My paternal grandfather drove an Army supply truck in France during World War II. My maternal grandfather was a flight instructor at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina. My dad’s dad, William Winkler Blackmore, born in 1919, was part of the first generation in his family that did not speak fluent German. My mom’s dad, George Wilson, born in 1923, spent the first three years of his life in Karuizawa, Japan, where his parents were stationed as Baptist missionaries. Both of my grandfathers volunteered for military service, choosing, like many men of their generation, to fight for their country in the Great War. Only one of them was asked to pledge his loyalty to his country — and against an enemy he had some ties to — before he service was accepted.
Ever since British colonists took up arms against the British army in 1775, Americans have been enamored with such stories: people fighting for the idea of America. From the Founding Fathers — who were British until they became Americans — to Buffalo Soldiers to Native American code-talkers to Muslim Americans fighting in the Middle East, the history books love a good story about “transcending race” or identity in order to protect the greater good of the nation. Of choosing country over self in order to make American great again. The notion that being American isn’t about race fuels ideals as profoundly democratic as the American Dream, and as misguided and damaging as Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. And these stories about Great Americans who see past their own identities in times of conflict are, indeed, exceptional: They are the exception. And they’re often used to help mask the stories of other Americans — who have just as much a right to call themselves Americans — who are subjugated and abused for their race, language, or background.
In 1942, 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were rounded up and placed into interment camps. In 1942, my grandpa George walked into naval offices in lower Manhattan to volunteer his service. But before he could join the military, he was required to denounce the country of his birth and pledge allegiance to the United States. This, despite only having lived in Japan for three years as an infant, and having both a U.S. birth certificate and passport. But at a time when Nisei — second-generation Japanese Americans — who lived their entire lives as Americans and Californians were seen as a potential threat to national security, anyone with ties to Japan was under scrutiny. According to the University of California-Los Angeles’ Suyama Project, which documents the lives of those kept in what scholars at the schools call American concentration camps, many of those who were interned had never heard of Pearl Harbor before December 7, 1941.
“It wasn’t long or complicated,” my grandfather told me recently of the oath. “The offense was that I had to do it.”
The U.S. government held a small number of Germans and Italians — nationals and American citizens alike — during World War II, but the brunt of the national paranoia about the enemy among us was borne by Japanese residents. Historians behind efforts like the Suyama Projects and the University of California’s Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives argue (convincingly) that the persecution of Nisei and their immigrant parents, Issei, was fundamentally racist.
And so it was. But part of the reason why German Americans were not detained in such large numbers in 1942 — and part of the reason why my grandpa Wink, more ethnically tied to the enemy than my grandpa George could ever be — is that World War I had already crushed the distinct cultural identity that German immigrants and German Americans had maintained over generations of living in the U.S.
On May 23, 1918, the year before William Winkler Blackmore was born, Iowa Governor William Harding issued a proclamation that banned the use of foreign languages in public. Speaking in Des Moines shortly thereafter, Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the governor’s nativist policy — known as the Babel Proclamation — declaring, “There can be but one loyalty — to the Stars and Stripes; one nationality — the American — and therefore only one language — the English language.” At the time, German was the second most widely spoken language in the U.S.
The same year Harding made his Babel Proclamation, 200 people gathered in Collinsville, Illinois, to watch Robert Prager be hanged. Police allowed a mob to drag the German immigrant (and suspected socialist) out of the town jail, where he was being held for his own protection. The killing was first reported in the local paper under the headline, “Anti-German Mob Hangs Man Here,” and the Washington Post referred to the lynching as a sign of a “helpful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country.”
So while my great-grandmother Elsie Blackmore continued to speak German in Mason City, Iowa, it’s no wonder her only child was not afforded the same kind of “Germania” school education that she and many of her relatives had. The Prager lynching was one of the ugliest, most violent moments of anti-German sentiment during World War I, but there were less physical forms of persecutions too. There were stories about elderly women being turned into the police by switchboard operators — and fined $225 a head — merely for speaking German on the phone. Meanwhile, so-called “slacker” courts were established to deal with claims of disloyalty made against German Americans, which included charges of not buying enough war bonds.
After the war, my grandfather started a tree nursery and landscaping company that kept him busy with mowing sod and tending to seedlings until his death in 2007. But since trees and grass don’t do much growing in the cold northern Iowa winter, he spent the off-season woodworking and practicing other hobbies that he would pick up and drop again over the years. One year it was drawing, and another it was writing recollections of his childhood. In one of these letters — dated “Winter, 1997” — he wrote about spending summers in Saginaw, Michigan, where his Winkler forbears settled in the 1870s after leaving Bavaria (to flee conscription in the military, ironically).
In Saginaw, which he described as being “very German,” his grandmother had a German cleaning lady who didn’t speak English. “When she was there both my grandmother and my mother would talk only in German so this woman could be in the conversation,” he recalled. “It seemed weird to me to hear my mother talking a language I couldn’t understand.”
In the greater scope of American history, being forced to shed a language and the cultural heritage that comes with it is a phenomenally tame story about the cost of assimilation. The Prager lynching was an ugly moment, but in was a single lynching — nothing to compare with the lynching of southern blacks, for instance.
As neo-fascist political parties gain power across a Europe that feels fractured, and as language and national origin have become an ever-harsher litmus test for American-ness, this qualifies as living history. Collectively, we remember World War II for its moral clarity, for the stark contrast it offered between good and evil. Yet not until 1993 did Bill Clinton formally apologize to Japanese Americans — and pay them reparations — for the “fundamental liberties” that were “unfairly denied” to those who were held in the camps. The internment program, Clinton wrote, was “deeply rooted in racial prejudice,” and in the hysteria of war.
The insult — if it was even that — of my grandpa George being asked to align himself with the U.S. over Japan does not approach the moral shame of mass Japanese internment on the West Coast. But these stories, these little bits of other countries shed by my grandfathers, offer a glimpse through the crack in the façade of the Greatest Generation, the Good War, and all those Quiet Americans who fought in the trenches, dropped the bomb, and saved us from the Nazis.