Historical Fiction: The Return of the Greeks to America 1913-1914

November 22, 2020

There were various attitudes expressed in the U.S. press regarding Greeks departing in their thousands to fight for their old homeland during the Balkan wars. Many press articles referred to these returning Greeks as 'heroes', 'patriots', and fighting the 'unspeakable Turk.' Along with such sentiments appearing in the U.S. press, there were dissenting voices expressing concern over the number of immigrants arriving from SE Europe. Frederic J. Haskin wrote a series of articles for the Milwaukee Sentinel in December 1912 comparing the old immigrant with the new one. The old immigrants originally came from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and other parts of Northern Europe who made the United States their permanent home and later became naturalized citizens. Only 20% of Greek immigrants became American citizens as many of them considered the United States as a place to make lots of money so they could return to their home villages as rich men.

The new immigrants came from poor villages. They were usually illiterate and never dabbled in politics. Haskin compared the number of Greek immigrants in 1882 and 1911 who entered the United States, 126 and 26,000 respectively. Most of them were single men and boys who mainly lived in large cities doing jobs that American born workers would not do i.e. mining. Those Greeks who had their womenfolk tended to remain whereas bachelors returned permanently to Greece.

Another opposing voice was a letter addressed to the editor of the New York Times published on October 28, 1912, where the author questioned the loyalty of some U.S. citizens who participated in the Balkan wars. He understood the response of non-citizens doing their patriotic duty but the participation of naturalized citizens of a neutral country was another matter. This might create a ‘dangerous precedent’ leading the United States into a conflict of not of its own making. Once an individual became an American citizen they were obligated “to abide by [their] decision to become a citizen by remaining strictly neutral when his government is neutral.” Similar letters likely appeared in the U.S. press with Americans expressing their concerns over naturalized citizens rushing off to fight for their former homeland.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) opposed unrestricted immigration, particularly from SE Europe. They supported am English literacy test for white Europeans as a way of restricting illiterate and unskilled labor from coming into the United States. The AFL rested its case on maintaining wages and living standards of American workers against unskilled labor whose large numbers would lead to lower wages and exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Frank Morrison, the Secretary of AFL, criticized President Taft "for vetoing the Immigration Bill" which had been passed by the U.S. Congress in 1913. The AFL preferred that alien workers stayed home to fight labor battles in their own countries. Arguments voiced supporting literacy was based on racist assumptions. Whilst the AFL had genuine concerns about wages and living standards of American born workers, the absence of a literacy test made it easier for Greeks to re-enter in the United States after the Balkan wars.

The discussion of the literacy test continued to be discussed in Congress in early 1914 without a resolution in sight and a potential veto from President Woodrow Wilson. The President supported keeping the doors open for immigrants who wanted to make the United States their home. On the other hand, the continuing flow of European immigrants would help America's growing and expanding economy.

Despite the good intentions of the president, U.S. immigration officials were worried about returning Greek soldiers and others from the Balkan wars bringing infectious diseases into the United States. On January 18, 1914, the Spartanburg Herald reported that Dr. Joseph J. O’Connell, a health official, stated that “we are likely to meet with typhus in our Mediterranean immigration for some time to come” especially with Greeks, Turks, Serbians, and Bulgarians returning from the Balkans.” Other reports published in the Boston Evening Transcript and New York Times describe new immigrants and returning Greek soldiers who spoke little or no English and six cases of passengers dying of spinal meningitis on board the steamer Athinai. 55,000 Greek soldiers were waiting to return to America from the Balkan wars which worried former health official of New York Port, Dr. Alvah H. Doty. "Greece was one of the main sources for the spread of this disease to various parts of the world', Doty said.

He pointed out that a potential epidemic could easily be avoided by introducing “modern sanitary methods” back in Greece. Doty mentioned that overcrowding and poor sanitation were responsible for the spread of this infectious disease. It seems that these two newspapers might have dreaded the return of more Greeks bringing back disease thus threatening the health of Americans. Furthermore, their underlying messages might allow curtailing SE European immigration for a time to the United States.

On March 12, returning Greek veterans were treated as heroes by the Greek community in New York. As they proceeded on their way to Pennsylvania railway station, they were “escorted by 10 pretty Greek maidens dressed in white" who "scattered roses in their path." Before their departure, they gave "three loud cheers for King Constantine and President Wilson."  Then the U.S. and Greek national anthems were sung by everyone. Many of them left by train for Chicago and other mid-west towns and cities.

Some returning Greeks on board the Austrian-American steamship, Belvedere brought back their wives to America with some of them having married Turkish women. A Corporal Leonidas Papamihalis who fought at Thessaloniki married a young Turkish woman whose dead husband was a Turkish officer.

The actual number of Greeks who returned to America from the Balkan campaign is difficult to ascertain. However, many returnees resumed their businesses or jobs and became naturalized U.S. citizens.


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