The Jewish Welfare Board and religious pluralism in the American Military of World War I.

Author:Cooperman, Jessica

Throughout World War I and during the period of demobilization, the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB) worked alongside the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), a Protestant organization, and The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, as a civilian partner to the U.S. War Department's Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA). In early 1919, just months after the end of the war, Raymond Fosdick, chairman of the CTCA, speaking at the annual meeting of the JWB, assessed the wartime achievements of the three partners by asserting, "The fences have disappeared; the sectarian lines have vanished" in work carried on not as "Jewish work or Protestant work or Catholic work," but as "fundamentally an American work ... for all the troops in the camps without regard to faith." (1)

Audience members, men and women who had devoted their time, money, and energy to the welfare of soldiers, must have been pleased to hear Fosdick praise their efforts and the harmony achieved among these different religiously based organizations. For those involved in founding the Jewish Welfare Board, it must have been particularly gratifying to have a high-ranking government official like Fosdick describe its work as fundamentally American. Less than two years earlier, in April 1917, when the United States had entered the war, the JWB had met with a far more skeptical view of what a Jewish organization could contribute to the welfare of American soldiers. The U.S. War Department had entered World War I committed to building a nonsectarian program of welfare services for soldiers, but it had understood "nonsectarianism" in distinctly Protestant terms. Over the course of conflict, the JWB managed to change official conceptions of the place of Judaism within the American military, and to advocate for a more pluralistic notion of religion in America.

American religious pluralism is most often thought of as a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, a triumph of postwar liberal ideology and a product of the social shifts caused by military service during that war. (2) Ideas about pluralism, however, originated earlier and flourished in the 1910s in places such as the pages of the Intercollegiate Menorah Association's (IMA) Menorah Journal and the writing of one of the Harvard Menorah Society's founding members, philosopher Horace Kallen. (3) Kallen would go on to argue that ethnic "cultural pluralism" was one of the cornerstones of American democracy. Some of the IMA's early supporters, however, men like Jacob Schiff, Cyrus Adler, Julian Mack, and Irving Lehman, were deeply involved in the establishment of the JWB. They saw the welfare work done on behalf of American soldiers as an opportunity to advance a vision of pluralism that was tied to religious belief and practice, and supported by government policy.

During World War I, as a result of the interventions of the JWB, the U.S. government gave official sanction to a new vision of the types of moral guidance and religious observance young men needed in order to be good soldiers and responsible citizens. Judaism was recognized by the state, along with Protestantism and Catholicism, as a "fundamentally American" religion. While such recognition did not immediately transform the United States into a nation committed to broad conceptions of pluralism, it played a crucial role in advancing the idea that religious pluralism was central to American identity, and that the United States was a country of three faiths: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. (4) Welfare programs for World War I soldiers thus marked a critical moment of experimenting with ideas about pluralism and with the possibility of transforming pluralism from a philosophic idea into a state-mandated reality.

The Welfare of Soldiers and the Commission on Training Camp Activities

In 1917, progressive reformer Newton Baker headed the U.S. War Department. Baker had come to Washington after serving as mayor of Cleveland, where he attracted national attention with his campaign to stamp out vice by providing citizens with wholesome, alcohol-free entertainment. He became Secretary of War in 1916 and immediately set out to reform and "improve" the morals and behavior of American servicemen.

Baker grew concerned about the physical and spiritual welfare of soldiers after receiving reports that, during the Mexican Expedition of 1916, bars and brothels had surrounded the men deployed to the border, and incidents of drunkenness, debauchery and venereal disease had run high among them. (5) Baker saw this behavior as a threat not only to military readiness, but also to these men's futures as husbands, fathers and citizens. He appointed Raymond Fosdick to investigate the situation and make recommendations to prevent such conditions in future military operations. On his return from the border, Fosdick testified before Congress, "[T]he fellows went to the devil down there because there was absolutely nothing to do ... [O]ut of sheer boredom, they went to the only places where they were welcome ... the saloon and the house of prostitution." (6)

As the country prepared for its entry into World War I, Baker established the Commission on Training Camp Activities to oversee the provision of welfare services to soldiers and he named Fosdick as its chairman. (7) Baker charged the CTCA with creating a clean and morally uplifting military by helping each man don what he called an "invisible armor" designed to protect him from temptation. In place of the bars and brothels found on the Mexican border, the CTCA would provide wholesome activities, such as athletic competitions, lectures, classes, reading rooms, sing-a-longs and theatrical performances, as well as social and spiritual services--all designed to boost morale and promote patriotism, self-sacrifice, teamwork, fair play, physical fitness, temperance and sexual self-restraint. Both Baker and Fosdick anticipated that soldiers would receive a healthy dose of moral guidance through these services, but they envisioned the program as nonsectarian and open to all American soldiers, regardless of their religion.

Invisible Sectarianism

When Fosdick assumed control over this new government agency, he lacked the resources to implement such a vast new program of services. Indeed, no organization within either the government or the military was prepared to provide an array of morally uplifting and morale-building activities to all of the men called into service. The War Department therefore sought out a civilian partner to help, and immediately settled on the Young Men's Christian Association.

Within days of the United States' declaration of war, the YMCA became a civilian partner to the CTCA. The association established the National War Work Council; named John Mott, general-secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA, as its head; and immediately went to work building educational, religious, athletic and entertainment programs for American servicemen. Fosdick and Baker, pleased with their decision, assumed that the YMCA would provide these services to all American soldiers and sailors, and thus would suffice as the only civilian partner to the CTCA's program for building military morals and morale. The YMCA, similarly convinced of its ability to meet the needs of the troops, promised that its programs would be conducted on a "broad basis ... the facilities and privileges being open alike to officers and men of all arms of the service, regardless of religious affiliation."8

However, American Jews and Catholics felt less convinced of the YMCA's suitability for the job. Founded in London in 1844, the YMCA denned its mission as protecting workingmen from sordid city life through prayer and Bible study. It grew quickly and soon had branches throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada and the United States. The YMCA's popularity increased in the northern part of the United States during the Civil War, when it provided Bibles and religious services to Union soldiers, and continued to grow after the war, even though it initially restricted membership to young men belonging to evangelical churches. By end of the nineteenth century, the YMCA had redefined its mission, opting to emphasize activities that would complement, rather than compete with membership in mainstream Protestant churches. The association placed particular importance on sports and physical education as a means of developing a "balanced" Christian character--luring men to Christianity through the gym. (9) To Baker and Fosdick, it seemed the perfect organization to take up the challenge of ensuring the welfare of soldiers, and the YMCA eagerly accepted this new commission.

The entirely Protestant character of the YMCA, the centrality of Bible study to its work and to the promotion of Christian fellowship, and the fact that it defined the "crowning service" of a YMCA secretary as leading men "to allegiance to Jesus Christ," appeared to be a matter of no concern. The War Department's policies seemed guided by what might be called an "invisible sectarianism" that blinded its leaders to the evangelizing activities and overtly Protestant biases of the YMCA. Even after naming the YMCA as its civilian partner, the CTCA described its programs as entirely nonsectarian. The YMCA reiterated this claim, stating confidently that the morals it sought to teach were universally held, and arguing that its programs would be open to men of all faiths, thus making those programs nonsectarian.

To Jews and Catholics, however, the religious agenda and sectarian biases of the YMCA were anything but invisible. Both Jews and Catholics had long been targets of evangelizing Protestant missions, and they certainly knew about the YMCA's strategy of using recreational activities as a tool for missionary work. (10) John Mott's leadership of the YMCA's National War Work Council, and his resulting position as a member of the CTCA, offered little reassurance...

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