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The Living Legacy of WWI: Forgotten Aspects of the Western Hemisphere & WWI, with Richard Millett

May 15, 2018

Pancho Villa Expedition. Column of 6th and 16th Infantry, between Corralitos Rancho and Ojo Federico, January 1917.
CREDIT: C. Tuckber Beckett/U.S. Department of Defense/Public Domain

REED BONADONNA: I'm Reed Bonadonna. I'm a senior fellow for the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and I'm talking from the Carnegie Council building, here on Lexington and 64th in Manhattan. I'm the lead administrator for the Living Legacy of the First World War sponsored by the Council, and I'm going to be talking with one of the nine Fellows who were selected to pursue research topics concerning the experience of the First World War.

Today's interview is with Richard Millet, research associate of the Center for International Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis; vice-president of the Midwest Association for Latin American Studies; and the previous chair of military affairs at the Marine Corps University. His project focuses on the forgotten aspects of the Western Hemisphere and World War I.

Richard, you have written a lot about the Western Hemisphere around this period of time. You are fluent in Spanish. This has obviously been a professional focus for you. Why this place and time? Was it about the culture, the events that took place? Do you have any kind of a personal connection to Central America and South America during the period under consideration?

RICHARD MILLET: In some ways [I do] because of all of the work I have done on the U.S. interventions in the region, many of which fall right precisely in this period, and also because I am professionally a historian. As you can see, an awful lot of my writing has been policy-oriented, and I have always been convinced that if you do not understand the past, you will not understand where you are and you will have no idea where you are going.

REED BONADONNA: Right. So the initial interest then was in U.S. interventions around the globe and in particular in the Western Hemisphere. Why that? Why was that starting off a topic that was of interest to you?

RICHARD MILLET: It is one of those moments of Robert Frost's "two roads diverged in a yellow wood." My junior tutor at Harvard suddenly suggested out of the blue—and it wasn't anywhere near his own field—that I do my senior honors thesis on the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. When he suggested it, I didn't even know there had been an intervention in Nicaragua. But I got fascinated. I did work in the National Archives as an undergraduate and made the decision at that point that if I was going to deal with U.S. policies in Latin America I had better learn Spanish and I had better learn Latin American history because I did not want to be one of those who treated Latin America simply as a stage on which we danced.

REED BONADONNA: Nice. Good. We have all had moments like that. My Ph.D. dissertation, which led to other work, hinged on a conversation I had with my advisor at Boston University. It had nothing to do with her specialty, but I think she probably read me right.

You have alluded a couple of times, actually, in emails to the research you are doing and, I think, some finds that you have made getting into this. I was interested in hearing probably briefly about any unexpected challenges or discoveries, any assistance from unexpected quarters you have received so far in your work.

RICHARD MILLET: I have been getting some help from a couple of friends in Latin America who are former colleagues or former students, actually. The most unexpected stuff has been especially some of the material related to Hispanics in World War I.

What I discovered to my own surprise was that there are some articles about diversity in World War I, but they don't include Hispanics. They include notably African Americans, Native Americans, and sometimes women, but nothing about Hispanics. That may be in part because the census did not begin counting Hispanics as a separate category until 1970.

REED BONADONNA: I didn't know that. That's interesting.

RICHARD MILLET: I didn't either when this started. And then you find that standards varied from state to state. You had contradictory things going on. In Texas, because in part of the border uptake, you literally had an increase in lynchings, and at the same time a great number of Hispanics put into the military in non-segregated units, one of whom even won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

REED BONADONNA: Reading your proposal over again recently, I noticed that you mention the "Latino experience" in World War I, I think three times in course of the proposal. I was wondering: Is that going to be a focus or even the focus?

RICHARD MILLET: That is becoming even a larger focus. I have two rather distinct parts. The one is the Hispanic experience, and this notably includes Puerto Rico, which again was something I had not a clue on, and most of my Puerto Rican friends had not a clue on. Second, it is obviously the U.S. relations with the hemisphere.

There are links, especially in the Mexican case, but there are more distinct aspects to the two of them. I think both are definitely worth pursuing.

REED BONADONNA: You mention two aspects. Maybe I missed it, but how would you break those two aspects down?

RICHARD MILLET: As I said, the fact that we did not have any separate category for Hispanics ran right into the U.S. tradition of segregated military units. Where do you put these people? How do you classify them?

I cannot look at this on a national basis in part because there are no separate Hispanic statistics as such. You have to look for Hispanic surnames in things like unit records. But quite clearly in Texas and in New Mexico there was considerable documentation on this.

One of the reasons I got interested was because I did my Ph.D. at the University of New Mexico, and I knew that this state had been at that time literally officially bilingual, that you had a very strong Hispanic population, especially in the north. In Texas I knew you had strong clusters of Hispanics, and I am finding out a lot more about that. I will probably make an effort to include some material on California. In other states it is simply very difficult to find them in any separate kind of category.

REED BONADONNA: Most people know the story of the Zoot Suit Riots in California in World War II.

RICHARD MILLET: I grew up in Southern California. My mother was the head librarian in East Los Angeles, so I do have a lot of experience with that community.

REED BONADONNA: Right. I was wondering if in World War I there were any equivalents to that, the Zoot Suit Riots, or sort of a precursor to them? Were things different, better in the First World War in terms of the relations between the Latino and the Anglo population, maybe because they were not being perceived as much of a threat at this point?

RICHARD MILLET: Again, it is a curious thing. You had the problems of the border raids and notably Pancho Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, which produced the Pershing expedition.

REED BONADONNA: Yes.

RICHARD MILLET: You had resentment. You had some very strange articles claiming there was a huge threat with German officers embedded in Mexico on the Southern border, most of which seemed to have been the product of somebody's alcoholic nightmares. You had some lynchings. You had some "anti-" activities.

At the other hand, we passed our first Immigration Act in 1917, the year the war begins, and we suddenly discovered that we had a real shortage of workers in some areas, including military base construction, including harvesting all the sugar beets as far north as Michigan, and so suddenly we started trying to suspend our Immigration Act when it came to Mexicans willing to engage in this kind of labor. In fact, we deliberately promoted sending American contractors down to recruit them. The only prospect anybody talked about building a border wall in this period was designed to keep out Chinese.

REED BONADONNA: A border wall to keep out Chinese?

RICHARD MILLET: We had an Alien Exclusion Act, especially in California, and evidently some Chinese, to avoid our immigration, were coming in through Mexico.

REED BONADONNA: I see. I got it now.

RICHARD MILLET: It was very strange.

REED BONADONNA: You mentioned that you are a historian with a strong interest in policy in the sense that policy needs to be informed by history. The research you are doing now for this project, has this—and these may be tentative at this point—given you any thoughts about implications for policy today, for government policy to do with immigration, border control, diversity?

RICHARD MILLET: We don't establish the Border Patrol itself until after World War I. This is quite clearly—it shows first of all how restrictive policies can have unintended and indeed counterproductive effects. This very clearly happened with our first efforts, which happened to fall exactly during the time of World War I.

It also shows our amazing problems in trying to categorize everybody by ethnicity and race. It just does not work well with the Hispanic community because you have people who are essentially overwhelmingly European, you have people who are actually overwhelmingly Native American, you have people who are in varying degrees also African American. It bluntly shows some of the absurdity of our traditional race policies.

REED BONADONNA: Anything you care to peg that on for some of the debates that are taking place right now? You alluded to a wall and the issue of immigration, whether they are refugees or seeking political asylum or entering the country for work legally and illegally. When you are looking at the news today, anything that you are reading from this period of a hundred years ago, is there anything that is resonating with you or giving you a different perspective on what is happening now?

RICHARD MILLET: It reinforces one thing which I have preached, if you will, for years, and that is that simplistic solutions are never solutions. Simplistic solutions always fail. I have as a basic principle that if we don't understand something, we tend to simplify it. This shows up again in this case.

The most remarkable case, of course, is Puerto Rico. Unknown to the rest of America, we had one regiment of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico which was totally integrated. The rest of the military was segregated, and the Puerto Rican regiment was integrated. When we started trying to draft Puerto Ricans and form their regiments, this became a very confusing issue. I will go into that in considerable detail when I do the further writing.

REED BONADONNA: Yes, sir. Okay.

You mentioned a Medal of Honor winner. Any human figures emerging from your story who are particularly interesting or maybe neglected by history for their character, for what they were able to contribute?

RICHARD MILLET: Both for good and for bad, I would say. Yes. For example, very recently published by Texas A&M Press—there has been some new stuff coming out literally since I made my proposal, or just at the time of it—a very extensive diary kept by one Mexican American. He serves on the Western Front. It is very informative. It is quite patriotic. But it does include complaints about discrimination. It says again—and I think this applies to the "Dreamers," among other things—don't underestimate their commitment to this country.

REED BONADONNA: Very nice.

RICHARD MILLET: Don't assume because they were born someplace else they don't have as much loyalty—perhaps in some cases more—than the average person born here.

REED BONADONNA: In fact, in my experience sometimes these are the most patriotic people you are ever going to meet, the ones who came from away and have a greater appreciation of the benefit of being an American than someone who was born here, whose family comes from here.

RICHARD MILLET: Which doesn't mean they abandon all concern, loyalty, etc., to their home country. I mean, good grief, Italian Americans certainly don't. Greek Americans don't. You could talk about all sorts of groups in the United States who maintain a degree of special interest and loyalty to a home country, but who nevertheless can be highly patriotic and greatly concerned about this country.

REED BONADONNA: I am pretty sure that recent immigrants or children of immigrants enlist in the military, for example, at a higher rate than native-born Americans do, just going by one statistic.

RICHARD MILLET: Again, as you might expect, in the Hispanic community you had both. When the announcement of the draft came up, we had a reverse flow across the border for awhile, some families just packing up and leaving. But in general—and again, I have looked especially at New Mexico and Texas because these are the highest identifiable communities—great outbursts of patriotism, raising bonds and contributing to the Red Cross, doing all these kinds of things, in some ways more enthusiastically than the rest of the population.

REED BONADONNA: Interesting. One of the things that I like to ask about in these interviews goes back to a comment that I heard about from a historian of the American Revolution a few years ago who was interviewed here at the Carnegie Council. He says, "If you want a sense of what the American Revolutionary War Army was like in camp or in the field, imagine the smell of whiskey and onions together because this is probably what a lot of the soldiers smelled of, based on their diet and habits."

I was wondering if there is any sensory impression—color, feel, taste—that you are picking up from this period across the decades, the century, that might give a reader, a student of the period, a little bit more of a tactile sense of what it was like back then.

RICHARD MILLET: I am trying to think of the best way to answer that. Obviously, army life and army rations were not what these people were used to. The Puerto Ricans were able to do it more because the Puerto Ricans were all trained in Puerto Rico, and while we had raised three regiments, trained them, officered them, and were in the process of beginning to raise several others, enough for an entire Puerto Rican division, none of them ever deployed out of Puerto Rico because the war came to an end just as they were ready. The plans were there to ship them, but it never happened.

The one Puerto Rican regiment that preexisted—and this is where I get nasty in my old age—because they were totally integrated we didn't dare send them to the Western Front. What a bad example that would be. Because they made no racial discrimination, they were not given the privilege of inhaling poison gas. Instead, they were sent off to defend the Panama Canal.

REED BONADONNA: Really. Who was responsible, do you know, for that decision? That kind of thinking may have been pretty pervasive at the time, at least not uncommon, but do you have a sense for why they decided that?

RICHARD MILLET: You cannot figure out where this stuff from the War Department in DC comes from because you only see it as orders arriving.

REED BONADONNA: Part of the bureaucracy.

RICHARD MILLET: One thing I tried to find in the National Archive and I cannot seem to find it anyplace is any debates over this.

One of the other funny things, of course, is we decided to make Puerto Ricans American citizens in March of 1917. A lot of Puerto Ricans believed that was so we could draft them more easily. I want to find the congressional hearings on this, but I have not been able to do this yet, but I am looking, and I am sure I will dig them out. I don't think that was the motive, although a lot of Puerto Ricans believed it, which isn't surprising.

REED BONADONNA: Sort of a post hoc, ergo propter hoc kind of thing.

RICHARD MILLET: Whatever the case, when we did it we forgot that besides making them more eligible for military service, what it also did was give them an unlimited to right to emigrate to the mainland. Evidently nobody thought about this.

REED BONADONNA: I hope you can get to the bottom of that a bit more.

Since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, some historians are more comfortable dealing with ethical issues explicitly than others, but I was wondering whether in the realm of ethics, and we sort of touched on it, in fact, we just touched on it I would say, are there any ethical implications for this story which you think are enduring and to be noted?

RICHARD MILLET: As I said, I think it really says things about both immigration and how you treat people who are born into a different culture. At this point, what again is interesting is that some of the prejudice against Hispanics was as much religious, that is, they were Catholics, as it was against ethnicity.

I think it simply underlines the fallacy and weakness of these things. To me, this is a very strong ethical issue. I am not the least bit uncomfortable in dealing with ethical issues.

REED BONADONNA: That's good. Personally, I hope that you will continue to address that issue as you go forward in your research.

RICHARD MILLET: Oh, yes. I definitely intend to. And we have not even talked about the other part of the research yet. Maybe that should be a separate podcast, I don't know.

REED BONADONNA: We still have some time in this one. I will skip to that question, which I saved some time for the very end, but what is the other half? What have you been omitting so far?

RICHARD MILLET: Just U.S. relations with the other nations of the Hemisphere. World War I is a tipping point in an awful lot of ways, or transition might even be better. The transition is not extremely abrupt or anything, but the way we see and deal with the hemisphere after World War I is different than the many ways we saw and dealt with it before.

One of the fascinating things, although of course it does not come to fruition, is there are strong State Department memoranda about the Versailles Peace Conference and Latin American participation there. The idea is, first of all, that the United States must strongly support—Brazil, for example, which took an active part in the war—their participation and support their causes in order to counter any possible postwar British and French influence.

Up until World War I the British were clearly the most important external power in dealings with Brazil and Argentina. Things were evolving, especially in Brazil, toward more equality with the United States, but both the incredible diminution of British resources by World War I and the increase of the United States and some interesting experiences led the United States to replace in Brazil quite clearly the British as the predominant external power. Argentina, the influence was more mixed and slower, but the trend was quite clear.

One of the things that these memos talk about is how we want to make sure that the Latin American countries become a bloc that supports the United States in the League of Nations, and of course we do precisely the same thing after World War II with the United Nations. In fact, the Russian argument for having separate seats for Ukraine and Belarus was that we had all these Latin American countries and they needed their own bloc.

REED BONADONNA: I may be misinterpreting, but in a sense it sounds like the World War I experience led the United States to think of at least some of the most powerful South American countries as allies and as active allies, not just dependents or pawns in the big game being played between Europe and America, but that we expected a country like Brazil, that I believe had been a belligerent in the First World War, to play their own role but to be an ally of ours.

RICHARD MILLET: Also, we begin to see Latin America as a vital source of critical materials in time of war. We had never looked at it that way before. We had never needed anything from Latin America for whatever wars we got in. Mexican oil is critical for the British; the nitrates from Chile are critical to most everybody, although we also learn how to fixate nitrate from the atmosphere, and this will lead to a real decline in Chilean nitrates later. All sorts of things. Sugar was an important commodity, rubber from Brazil had a good deal of importance.

It is an interesting shift, and we become very concerned with the defense of the waters around Latin America, and that means we suddenly become concerned with having the Latin Americans develop their own navies so they can participate in this. We sent off our first military missions to Latin America, in this case most notably to Brazil and to Cuba, during World War I, starting a long and somewhat checkered history.

REED BONADONNA: I know in the years between the wars a lot of American officers are going to go to Latin America to cement relations and help to advise their militaries and things like that.

RICHARD MILLET: Yes, help them establish military schools. The navy and to some extent air arms—you cannot talk about air forces quite yet—are the most involved. Armies come later because we can see from day one if you are going to have a problem with coastal defense and shipping routes, you want the navies, and to some extent the air arms, capable of participating in their defense. The armies definitely become a case when you become more concerned for internal security or stability and much less for hemisphere defense.

REED BONADONNA: To interpret a little bit, it does sound that, as with the immigration piece, there is an argument here against isolationism or what might be called the "America First" kind of attitude, because America needs strong friends, strong allies who are capable of looking after themselves and supporting us when they have to, but also being supported by us, America being a faithful, dependable, and strong ally to other independent countries.

RICHARD MILLET: As I said, to have a capability of significantly contributing to their own defense. That was not a concept that I ever find us even considering before World War I.

REED BONADONNA: Very interesting. Of the two major breakdowns, sort of internal and external, the experience of Latino Americans in the war and the impact it is having with our external self and Central American allies, which of the two do you think will be your focus for the Carnegie Council project?

RICHARD MILLET: Oh, boy. I don't want to give up either one for obvious reasons. I think just the revelations and some of the ethical implications of the Hispanics including very notably the Puerto Ricans.

One of the amazing things that happens is we force essentially some segregation on the units we are raising in Puerto Rico. And at the end of the war, one particular general—I would have other words for him—decides that it would be a wonderful idea if we forced the Puerto Rican regiment at that moment in Panama to segregate too, and he makes a formal proposal to the War Department, and they turn him down.

REED BONADONNA: That's good. That's one for the War Department, I would say.

RICHARD MILLET: I was a bit surprised. They said, "We don't think this is appropriate at this time."

REED BONADONNA: Who was the general?

RICHARD MILLET: Actually he is the guy in command in Puerto Rico.

REED BONADONNA: Okay. I probably wouldn't know the name.

RICHARD MILLET: You find both. You find American officers there—well, we put Puerto Ricans in relatively—there were certainly Puerto Ricans up to the rank of major who are influential. We find American officers that seem quite sympathetic to Puerto Ricans, and we see Americans who seem to import all of their hometown prejudices. There is no general rule of thumb here.

REED BONADONNA: A matter maybe of education and their background, how well they adapt to circumstances, to change.

RICHARD MILLET: I haven't tried. Especially if they are West Point graduates I could find out where they are from, and I don't know if this is a division between some from the South and some from the North. I don't know if that is worth looking into because there are not enough cases to be statistically significant anyway.

REED BONADONNA: What else, professor, am I leaving out or what questions could I have asked that you would like to share with us now? This might also be a time to just express yourself on the broad implications. The Carnegie Council hopes that some of this information may be available not just to specialists or historians but also to a larger public. Is there any story like that which you think to sum up that the American people should hear, or again, what did I forget to ask, and what questions now would you like to answer on your own?

RICHARD MILLET: You see an evolution in some ways of how Latin America looks at the United States. You do see the emergence of Argentina as the country that always wants to be the center of a "separate from the United States" pole in Latin America. The Argentines very much see themselves as distinct, and this goes up through the Kirchners, so it is one that seems to be built into the Argentine character, and it may again have something to do with the fact that they have always been more oriented toward Europe. Buenos Aires is further from where I sit here in Illinois than Moscow.

It produces a surprising degree of feeling despite some things we do with Colombia, which of course had all the lingering effects of the Panamanian case. It produces some interesting experiences of American officers, especially Marines, who were sent to Central America and the Caribbean. You find that the majority of our major Marine officers in World War II, all the heroes of the Pacific, had cut their teeth on experiences in Central America and the Caribbean.

REED BONADONNA: You know I was in the Marine Corps. This is part of our folklore, Chesty Puller chasing bandits in Haiti and Nicaragua and the rest of that generation of Marine officers.

RICHARD MILLET: I will give you one other person who is not a Marine, and that is General Ridgway.

REED BONADONNA: Really?

RICHARD MILLET: He started his career, much of his career, supervising elections in Nicaragua. I interviewed him. In fact, just to get it was remarkable. He was living in retirement in Pittsburgh, and I was on a post-doctoral fellowship, but I took a bus to Pittsburgh, he picked me up at the bus depot, took me home, talked for two hours, fed me lunch, and took me back to the bus depot.

REED BONADONNA: Nice. He gets high marks for Korea, especially, I would say. So his education served him well.

RICHARD MILLET: He gets high marks for a lot of things, including some of his dissents from Washington policies that are very little—

REED BONADONNA: Right. He was short toward his chief of staff, I believe, because of some of those disagreements.

RICHARD MILLET: Again, he is one of those of that generation of young Airborne officers that included Van Fleet and Gavin and—you may be able to tell I also taught U.S. military history for 30 years.

REED BONADONNA: I saw that in your write-up. That's great. I would like to hear more about that, too.

I think we are probably coming close to the end of the material that anyway I wanted to cover. As we Marines say, "any saved rounds," professor? Any parting shots you would like to throw out there?

RICHARD MILLET: Oh, just that one of the absolute strangest, and in my ways funniest, episodes is the U.S. and British rivalry over the Brazilian Navy, which includes the United States offering to repair Brazil's prime dreadnought. Then it would have sailed with the British fleet, so we take it to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and make sure that it never leaves for the entire war so they can't sail with the British.

REED BONADONNA: Oh, I see. Even though the British were our allies, and we could be fairly sure the ship would be sailing as part of the coalition, the allied side in the war, we just didn't want it to work for the British.

RICHARD MILLET: No. We were looking well beyond the war.

REED BONADONNA: I see. That is an interesting story.

RICHARD MILLET: There is a lot to that case, and it is absolutely fascinating. As far as I can tell, it has never been written up.

REED BONADONNA: There was still a big naval rivalry at that time. Later, Admiral King would be known for having an almost maniacal Anglophobia and dislike of the British Empire. I am not sure how many Navy officers of this time shared that sentiment, but certainly the Royal Navy was still the force on the globe at this time. Maybe there was some resentment on the part of the up-and-coming United States Navy that they wanted to be more competitive.

With that, we will conclude.

RICHARD MILLET: It has been a pleasure, sir.

REED BONADONNA: You too, sir.

RICHARD MILLET: Thanks.

REED BONADONNA: Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.

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