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Friday, April 4, 2014

Trans-State Politics: American Migrants and the First World War

"The foregoing analysis shows that because of the nature of diasporic entities, their members tend to become deeply involved in the political affairs of host countries and homelands, as well as in regional and international politics."

Gabriel Sheffer
Diaspora Politics:  At Home Abroad

What ever did we do before Google? (We probably worked harder for our knowledge and were the better for it.)

I promise to stop being a curmudgeon now and give credit where it is due.  This document came up this morning in response to one of my Google alerts.  A Message from Americans Abroad to Americans at Home published in December 1916.

World War I was raging in Europe at the time but the United States was still neutral and had yet to take a side.  From what I have read most Americans in the homeland supported Wilson's policy of neutrality and it took time for those attitudes to change.  The United States finally joined the conflict in April of 1917.

This open letter from Americans abroad (in Europe) was an attempt to influence the American government and homeland public opinion about the war.  It lays out an argument against neutrality and appeals to the conscience of Americans using words meant to resonate with Americans.

What I find most interesting about it is the first paragraph where they respond to an unspoken but clearly anticipated argument about their standing as Americans living outside the United States.  Who are we to be writing this to you?

Part of the answer is in the address:  "Fellow-Countrymen".  The use of that term makes it very clear that they may live abroad but they are still American citizens and this conversation is between compatriots and equals.

But perhaps not so equal because they go on to justify themselves:
"It is often said that Americans staying abroad lose their right to counsel those living at home, since foreign residence directly affects their opinions and sympathies." 
Ah, the evil "foreign influence" - the idea that their presence abroad may make them rather suspicious since the homeland can no longer be sure where their true sympathies lie.
"The latter part of the statement is true:  but we should also remember that residence abroad gives many opportunities of observation and that those who follow the course of events close at hand are in a better position to get direct impressions of fact upon which adequate conclusions can be based." 
So they admit that they are influenced by their host countries but they also point out that they are in a much better position to understand what is really going on since they are there on the ground and can see for themselves what is happening.
"While, therefore, not at all concealing our sympathies, we the undersigned Americans at present abroad, venture to present certain considerations on the war to you, our fellow-countrymen.  We speak for hundreds of our fellow-citizens abroad, who share our views."
I just love the "Americans at present abroad" because it's rather coy, isn't it?  The implication here (at least when I read it) is a kind of assurance of the temporary nature of that residence outside the U.S.   And for many of those Americans abroad it probably was true that they were only temporary migrants.  One does have to wonder, though, how many became, as  Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels calls them, "Accidental Migrants."  We know, for example, that Gertrude Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 and was a very permanent resident of France - she died in that city in 1946. (Nothing "temporary" about 40 years of residence abroad.)

The note concludes by noting the actions of a "sister American republic", Brazil, whose parliament made a motion to condemn neutrality, and strongly suggesting the America should do the same thing:
"We did not take this initiative, but we can follow this example....Let us adopt these words and do our utmost to uphold them - everyone of us who loves his country and believes in the principles of American Independence."
Fascinating. A shot straight to the heart of patriots - one which bases this call to action firmly on American political tradition.

Last word.  Take a good look at those who signed this message - in many cases their professions are noted after their names.  There are architects, doctors, lawyers, exporters, professors, merchants, authors, artists, relief workers and electrical engineers.  Quite a diverse group.

I don't know any more about this document - on whose initiative it was circulated, for example - but I am interested.  If you have more information, please share it.

I've embedded the book at the end of the post.  It's a bit hard to decipher but don't immediately lose heart because there are tools in the reader to zoom it, and you can also get it in PDF format suitable for printing.

Enjoy the read and your Friday, too.


Ellen said...

Well, I noted Edith Wharton's name on the list of signatories. In fact, there are a lot of women on this list and before 1919, they couldn't vote. It's an interesting document. Thanks for digging it up.

Blaze said...


Patrick said...

Interesting post about a very interesting albeit undemocratic time for the USA. This was the period where Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party presidential candidate was sentenced to 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life for protesting against involvement in the First World War. This was also the time where President Wilson authorised the young J.Edgar Hoover to arrest and deport "disloyal foreigners" without trial. This was also a well documented period of severe racism against African Americans and policy of disenfranchisement more actively than passively supported by President Wilson.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Patrick, Last week in between the garden work I read an excellent book called Aftermath which is about the deportation machine in the US. Left a terrible taste in my mouth. That I am the citizen of a country that treats people this way really bothers me. But as you point out it's hardly the first rodeo, right?

The book has been on my mind all week and I will write a review but only after I get some distance from it.

Ken Smith said...

Fascinating. Thanks for posting.