This is an excerpt from a work in progress on the history of New York City from 1919 to 1945. It will be the third volume of the most extensive and vivid study of the city’s past that has ever been written. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, co-written with Edwin Burrows, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The second volume, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919, appeared in 2017. –Michael Kazin
The furious disagreements among Gotham’s peoples over how to respond to the rise of fascism—the incandescent rhetoric at public gatherings, the growing clashes in the streets—made some wonder if war might not break out over here before it did over there. Certainly some fascists hoped so: “Nothing will be easier than to produce a bloody revolution in the U.S.,” said Goebbels in 1933, dismissing the United States as a threat to Nazi interests. “No other country has so many social and racial tensions. We shall be able to play on many strings there.”
Worries about the city’s (and country’s) fissionability spurred new efforts by old nativists to restore the population to “a desirable homogeneity.” John B. Trevor, the deeply xenophobic Wall Street attorney and pedigreed New Yorker who had helped craft the 1924 immigration restriction law, took the helm of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, an umbrella organization of 115 groups that sought to “Keep America American.” Trevor used this platform, and his status as spokesman on immigration issues for the New York State Chamber of Commerce, to call on Congress to require the registration and fingerprinting of all resident aliens and to mandate deportation for any violation of law, however trivial.
With anti-immigrant sentiment being stoked by national depression and global conflict, it is all the more remarkable that the 1930s witnessed the ascendancy of a very different reading of the city (and the country), one that celebrated multiethnicity as a bulwark of democracy while remaining wary of the perils of fragmentation, about which Goebbels gloated.
In the thirties a movement emerged in Gotham’s liberal and left-wing circles to address both issues—the need to contest racist homogenization from above, and the effort to maintain fraternal/sororal relations between ethnic groups. These coat-of-many-colors advocates included anthropologists and social scientists, philanthropists and politicians, clerics and communists, educators and ethnic advocates. Members launched initiatives that ranged from attacking the pseudoscientific underpinning of eugenics to cultivating comity by teaching tolerance of other nationalities, religions, races, and creeds.
Liberal New York politicians were mainstays of the new tolerance crusade, in no small part because their profession now revolved around the brokering and mobilization of ethnic coalitions. Gotham’s politics had always been decentralized, and Tammany clubhouses had long been attuned to ethnic concerns. But Irish party bosses, determined to retain their hammerlock on power, had relegated other nationalities to subaltern status. Then, in 1933, anti-Tammany reformers created the first “balanced ticket” in Gotham’s history, running—and electing—an Italian for mayor, an Irish Catholic for comptroller, and a Jew for president of the board of aldermen. Tammany swiftly followed suit, and multiethnic slates became obligatory in metropolitan politics.
The New Yorkers running national politics in the 1930s also courted immigrant voters—not surprisingly, given that ethnics were a crucial component of Roosevelt’s electoral coalition. In 1932, during his first presidential campaign, FDR had bid for immigrant support by denouncing the Hoover administration’s callous treatment of resident aliens. On taking office Roosevelt appointed New Yorker Daniel W. MacCormack to be Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization. Declaring that “the New Deal means a more sympathetic and humane consideration of [the alien’s] problems,” MacCormack promptly curtailed warrantless arrests, dragnet raids on homes and wedding parties, and other forms of federal harassment, triggering howls of protest from xenophobes like John Trevor. In 1936, during the president’s reelection campaign, the national Democratic Party institutionalized its ties to ethnic constituencies by establishing a Foreign Language Citizens Committee.
More momentously, Franklin Roosevelt symbolically gathered immigrants into the American fold, notably on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Journeying up to Gotham in October 1936, Roosevelt boated out to Bedloe’s Island and gave a speech that for the first time officially acknowledged that the monument had accrued a whole new status—as secular patron saint of immigrants—in addition to the role of torchbearer of international republicanism that Bartholdi’s generation had assigned it.
The statue’s connection with immigration was partly fortuitous, a function of its placement in New York’s harbor athwart the sea lanes and adjacent to Ellis Island. Had Bartholdi moved it to Philadelphia, as he’d threatened to do at one point, the link might never have been made. Even so, Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”—her poetic 1883 response to the flight here of Czarist-persecuted Jews—remained virtually unknown for decades, along with its signature phrases “Mother of Exiles” and “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Even after admirers of Lazarus inscribed it on a bronze tablet inside the statue’s entrance in 1903, visible to the accumulating thousands, the poem’s message took hold only slowly. Ms. Liberty’s bond saleswoman role in the First World War was hardly immigrant-friendly, and her apotheosis as a national monument was no paean to immigration, coming as it did in 1924, the year the golden door slammed shut. It was only in the 1930s that the sonnet became widely admired and quoted—in caustic counterpoint to refugee restriction.
Roosevelt did not confront this contradiction that fine fall day, but he did eloquently embrace the immigrants. For centuries, he declared, they had “followed the beacon of liberty which this light symbolizes” and “brought to us strength and moral fiber developed in a civilization centuries old but fired anew by the dream of a better life in America.” Gesturing toward the pluralist persuasion, the president noted that they “brought to one new country the cultures of a hundred old ones” and declared “I am proud—America is proud—of what they have given us.” He even expressed his “satisfaction” that those who “have left their native land to join us may still retain here their affection for some things left behind—old customs, old language, old friends.” But he nodded just as vigorously in the opposite direction (as was his wont) by deploying assimilationist imagery. Praising the immigrants for “wisely choosing that their children shall live in the new language and in the new customs of this new people,” he wheeled out a Grand Coulee Dam–sized version of the Americanizers’ favorite metaphor: “Into this continental reservoir there has been poured untold and untapped wealth of human resources. Out of that reservoir—out of the melting pot—the rich promise which the New World held out to those who came to it from many lands is finding fulfillment.” Indeed, he said, Americans old and new are “bound together by hope of a common future rather than by reverence for a common past.”
Ferrying back to the Battery, Roosevelt’s entourage made its way through dense and cheering crowds up South Street, past the Fulton Fish Market, and into the heart of the Lower East Side. At Sara Delano Roosevelt Park he addressed an immense and fervent throng of immigrants—the assemblage dotted with black-hatted and long-coated Orthodox rabbis, bent and beshawled old Jewish ladies, Italians from Mulberry Street, Greeks from Henry, Chinese from Mott—with thousands more hanging from windows and packed onto fire escapes and rooftops of nearby tenements. From the balcony of a Hester Street building, the patrician president in his cutaway grey coat paid his respects to “My friends of the East Side”—the opening phrase alone triggered wild applause—commending immigrant contributions to American civilization (“they wove into the pattern of American life some of the color and the richness of the cultures from which they came”) and hailing them for having on occasion proven better citizens than many who had been here for generations. Later, the New Republic, not without justice, would criticize him for having finessed the crucial issue of immigration barriers, but Roosevelt’s rhetoric would have lasting consequence: ever after, the great statue—like New York City—would be indelibly identified with America’s multiethnic heritage.
Pluralists hailed Roosevelt even more enthusiastically for the brief talk he gave two years later to the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group not known for its racial or ethnic tolerance. “It so happens,” he told his audience on April 21, 1938, that “every one of my ancestors on both sides—and when you go back four generations or five generations it means thirty-two or sixty-four of them—every single one of them, without exception, was in this land in 1776.” Having underscored his impeccable pedigree before the assembled filiopietists, he underscored his patriotic bona fides as well, adding: “And there was only one Tory among them.”
Then he delivered his zinger: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” This celebrated line—often reformatted as “We are all immigrants”—would reverberate widely in the next few years, legitimating cultural pluralism in much the way John L. Lewis’s phrase “The President wants you to join a union” had boosted the cause of labor.
Balladeers for Brotherhood
Radicals too promoted a multiethnic line in the thirties, especially those at national Communist Party headquarters on the ninth floor of 35 East Twelfth Street, a former garment industry loft building, just below Union Square. The party had been multinational at its inception, having originated in an alliance of foreign-language federations that split from the Socialists in 1919. But in the 1920s the leadership, disapproving of nationality as a basis for organizing, tried to disband the language-based sections, a blunder that cost them many adherents. The turn to the Popular Front in the 1930s brought a reversal of this stance, and the party embraced a vision of the American working class as itself a federation of nationalities and races. This led to a resurgence of ethnic-based organizing, most spectacularly fruitful in the growth of the International Workers Order (IWO).
Initially overwhelmingly Jewish—product of a breakaway of Communist members from the Workmen’s Circle, the fraternal organization created by Jewish socialists in 1892—the IWO recruited members into thirteen other nationality-based benefit societies—including Italians, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Hungarians, Slovaks, Russians, Finns, African Americans, and the largely Puerto Rican membership of the Cervantes Fraternal Society—leagued in a pan-ethnic federation. Each offered low-cost insurance against sickness, disability, and death; medical and dental clinics; lodges, sports teams, choruses, dance and theater groups, schools and vacation camps, and an edition of the common IWO newspaper in their language. The federation provided some protection against depression privation, afforded an opportunity to promote labor and left-wing initiatives (without requiring members to join the Communist Party itself), and enabled second-wave workers to preserve their respective cultures. The “culture of America,” IWO president Rockwell Kent said, was “like a tapestry, woven of brilliant colored threads, every one of which can be distinguished, and keep its own characteristics.” (The twenty-six episode dramatic radio series Americans All, Immigrants All was very popular with IWO members, who listened in via “lodge broadcasts.”) Attracted by this secular left alternative to church or party-based sponsorship, overall membership grew from 3,000 in 1930 to 165,000 by 1940—making it the fastest growing mutual benefit operation in the country.
Communists also manifested their multinationality through solidarity campaigns protesting aggression against China, Ethiopia, and the Spanish Republic, and by promoting efforts by second-wave writers, playwrights, and artists to capture the experience of life in the city’s eclectic neighborhoods. These tales told by plebeian Jewish, Irish, Italian, and African-American insiders offered a corrective to outsider perspectives published by dialect writers and literary slummers in Gotham’s foreign quarters. Popular Front journalism—like that of the magazine Friday—offered articles on national and racial histories along with coverage of contemporary cultural doings (Amateur Night at the Apollo, Chinese Opera at the Canton Theatre, Jewish celebrations of Passover) and issues of ethnic concern (a story on anti-alien campaigns was headlined, in a nod to FDR, “We are all immigrants”). And singer Paul Robeson’s concerts offered Popular Front audiences a smorgasbord of folk songs from around the world.
Robeson was also the vehicle for taking Popular Front pluralism to the national airwaves, six months after the triumph of Americans All, Immigrants All, with a thunderous performance, on the same CBS network, of the ten-minute cantata, Ballad for Americans. An astonishingly popular piece, Ballad was a collaborative venture by composer Earl Robinson and lyricist John LaTouche. Robinson, a Seattle-born activist and songwriter, had moved to New York in 1934 and joined the Shock Troupe of the Workers Laboratory Theatre, a mobile corps of young worker-actors (including Nicholas Ray) who lived collectively in a one-room apartment on the Lower East Side and performed agitprop skits at rallies and strikes at wharves and factories around town. He also entered the Composers Collective of the Pierre Degeyter Club (named for the composer of the “International”) along with Aaron Copland, with whom he studied at the Downtown Music School. Robinson wrote many topical songs, most famously “Joe Hill” in 1936, and in the late 1930s he led the People’s Chorus at the IWO. LaTouche had written for left-wing cabarets sponsored by the Theatre Arts Committee, a Popular Front entertainers alliance, and had two songs in the 1937 International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union hit play, Pins and Needles. Together they wrote a cantata, The Ballad of Uncle Sam, billed as a short musical history of the United States, for the WPA Federal Theater Project (FTP) musical revue Sing for Your Supper. The show opened in the spring of 1939, but its successful run was aborted when the FTP was itself shut down.
After it closed, Robinson suggested to his friend Norman Corwin, a CBS radio writer/producer, that he might use the piece in another “sustaining” (non-commercial) program the network was sponsoring: The Pursuit of Happiness, a series of half-hour salutes to democracy. Corwin renamed the cantata Ballad for Americans and invited Robeson to sing it, which he did, on November 5, 1939, before a live audience of 600.
Robeson’s narrator relates the country’s history from the Revolution (“In seventy-six the sky was red / Thunder rumbling overhead / Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed / And on that stormy morn, Ol’ Uncle Sam was born. / Some birthday!”) through the Civil War (“Man in white skin can never be free / While his black brother is in slavery”) and on into the twentieth century. When the chorus now asks the singer, “Who are you? . . . Are you an American?” Robeson replies with a paradigmatic version of the “unity in diversity” theme: “Am I an American? I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French, and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Litvak, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek and Turk, and Czech and double Czech American!” Then he adds: “And that ain’t all. I was baptized Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Presbyterian, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mormon, Quaker, Christian Scientist—and lots more,” a catalog to warm the collective heart of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. After one more historical flourish, including a reference to the country’s darker legacy of “murders and lynchings,” Robeson rolls on to a rapturously hyper patriotic end, a cadenza that trumpets the word “America!”
The 600 in the studio stamped, bravoed, and shouted for the two minutes the show remained on the air, and for another fifteen minutes thereafter, while appreciative callers jammed the switchboard, a prelude to the ensuing flood of ecstatic letters. Ballad was repeated by popular demand on New Year’s Day 1940, and Robeson, backed by Robinson’s working-class chorus, soon recorded it for Victor, and it soared to the top of the charts. Its rhetorical combination of ethnicity and Americanism, of radicalism and patriotism, won it an immensely broad-based following—“it has coursed through the country like a powerful west wind,” wrote critic Howard Taubman in the New York Times—becoming simultaneously an unofficial anthem of the CIO and the Popular Front, and a mainstream phenomenon sung everywhere from Gimbels (by a chorus of Boy Scouts) to the 1940 Republican National Convention (where it served as theme song).
The new “unity in diversity” mantra wasn’t home free, however. The outbreak of war afforded an opening for the balked right wing, which had been champing at the bit to restore the 100-percent Americanism of yore—a yore that never existed, least of all in New York City. John Trevor advocated a ten-year suspension of all immigration, backed a bill to create detention camps for aliens, and his New York State Chamber of Commerce Immigration Committee brought out a report, commissioned from eugenicist Harry Laughlin, that urged Congress to ban entry to anyone whose ancestors were not “all members of the white or Caucasian race.” Then the Fifth Column scare, which Roosevelt helped fan, eased final passage in June 1940 of the Smith Act. Its provisions mandating registration of all aliens and authorizing deportation of those deemed too radical gave Trevor & Co. much of what they desired. A gloomy ACLU radio address predicted “dark days ahead” for every person with a “foreign sounding name, the faintest of foreign accents, or the slightest foreign look about them.”
Yet the racialized 100-percent-ism of the First World War had not, in fact, been revived. The Chamber of Commerce report proved to be Laughlin’s last hurrah. Cultural anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict quickly clobbered him with a pamphlet, “Science Condemns Racism,” which Senator Wagner read into the Congressional Record, and the Carnegie Institution bluntly asked him to retire. Laughlin departed the last day of 1939, when the Eugenics Record Office, too, was shut down. And shortly after the Smith Act passed, Solicitor General Francis Biddle made it a point to meet with representatives of immigrant welfare groups to allay their concerns, a gathering from which the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution were pointedly excluded.
The right’s problem was that fascism’s goose-step uniformity had discredited Trevor’s coercive Americanism, along with anything that smacked of Nazism, in matters small as well as large. That fall brought an announcement from New York’s Superintendent of Schools, Harold Campbell, that the stiffly outthrust right arm with which Gotham’s school children greeted the flag every morning “might be confused with the Nazi salute” and would henceforth be verboten. (For a time the schools employed a hand-to-forehead salute instead, but when military men and veterans grumbled, they shifted to the right-hand-over-heart format that a Congressional Flag Code formally sanctioned two years later.)
While the “unity in diversity” flag thus remained aloft, the onset of war in Europe did lead to a heightened emphasis on “unity” and a diminished enthusiasm for “diversity.” One casualty of this recalibration was Rachel DuBois, who had gotten the New York school system to sponsor assemblies devoted to demonstrating each ethnicity’s “cultural gift” to America. In June 1940 she wrote her educator colleague, Leonard Covello, that their approach to what they called “interculturalism” was being challenged “because of the war crisis.” She was right. Many liberals, even former allies, now saw her approach to cultural pluralism as part of the problem, not the solution. Some had long been concerned that separate assemblies (and radio shows) made Americans overly conscious of what divided them. But at decade’s end DuBois’s fundamental premise—that prejudice was based in ignorance and could be countered by information—came to seem naive. The roots of bigotry now appeared to run deeper, into the subsoil of pathology, beyond the reach of reason. And if DuBois underplayed the obduracy of inter-group antagonisms, it appeared she also underestimated intra-group complexities. Social psychologist Bruno Lasker, brought in to reevaluate her material in the spring of 1940, found Service Bureau representations of immigrant culture simplistic. They focused too much on high culture “contributions” deemed compatible with Anglo values, or on “folk” images that seemed little more than positive inversions of existing stereotypes. Foreign cultures, moreover, were depicted as homogeneous, lacking internal contradictions—and static, lacking capacity for change. Individuals seemed similarly frozen in time—tethered to an inherited identity, mere carriers of tradition. Philosopher Horace Kallen, author of a 1924 pioneering and laudatory study of what he called “cultural pluralism,” had himself been prone to see immigrants as overdetermined by their ancestral culture—a person “cannot change his grandfather,” he’d said—though in the 1930s he had come to appreciate the confining as well as the nurturant qualities of heritage.
DuBois might have proven similarly flexible, but in the hothouse atmosphere of looming war her supporters quickly melted away. Sidelined in her own Service Bureau by funder-pipers calling for a new tune—DuBois attributed their animosity to her being a strong woman—she was forced to resign from the institution she’d created. Her intercultural approach was not snuffed out, however; it had too much momentum. In 1940 the World’s Fair organized a sequence of twenty-four folk festivals, one for every week of the second season, with each immigrant group in turn displaying its “contributions” at the “American Common” pavilion. Nevertheless, leadership of the multicultural forces passed to a man who had emerged over the 1930s as one of the new immigrants’ most visible spokespersons, and who would now articulate the revised standard version of American identity.
Louis Adamic had come through Ellis Island from Slovenia in 1913 at the age of fifteen and had worked his way up from the mail room at the New York Glas Naroda (“The People’s Voice”) to become the paper’s traveling correspondent, reporting on Slovenian settlements around the country. After First World War army service, Adamic settled in California, became a bohemian literary figure, sent contributions back east to the American Mercury, then (in 1929) returned to New York to pursue a professional writing career. In 1931 he published Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America, a timely topic given contemporary fears of bloody upheavals, and a freshly en-Nobeled Sinclair Lewis gave the book an enthusiastic boost. But Adamic decided to shift his focus from labor to immigrants, beginning with himself.
After bringing out Laughing in the Jungle: The Autobiography of an Immigrant in America in 1932, Adamic returned to Slovenia (on a Guggenheim fellowship that Lewis helped him get), where he rediscovered his roots and wrote up the experience in The Native’s Return. Deluged with letters from first- and second-generation immigrant readers urging him to champion their concerns, he did so in a celebrated Harper’s article, in November 1934, called “Thirty Million New Americans.” Adamic argued it was high time the United States accepted it was not just an offshoot of the British Isles but rather of all Europe, and Africa and Asia as well. The country’s roster of talismanic sites, accordingly, should be expanded to include Ellis Island as well as Plymouth Rock. Nor, he insisted, should America consider itself “something that is finished and satisfactory” but rather as “something in the process of becoming.” Ethnic cultures, moreover, were the “material out of which the future has to be wrought”—a future whose “potentialities” were “immense, exciting, and inspiring.” Not surprisingly, Adamic denounced anyone who would damage this immigrant material, impede this progress. In a 1936 article, he lit into the anti-alien lobby—singling out John Trevor for special excoriation—as “fascistic or near-fascistic” xenophobes who were trying “stupidly and, in the long run, futilely—to reverse history and return the country to the past.”
Yet Adamic also lamented the fragmentation of American life, the way it was “chopped up into numerous racial, class, and cultural islands surrounded by vague seas,” and he called for creation of a unified American culture. “I am for integration and homogeneity, for the disappearance of the now sharply defined, island like groups, and the gradual organic merging of all the groups into a nation that culturally and spiritually will be a fusion of all the races and nations here.” Though rhetorically this harked back to the Melting Pot, Adamic opposed any forced or hurried Americanization. That would lead only to further alienation and heightened tensions. Ethnic enclaves, paradoxically, could foster assimilation by providing nurturing havens for newcomers to the American jungle, but only if they simultaneously facilitated self-realization. Immigrants should honor their heritage but not be bound by it, he concluded, and the country should adopt a pluralist Americanism that was open to difference and change.
This was the perspective Adamic and the Foreign Language Information Service—which now renamed itself the Common Council for American Unity (CCAU)—took to the Carnegie Foundation in 1939. Dedicating itself to combating intolerance, the CCAU sought support for a program of “inter-cultural interpretation.” Like DuBois, Adamic and his colleagues proposed to increase public appreciation for the nation’s multicultural character by fostering awareness of each group’s contribution. Like DuBois, they suggested this would undermine the Nazis’ ability to exploit the existing “hatred against the Jew, antagonism against Germans and Italians, and other inter-racial prejudices which, if permitted to continue, are of special danger.” But the CCAU promised to keep its emphasis on what the varied cultures shared, rather than what set them apart.
Carnegie signed on, as did the American Jewish Committee, providing the funds that, among other things, allowed the CCAU to launch a magazine, Common Ground, in 1940. The new quarterly, piloted by Adamic and based in New York, pledged to tell the story of the “coming and meeting on this continent” of peoples belonging to “60 different national, racial, and religious backgrounds” and to demonstrate that “Americans despite their differences shared a common ground.” Only by accepting its multiplicity, by sinking “tap roots deep into its rich and varied cultural past,” could the country could forge “a bond of unity no totalitarian attack can break.”
Thus adjusted, “unity in diversity” became a key component of liberal Americanism. In effect, it replaced the Great Seal of the United States’ old motto, E Pluribus Unum (“From Many, One”) with a new formulation, In Uno, Plures (“In One, Many”). Nowhere was this concept taken up with more alacrity than in its birthplace, New York City, and by no one more enthusiastically than its mayor. “New York’s heterogeneous population is made up of people of almost every race, nationality, and creed,” LaGuardia declared, yet “with all this complexity, we are united as citizens in devotion to our country and to democratic ideals.” Gotham, in Fiorello’s telling, was not simply the progenitor of multiculturalism but its emblem: “New York City,” boasted the Little Flower, “is more than ample proof that in this country men of many races and religion can live together in friendship and harmony.”
This was, perhaps, a bit overhasty. Gotham had indeed managed its ethno-racial-religious antagonisms with remarkable skill, but it was one thing to say a multicultural nirvana was desirable, another to claim it had arrived. To believe the latter one had to gloss over contemporary hostilities in much the way Americans All, Immigrants All had downplayed anti-immigrant animosities in U.S. history.
This was especially the case on issues of “race.” It remained to be seen if “ethnics”—Italians, Slovenians, and other former “races,” now “cultures”—had been ushered inside an all-embracing national identity, or if they’d been shepherded into an expanded racial corral—the one labeled “white,” formerly reserved for Anglos, Irish, and Germans—while nonwhite Americans got shunted off to separate enclosures (in the case of Japanese Americans soon to be made of barbed wire). Paul Robeson could have told LaGuardia, from recent personal experience, that there were ample grounds for questioning his smiley-faced perspective. On New Year’s Day 1940, fresh from his triumphant performance in the second CBS broadcast of Ballad for Americans, the singer went to dine with a friend staying at the nearby Hotel Elysée, but they had to eat in the guest quarters, as the hostelry refused to serve black people in its public dining room.
Even as an ideal, the unity-in-diversity formula had its problems. The notion that Americans All could readily rise above differences of race, color, creed, and nationality muzzily ignored some hard truths: that those differences were rooted in interests, not just attitudes; that privileged groups benefited in very material ways from prejudice and discrimination; that racism and chauvinism were deeply embedded in social, political, and economic structures and sustained by the exercise of power; and that divisions were, accordingly, not as easily transcended as liberals imagined. Then, too, the hope that a more united society would be attained by drawing an encompassing line around those who subscribed to “American” convictions was similarly problematic. It overlooked the fact that ideological divisions could be as ferocious as cultural ones—as battles between “true” Americans and those who held “un-American” values were about to attest (indeed, the Smith Act devoted more attention to heterodox opinions than ethnic cultures).
For all its limitations, the new creed’s repudiation of racialism and celebration of diversity was an epochal development, virtually unprecedented in U.S. history. Because many more people saw this more inclusive American Way of Life as worth fighting to preserve, especially if threatened by master-race fascism, it provided the basis for a pluralist patriotism, an essential sinew of the war that lay just around the bend.
Mike Wallace is a Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at the Graduate Center, CUNY.