Though the United States would not enter World War I for another year, by 1916 the ethnic animosities tearing Europe apart could be felt keenly within American communities. Immigration rates had soared in the preceding decades—in 1910, nearly 15 percent of the population had been born outside of the United States. The growing number of new arrivals was regarded with resentment and suspicion from many native-born Americans. As the conflict unfolded overseas, those feelings only intensified.
The progressive writer Randolph S. Bourne recognized the rising tension, and in July 1916 he responded by challenging not only the idea that immigrants posed a threat to American democracy, but also the ideal of a “melting pot” that would assimilate the nation’s diverse population.
“We act as if we wanted Americanization to take place only on our own terms, and not by the consent of the governed,” he wrote. But, he continued, “America shall be what the immigrant will have a hand in making it, and not what a ruling class, descendant of those British stocks which were the first permanent immigrants, decide that America shall be made.”
The bitterness directed toward newcomers would soon thereafter be codified into restrictive new immigration quotas that perpetuated racial and ethnic discrimination. But Bourne offered a hopeful alternative to that ethno-nationalist antagonism, imagining an Americanism that could be broadened, strengthened, and united by embracing persistent cultural differences rather than one that closed itself off to them. — Annika Neklason