Does Americanization Americanize?

"Many politicians and some students have lacked the courage to say what one, like myself, of foreign descent should frankly assert and defend — that this is, and must remain, an essentially and fundamentally American country."

‘I have a solemn vow registered in heaven that I will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ These words, spoken by President Lincoln at a critical moment in the life of the Republic, are, in substance, what the alien repeats when admitted to American citizenship. Imagine, however, what must have been their significance to Abraham Lincoln, and what, at best, they possibly can mean to tens of thousands of new Americans’ when reciting them in the oath of allegiance which makes them our fellow citizens! And yet we wonder why things are not all as they should be today, and why we should be obliged to ask ourselves again, as we did half a century ago, how it is that ‘an instructed and equal people, with freedom in every form, with a government yielding to the touch of popular will so readily, ever would come to the trial of force against it.’

Of the causes behind the existing unrest this paper will attempt to deal with only one phase — our attitude and policy toward the immigrant as a potential citizen, premising the statement that such attitude and policy have labored under one fundamental error: the failure to distinguish clearly and consistently between the human rights of immigrants and their political rights, between our human duties toward them and our political duties toward our commonwealth. To their human rights and to our human duties toward them we shall refer here only incidentally, dwelling instead upon the study of a policy which has tended, and tends, to grant political rights to very large numbers of aliens wholly unprepared for American life, and utterly unqualified for participation in the government.

As we look back, we see that three methods or processes have found favor among us at various times as means of converting the alien into an American: naturalization, assimilation, and Americanization. The first, which once was supposed to possess a sort of special sanctifying grace per se, has sunk back in public opinion to its purely legalistic function; the second has been relegated with the melting-pot to the top shelves of social laboratories; while the third is now the object of a nation-wide ‘drive.’

There is something both stirring and touching in the almost religious belief that many Americans held regarding naturalization in the early days of immigration to this country: they honestly and sincerely relied upon it as an almost instant solvent for changing a German or a Swede into an American; they looked upon it, in their intense patriotism, as a rite with well-nigh sacramental and mystically spiritual effects.

With the decline of the belief in naturalization as an infallible process of transformation, there came into favor, as a spiritual aid to the former, the less legalistic process of assimilation. The method sounded logical and was picturesque and attractive. We all fell under its sway more or less, especially the social workers and the schools of philanthropy. It was, on the whole, a useful movement, not only because it showed the essential inadequacy of naturalization, but especially because it made us realize very vividly the human rights of the alien in our midst and our indifference to such rights.

The war, which passed like a steam-roller over numberless favorite and popular theories, served also to show the limitations of assimilation as we had attempted to develop it and the strength of alien nationalism, even — and indeed especially — in what we had hopefully considered safe and ‘desirable’ North European stock.


The ancient problem being still with us, and looming large on the background of present-day labor unrest, American optimism promptly has come to the rescue with a new and sure remedy — Americanization. It is part of our enthusiastic idealism, part of our ‘habit of practical performance,’ to wish to correct every trouble and right every wrong quickly; and, in order to do it quickly, we often refuse to see any subtle and intimate complexity in the problems which confront us, but cheerfully and rather naïvely ‘simplify’ them and reduce them to ‘essentials,’ which can be, as it were, surgically treated with ease and precision.

But there are problems and processes so obscure and complex in their causes, so slow, intricate, and subtle in their development and ramifications, as to be refractory to any simplification and impossible of any accelerated or swift solution. One of these is Americanization, which, like every essential and effective change of nationality, involves two distinct processes and two vital decisions in a man’s life: a divesting one’s self of a deep-rooted patrimony of ideas, sentiments, traditions, and interests, and an honest and whole-hearted acceptance of, and participation in, an entirely new set of ideas, sentiments, traditions, and interests.

In order to grasp the difficulties in the way of real, and, therefore, of the only worthwhile Americanization, let us consider the processes involved in the reversal of such conversion. Think how suspicious we are of any instance of de-Americanization; how suspect, for instance, to the popular mind is the Anglicization, not only of a Waldorf Astor, but even of a Henry James, and, generally, how taboo is the man who ‘turns.’

Or let us illustrate the process on a large scale as being nearer to our own problem: let us suppose that the French government, or a large section of the French people, had decided to attempt to Gallicize our boys of the A.E.F. while they were in France, and had made a nation-wide ‘drive’ to accomplish it in five years, at the end of which time any of our men who said they wished to change would have been admitted to French citizenship. Will any American claim that this would have worked at all, or that the French citizens thus secured would have been much of an asset or a help to the French nation?

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In