A Duty to Defend?: The Evolution of Aliens’ Military Obligations to the United States, 1792–1946

TitleA Duty to Defend?: The Evolution of Aliens’ Military Obligations to the United States, 1792–1946
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsBredbenner, Candice
JournalJournal of Policy History
Start Page224

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, shifted 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.

Short TitleA Duty to Defend?
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