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Immigrants and American Power
December 1, 2013, 11:20 am

Earlier this month, the center-left U.S. think tank, the Center for American Progress, released a report about immigrants in the U.S. military. As a prominent Democratic think tank, the report was undoubtedly aimed at raising support for immigration reform among Republicans, who tend to support a strong U.S. military.

Political motivations aside, the report is worth a read. Its chock full of interesting historical and contemporary statistics like: Immigrants have served in and fought for the U.S. military since the birth of the nation — from the Revolutionary War to the present. Immigrants, mostly Irish and German, comprised 18 percent of the Union Army during the Civil War. During World War I, more than 192,000 immigrants acquired citizenship through military service. The most recent data available from the Department of Defense, or DOD, show that the active-duty military is comprised of more than 65,000 immigrants, or 5 percent of the active-duty force.

There are also some qualitative insights that help provide context to these statistics: Military service has historically been regarded as a tool for socializing immigrants to the American culture and way of life. Early 20th-century political leaders upheld the U.S. military as a ‘school for the nation,’ particularly for the multitude of new immigrant arrivals.

However, report presents a much too narrow view of the role immigrants have played in American national power. Indeed, immigrants have been at the center of laying the foundations for America’s rise, making it a world power, and ensuring its success on the world stage.Immigrants’ role in America’s rise began with the creation of the Republic itself and they continued to be at the center of America’s rise over the next two hundred years.

The U.S. Grand Strategy during this time was based largely on the twin policies of Manifest Destiny (expanding U.S. territory) and the Monroe Doctrine (expelling the Europeans from the Western Hemisphere). The Manifest Destiny was dependent on rapid population growth and America got that, partly because of a high birth rate, but also because of the huge numbers of immigrants arriving in the U.S. each year. 

Many of these immigrants played indispensable roles in some of America’s strategic projects during this era. For example, despite widespread discrimination against them, Chinese immigrants essentially built the country’s transcontinental railroad system, while European immigrants helped fill the growing number of U.S. factories that helped turn America into an industrial power second to none.

Though America didn’t truly arrive on the world stage until WWII and its aftermath, once again, “New Americans” had an immediate and lasting impact. Many of the most important scientists working on Project Manhattan, which built America’s first nuclear weapons, were European Jews who had come to America to escape persecution from the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Immigrants outsized role in America’s foreign policy successes continued during the Cold War and beyond. Indeed, with few exceptions, many of America’s sharpest foreign policy minds in the post-WWII era have been European born, including Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hans Morgenthau and Madeline Albright.

Americans have had a lot less prominent Arab-American statesmen to help it navigate the Middle East in the post-Cold War era. While America’s failures there have multi-faceted origins, one wonders if the U.S. might have avoided some of these pitfalls had it had more Middle Eastern-born Americans playing a leading role in formulating U.S. foreign policy in the region.

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