One of the most successful tools in the arsenal of assimilation is barely noticed. It is not as obvious as learning English. Its benefits are not as apparent as getting an education, or a job. But it has been instrumental in helping millions of immigrants make the emotional transition from their countries of origin to new attachments that are, in the best circumstances, part of becoming an American.
I am writing about the mighty hyphen.
Like most commonplace things whose importance we don't really notice or appreciate, the hyphen has labored quietly to produce the very results that lead to its relative anonymity and obscurity. It has helped millions of new arrivals from Europe, Asia, and Africa make the transition from immigrant to American.
Yet its importance has rarely been recognized and some very high-level political officials have inveighed against its use. Theodore Roosevelt, writing during World War I and preparing the United States for possible entry into that war, was worried about German and Austrian efforts to sow discord among munitions workers in the United States and among their former nationals living here more generally.
In that context he gave a speech at the Knights of Columbus in October 1915 was adamant in his denunciation of hyphenated Americans. During that speech he said:
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.
Interestingly the New York Times report of the speech headlined "Roosevelt Bars the Hyphenated," subtitled that headline "No Room in This Country for Dual Nationality, He Tells Knights of Columbus." This conflating of hyphenation with dual nationality clearly predated the emergence of the real thing – dual citizenship.
Nor did Roosevelt have much patience for countries that sent their nationals to the United States trying to retain an emotional grip on them. He said in the speech:
it has recently been announced that the Russian government is to rent a house in New York as a national centre to be Russian in faith and patriotism, to foster the Russian language and keep alive the national feeling in the immigrant who come hither. All of this is utterly antagonistic to proper American sentiment, whether perpetuated in the name of German, of Austria, of Russia, of England, or France, or any other country.
One feels certain that were he alive today Roosevelt would have no trouble adding Mexico and any of the numerous other immigrant-sending countries that have tried to leverage their nationals for their own state and political purposes.
Americanization was a major theme for Roosevelt in later life and in one of his last public letters before his death he wrote:
In the first place we should insist that the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equity with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming an American and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American but something else also, isn't an American at all.
Aside from preparing America for possible entry into the war then raging in Europe, Roosevelt had another large immigration reality to address: "Beginning around 1880 and ending in the mid-1920s, the last wave brought more than 23 million immigrants to the United States; by 1910 almost 15 percent of the population was foreign born." That unprecedented wave of immigrants raised in the most direct way how it would be possible to help these new immigrants become American. The answer, which Roosevelt championed, was a conscious effort to accomplish this through a government-business-civic policy partnership of "Americanization."
That partnership's effectiveness is evidenced by its results; but Roosevelt was mistaken both as a matter of psychology and process about hyphenation.