Serving America: Military Service in the Greek American Experience

The First World War occurred at the end of a period of mass European migration to the United States. At the beginning of the US entry into the war in 1917, 15% of the population of the United States was foreign-born and 40% of the population were immigrants and their children. While many were skeptical about how loyal these new arrivals would prove, any doubts were quickly put to rest, as these new Americans rose to the call of duty.  

Initially, these new recruits experienced a host of problems adapting to the US military, largely related to cultural and language barriers. The military acted quickly to address these problems, providing soldiers with classes in English, American history, and civics. They also promoted multilingual officers and sought to provide resources so that soldiers could celebrate their traditional holidays, practice their own religions, and even eat their ethnic food. In turn, these soldiers developed deeper ties to the United States and formed relationships with other Americans from different backgrounds. In this way, the early twentieth century military became one, among many, proving grounds for the great American experiment of multicultural republic. 

NHM Collections Manager, Jeremy Bucher, briefly discusses patriotic songs and immigration on the eve of the First World War.

The United States entered the First World War immediately following the largest and most significant period of immigration in American history. Immigrants accounted for 15% of the population of the United States by the mid-1910s, the highest percentage ever. And 60% of Americans had at least one parent who had been born abroad. In this climate, American identity was in flux and what it meant to be an American became a hotly contested topic. The United States entry into the war heightened the desire to assimilate new Americans and their children and to present a unified version of Americanness.

Popular songs throughout the First World War spoke to this desire. One such song is  Let’s All Be Americans Now by Irving Berlin, the great American composer who was himself a Jewish immigrant from Russia. The song acknowledges that those listening might be sympathetic to England, France, or even Germany--a nod to America’s immigrant character and the complicated networks of allegiances and loyalties immigration can create-- but then insists that the right thing to do, the thing the listener has chosen to do by living in America, is to “be an American now.” So click on the link below to have a listen and consider how you might have felt as a new American hearing this song on the eve of war.

In addition to Phillos’s service in the US Army during the First World War, his family’s candy store hosted a fundraiser for the American Red Cross in support of the war effort. The store donated a whole day’s receipts, a total of $335.00 (the equivalent of about $6,700 today).

In support of the war effort, Red Cross fundraisers, war bond drives, and other activities on the home front were common occurrences. 

Postcard

NHM Collection 2003.26.3 

Thirteen red cross ladies standing in front of Phillos Candy shop. The sign hanging outside of the candy store reads: "Entire Receipts To-day goes to the American Red Cross." The caption at the bottom of the picture reads: "Red Cross Ladies in front of Phillos' Candy Shop, July 24th, 1918. Entire day's receipts $335.00 were donated to the Red Cross by Mr. C.D. Phillos.”

Postcard

NHM Collection 2003.26.4b 

Red Cross Blood Drive.

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NHM Collection 2003.26.10

Flyer for Phillos' Candy Shop Red Cross fundraiser.

Like many of the immigrant soldiers who fought in the First World War, George Phillos had prior military experience. He had served in the Greek military during the previous decade, but because he was not yet a US citizen, George could not be drafted; however, like many immigrants he chose to enlist, joining the army around 1915.

NHM Resident Scholar, Dr. Katherine Kelaidis, briefly discusses immigration and the American military during the First World War.

Throughout American history, military service has been one of the consistent ways in which new arrivals are assimilated into American life. This was especially true during the First World War, when America entered a war at the end of the greatest period of immigration in the nation’s history. The fact is that cultural and linguistic differences did cause problems as America ramped up for war. But the United States military acted swiftly to overcome these challenges, through strategies that are part-and-particle of the larger American tradition for creating “new Americans”. On one hand, the military made efforts to meet immigrant recruits where they were: promoting multi-lingual officers, celebrating traditional holidays, and  enhancing the approved cookbook with recipes from the countries from which immigrants had arrived. At the same time, soldiers and sailors were expected to lean into their new American identity as well. English and civics classes became an important part of the training programs. Importantly  these new recruits were given an opportunity to meet and form real friendships with people outside of the ethnic enclaves in which most immigrants, and their children, lived. These relationships, perhaps more than anything else, proved critical in forging a common bond of American-ness that reached across the cultural, linguistic, religious, and regional differences that divided not only America’s military, but the American nation. Having had this experience, veterans felt a greater sense of belonging in America. For example, veterans sought American citizenship at higher rates than their counterparts who had not served. In this way, the First World War became a pivotal moment not just American or world history, but in the individual histories of the new Americans who served their country during the Great War.

Photograph

NHM Collection 1998.22.2

George Phillos in his U.S. Army uniform, c. 1915.

Photograph

NHM Collection 2003.26.254

George Phillos is in the second row from the front, second from the left. This photo was taken at an early American Legion Convention. September 9, 1923, Danville, Illinois.

Postcard

NHM Collection 2003.26.53

Military parade along Market Street in San Francisco.

Serving America: Military Service in the Greek American Experience