immigrant community itself, from established elites in churches, political groupings, elders in the family or ethnic clubs, comes fierce resistance to 'losing our own,' to individuals moving outside the group. There have always been immigrant chieftains building walls around the ghetto and the flock, quick to denounce the very idea of assimilation, fearful of the loss of constituents and heirs. Americanization efforts by foundations should therefore expect to attract critics in the name of immigrant group solidarity.

'There have always been immigrant

chieftains building walls around

the ghetto and the flock, quick to

denounce the very idea of

assimilation...'

Conflict thus comes with the territory, a reality which underlines the importance of the liberal Americanizers' growing awareness that 'change agents' or successfully assimilated immigrants were valuable allies. Historical perspective also confirms their instinct that negotiating the passage between cultures is best assisted not through governments, whose programs have a role to play, but primarily through voluntary associations such as that durable institution still present in most American cities - the settlement house.

If such direct involvement in institutional activities in the assimilation-assisting area are thought too risky for the most risk-averse founda-tions of today, there are other opportunities. The Americanization efforts early in this century lacked a national association or clearinghouse to transmit information and insights among the disparate parts of the enterprise. There is that same institutional vacuum at the apex of today's assimilation-helping efforts by foundations, governments, ethnic and community groups. And there are rich opportunities in sponsored research. The Carnegie Corporation's ten-volume study of immigrant assimilation, launched in 1918 and completed in 1921 after intensive field work, has preserved and analyzed much contempo-rary experience and stands as a model of social research in this field. More sponsored research could provide vital knowledge for a new era of assimilation policy.

Beyond such research, there is a need for intel-lectual work of a more reflective nature. Repeatedly, in our reading of the accounts of historians as well as in contemporary testimony, we encountered a confu-sion of purpose which invited misunderstanding and discord. To what were immigrants expected to assim-ilate? We can see especially well in Hartmann's meticulous history that the Americanizers (of both types) simply assumed that there was a core culture superior to all options, and that all agreed upon what that was. But there was always some confusion about what was in the core. Hartmann concludes that the immigrants were expected by Americanizers to adopt what we would in the 1970s begin to call (without agreeing what it was) America's civil religion - political participation, competence in the English language, respect for the law, some commitment to the egalitarian ideal, the work ethic. But he was hard put to find consensus on this, for Americanizers rarely discussed the matter and thus failed to clarify their internal disagreements. In practice there were widely diverging conceptions of what defined an American, and of the permissible or desirable methods for moving immigrants within those peri-meters. Liberal Americanizers tended to promote a minimalist core, a blend of skills, behavior, and values. Immigrants should become literate in the English language (a skill), learn punctuality, hygiene and a healthy diet and regimen (behavior), and become committed to America's democratic political habits and the rule of law (values). These were essentially non-negotiable, but outside the core they were increasingly tolerant of 'immigrant gifts' that were quite different from mainstream American habits in cuisine, dress, religion, and other customs. As for methods, they preferred voluntarism and assumed coercion to be unnecessary.

But the '100%ers' added to these traits a larger agenda. Thrift and sobriety defined an American (behavior), as did respect for the capitalist system and loyalty to the Ford Motor Company, perhaps conversion to Christianity, certainly the repudiation of radical/terrorist political doctrines (values). Today some would add that an American must be feminist and 'ecolate' as well as literate and numerate. The Right had a larger agenda earlier in this century, but the Left could easily move in the same direction. As for methods of the 100%ers rapid assimilation was in those earlier days a matter of pressing urgency, and some coercion and pressure was deemed to be necessary.

A conversation between these divergent conceptions of goal and method never really occurred in the first two decades of this century. There are no easy or permanent answers to the vexing questions that arise when we ask what changes immigrants should be expected to make in themselves, what aspects of themselves we are happy to leave intact, and how urgently the natives feel about the speed of the process of cultural change. But these fundamental issues are attached to this assimilation issue you have inquired about, and it would be a gift to the discussion ahead of us if someone would sponsor deeper reflection on these fundamental aspects of acculturation. Certainly if the Liberal Americanizers had made these questions of goals and methods clearer, and had better defined their definition of the core, historians might not have submerged them into the 100% faction of the movement and then virtually forgotten the distinction. ;

[Editor's Note The original of this essay contained a considerable number of footnotes which we elected not to print to conserve space. Interested readers should consult a fully documented version in The Public Historian, Vol. 15, No. 4, (Fall 1993).]

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