Theodore Roosevelt on 50-50 Loyalty




During World War I Theodore Roosevelt contributed what we would call op ed pieces to The Kansas City Star.  They make fascinating reading.  It is interesting how many of the issues he discusses remain hot topics today.  On March 2, 1918 he wrote about what he called 50-50 loyalty.  It should be noted that as a teenager Roosevelt had lived and studied in Germany and was fluent in German.  Here is the text of his piece:

A CAPTAIN in the regular army of the United States has just been justly sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment for trying to combine loyalty to this country with loyalty to Germany. He was born here of German parents. In Germany, for such an of fense, he would have been instantly shot or hung. And in Germany organizations and newspapers responsible for causing such action would be instantly suppressed and their organizers and editors heavily punished.

The unfortunate army officer in question is paying the penalty for heeding such organizations as the German-American Alliance. Mr. Gustavus Ohlinger has put before Congress facts concerning the past actions and activities of this organization which warrant and require its instant suppression. Its leaders have sometimes been men who practiced a fifty-fifty loyalty between this country and Germany and sometimes men all of whose loyalty was for Germany and all whose enmity was for the nationality, ideals, and language of the American people. It is an outrage that such an organization should be permitted longer to exist. Congress should act against it at once and the Department of Justice should abandon its slack attitude toward German spies and should so act as to convince our enemies that Uncle Sam is not a timid and soft-headed fool, and that hereafter German spies, dynamiters, and murderers who ply their trade here will do so at the risk of their necks.

Teaching German in the public schools should be prohibited. German language newspapers should have a time limit act, after which it should not be lawful to publish them save in English. A few of their newspapers have a most honorable past and are doing excellent work in the present. A number of English language newspapers have preached moral treason to the American people, often covering it by zeal in denouncing all honest and truthful men who point out the delays and inefficiencies in government, actions which make those responsible for them enemies of the American people and aids to Germany; but moral treason in English is at least open, whereas in a foreign language it is hidden.  Moral treason is not necessarily legal treason, but it may be as dangerous, and from senators to school teachers, all public servants who deal in it should promptly be removed from office.

The organizations, newspapers, and public servants who thus betray the honor of America in the interest of Germany wrong all their fellow citizens. But above all they cruelly wrong those loyal Americans, the great majority of our citizens who are in whole or in part of German blood. The loyal majority should lend their utmost energies to securing the condign and summary punishment of the disloyal minority of Americans of German blood who are a disgrace and a menace to this country. Gustavus Ohlinger is an admirable example of the Americans in whole or in part of German blood who is an American and nothing else. All good Americans, and especially all good Americans of German blood, should actively and heartily back him. There is no room in this country for fifty-fifty Americanism.

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  1. TR makes two points that require comment.
    “Teaching German in the public schools should be prohibited.” Most Americans alive today do not realize that a century ago America had a widespread system of bilingual public education which provided quality education to new immigrants and helped them to acculturate to their new American homeland. Public schools taught the ABCs in German, Italian, Spanish, whatever language the local community needed. That cultural heritage ended during World War I. (I remember seeing an old newsreel of school children in Chicagoland carrying their German Language schoolbooks to a bonfire outside the school during a staged display of patriotic fervor.) It was only during the late 70s and early 80s that Hispanic demands for better educational opportunities made bilingual education an issue for public policy debate again.

    TR also wrote that “There is no room in this country for fifty-fifty Americanism”. How true, but I do not think that the majority of the members of Congress of either Party would agree when you recall the standing ovations routinely given to a Middle Eastern ruler whenever he addresses Joint Sessions of Congress or the fact that dual nationality is common and legal in modern America. TR’s statements about divided loyalties are out of step with the modern American Political Elite and its practices.

  2. Bi-lingual education continued after World War I. I am unconvinced that it does not do more harm than good in delaying the complete immersion which is necessary if a foreign language is to be learned swiftly. I am opposed to dual citizenship of any sort. My brother was born in Canada and when he was 21, which was in 1979, had to choose his nationality. (He picked the US.) I don’t know if that was a common procedure back then, or if his being in Army ROTC, and soon to be commissioned had something to do with it. Support of a friendly power like Israel is not what TR was referring to when he condemned 50-50 loyalty. TR was quite the Anglophile actually and he also thought highly of the French. (The esteem in which TR held the French was an example of the maxim that no one, except for God, is perfect.)

  3. War fervor that attacks language and culture because of contemporary quarrels with the foreign country where that language happens to be spoken is stupid in the extreme. Were we fighting with Schiller and Bach? With Mozart or Goethe? So I’m a bad American if I don’t speak English at home or school, or if I read a newspaper not printed in English? Because my home culture is not that of the miserably blinkered English Puritanism (the worst cultural evil ever to come out of the Reformation) that dominated American letters and political thinking for centuries, and that was harsh to Catholics of all sorts until the election of John Kennedy? Thank heavens we German-Americans were too many to intern, unlike the poor Japanese!
    TR was a complex man, but this tirade is not patriotism: it’s at best overheated rhetoric in a time of national stress, at the worst hate-mongering.
    I am a teacher and while the farce of modern bilingual ed is rightly decried, all the research says that children master second languages most readily when they start young. Our foolish practice of waiting until high school to begin such instruction is absurd, and to the extent that it’s driven by xenophobia, embarrassing.

  4. “War fervor that attacks language and culture because of contemporary quarrels with the foreign country where that language happens to be spoken is stupid in the extreme.”

    Yes, except that isn’t what TR was doing. If anything I think he was reacting against identity politics that would balkanize this nation. TR of course frequently read German publications and that might help explain his alarm at what he read in some of the German press published in this country. We also have to remember that agents of the Kaiser had been waging acts of terrorism in the US long before the US entered the War.

    “all the research says that children master second languages most readily when they start young.”

    Completely agree.

  5. “Bilingual education continued after World War I.”
    Bilingual education indeed continued after World War I but not in the PUBLIC schools. (I would like to know what cities continued bilingual education programs in public schools after WWI.) The French Institute Alliance Francaise in NYC and other PRIVATE schools have continued to provide bilingual education opportunities for those who can afford to pay for their children to attend, but they operate strictly with private monies.

    Whether public-funded bilingual education programs are desirable or not is a separate issue, although I agree with the late Senator Hayakawa that English should be the Official Language of the USA. Whatever anyone thinks about TR and teaching the German language, it must be acknowledged that the Patriotic Fervor of TR and others like him has effected profound changes in our cultural, religious, social, and economic way of life during wartime and afterwards, and not always for the better.

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