Immigration and the Greatest Generation

My father in Navy uniform, with his commanding officer

World War II is receding into memory. Its last veterans are in their 90s and will soon be gone. As the greatest generation passes from our midst, I have been prompted to think about an unspoken message they have for us today regarding the importance of immigration in our society. Who were the greatest generation, and just how did we come to win the war?

My dad was a veteran of the Navy. My mother worked as a secretary for a Navy admiral in the war years. My father-in-law, an engineer, was an Army technician in the Manhattan project. My uncle Lester, a very modest man, did not talk much about his role in the war until perhaps the very end of his life. It was only at his funeral I learned that he received multiple decorations, including the Silver Star, that he liberated Jews from the concentration camps, and spoke with them in Yiddish before the official translators arrived. I wept at the honor guard who attended him at his funeral. I'm sure many of my other relatives have parents or grandparents with records of military service during World War II as well.

Now, it goes without saying that millions of Iowa farm boys and Southern sharecroppers and New England college students enlisted or were drafted and served. World War II mobilized everyone. But it’s also worth reflecting on how much muscle-on the battlefield, on the homefront, in the factories-would simply not have been there, were it not for contributions of people like my dad and my father-in-law.

Although immigrants themselves were vital to the war effort-think of Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi-my parents were not immigrants. They were the children of immigrants. There was a massive wave of immigration between 1880 and 1924, when a brutally restrictive anti-immigration law was passed. This coincided with the peak of Jim Crow and the KKK-a furious racist, nativist backlash much like the moment we are living through now. The millions of immigrants who came in the late 1800s and early 1900s were Italians and Jews and Poles. They looked funny. They spoke foreign languages. They lived in separate communities. They were accused by other Americans of being dirty, diseased, and of not wanting to assimilate-although many did assimilate, and start new businesses or contribute to the arts or professions.

But their children? All of their children assimilated. Typically they still spoke their parents’ language, but they spoke English too. They endured the Depression, they served in the war, and brought honor and victory to themselves, their families, and their country. They went on to help power the economic boom of the postwar years and make the United States the preeminent power of the 20th century. Think perhaps too, of the economic stagnation that has occurred since the 1980s. Could some of that be the knock on effect of the immigration restriction that took place from 1924 to 1965? Where were the children of immigrants that could have sustained and grown the economy? They were missing, that’s where they were.

So when you think about immigration now, don’t think only about the immigrants. Think about their children and grandchildren, and the contributions they have to offer in energy, enthusiasm, and progress. Think about what they will do for the country if we give them a chance. Keep the door open to them, and we keep the door open to our future.