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  • A Duty to Defend? The Evolution of Aliens’ Military Obligations to the United States, 1792 to 1946
  • Candice Bredbenner (bio)

Since the nation’s founding, generations of Americans have proudly characterized the United States as a “land of immigrants.” Yet the country’s treatment of its foreign-born population discloses a sustained ambivalence toward that prominent feature of its human landscape. Noncitizens’ access to the major rights and privileges that have traditionally served as key indicators of individuals’ incorporation into the political community, such as the right to vote, own property, or to hold public office or certain occupations, has fluctuated in response to internal and external political, social, and economic pressures. In contrast to this pattern of instability, the badge of civic membership distinguished as the country’s most honorable and demanding—the obligation to fight for the defense of the nation during wartime—has remained firmly affixed to the resident male alien.

Scholars have been attentive to the history of gender and race-based exclusions from some forms of military service, their employment as justifications for the unequal distribution of political privileges and rights, and their contributions to hierarchical understandings of American citizenship. For citizen women and African American men, state-imposed restrictions on their access to military training and service served as another impediment to their claims to the full range of rights enjoyed by white male citizens. 1 Yet what has been less visible in this valuable scholarship on the political linkages between U.S. citizenship and military service are those circumstances in which policy broke with that basic formula—that is, when the state imposed [End Page 224] military obligations on individuals who could make no claim to U.S. citizenship.

The following examination of aliens’ compulsory military service explores the political objectives and strategies that guided this seemingly contradictory development in the history of U.S. citizenship and military obligation. The major portion of this article will focus on the most critical years of policy development, those stretching from the introduction of the first federal laws governing the conscription of aliens during the Civil War through an active era of policymaking in the early decades of the twentieth century. Substantial expansions in the federal government’s administrative power over naturalization and the terms of military service would furnish both the authority and resources to enforce these enhancements in aliens’ political duties to the state. By the end of this period, the combined influence of law, policy, and community norms had dictated a sharper articulation of the civic responsibilities of noncitizen residents; and immigrants, especially those who aspired to become U.S. citizens, confronted rigorous new national and peacetime standards of political obligation.

It was during these decades that aliens’ access to certain political and civil rights, as well as citizenship itself, shift ed dramatically and then assumed distinctively exclusionary features. Consequently, at a time when the political rights of aliens had entered a period of decline on the state level and access to U.S. citizenship had become more challenging, federal policies were continuing to elevate or reinforce the importance of noncitizens’ political obligations to the nation-state. The complementarity of these contrasting yet politically compatible developments becomes most visible when examined from within the entwined historical narratives of alienage, citizenship, and civic nationalism in the United States. Yet, when viewed in this context, these policy trends also expose some unresolved tensions lurking within Americans’ understanding of the formation of political obligation and its ability to define the distinctive attributes of national citizenship.

The Blurred Boundaries of Political Obligation: Aliens, Citizens, and the Conditions of Military Service Prior to the Civil War

With the notable exception of the country’s Vietnam conflict, military service during wartime has maintained an unparalleled brightness in the national firmament of civic obligations. Since the American Revolution, the country’s [End Page 225] soldiers have served as representations of an otherwise fading republican ideal of a sacrificial citizenry. The durably appealing image of the citizensoldier, civilian first and soldier second, has helped sustain the deeply civic character of military service. But this popular representation of patriotic dutifulness has deflected attention from the fact that in times of war the...


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pp. 224-262
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