Usually lurking somewhere in today's ongoing immigration debate is an idealized notion of times when the vast majority of those coming to our shores were Europeans. One of those periods was the early part of the 20th Century when eastern, central and southern Europeans came en masse. More than 1-¼ million immigrants arrived in 1907 alone. By 1910 foreign-born residents accounted for almost 15 percent of the country's total population. By 1914 one of every three Americans was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.
Yet, as David Laskin explores in The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War, the influx of Italians, Poles, Slavs and Jews has become a golden age thanks to the perspective of a century of history. At the time, immigrants tended to have low-paying jobs, often lived in their own sections of cities where little English was spoken and were commonly referred to as dago, kike, polack, bohunk, wop, yid or some other slur. Laskin suggests that the service of immigrants in the American military in World War I was a significant step in the American melting pot.
The Long Way Home casts that motif around the lives of eleven individuals who came to the country from places as diverse as Norway, Italy, Poland and the Russian Pale of Settlement and an American-born son of Slavic immigrants. Relying heavily on government documents, family records and memories, Laskin traces their stories from their native lands through their arrival in the U.S., their service in the U.S. armed forces in World War I and their lives after the war for those who survived. In fact, more of the book details their pre-war histories and issues confronted by the service of immigrants in the military than their experiences once the U.S. entered the war.
The fact most of the immigrants were not citizens was not the only concern about them enlisting or being drafted into the U.S. military. Some ethnic groups opposed the war for political or religious reasons. To illustrate this, the book details the stories of Hutterites from South Dakota who were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military on religious grounds. Much of the concern arose from the fact that 15 percent of the country traced their heritage to nations America was fighting and some immigrants had fathers, brothers, cousins or uncles in the armies of those nations. As a result, there were questions about not only who immigrants supported in the war but where the loyalties of immigrant draftees might lie. It was a legitimate concern for the military, given that at the peak of America's involvement in the war nearly one in five of its soldiers were foreign-born.