Race has been the elephant in the room since the beginning, the creature around whom, as Tocqueville foresaw, a kind of Herrenvolk democracy in America was built. After the successful tax revolt against the British, all had seemed perfectly clear about who was an American citizen–white men were, Africans and Indians weren’t. Yet in the decades after the Civil War, the meaning of citizenship, the exclusive privilege of free white men until the Fourteenth Amendment, grew far murkier. The descendants of Africans were slaves no more, yet the Protestant white majority viewed their emancipation as too problematic in reality for any solution other than white supremacy below the Mason-Dixon line and the finessing of racial equality in the constitutional doctrine of separate but equal.

Citizenship for Africans complicated citizenship for the new European immigrants streaming out of Ellis Island. The challenge of assimilating the new whites (“strangers in the land,” in historian John Higham’s memorable phrase) inspired comparable disquiet among the Anglo-Saxon elite. European newcomers found themselves stigmatized by the same citizenship stereotypes that “old stock” Americans foisted on African-Americans. As Richard Slotkin observes in his massive new book Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality, “likeness to the Negro (or the Indian) was the sign that native-born Americans always used to declare a new immigrant group beyond the pale of equal citizenship.” Not surprisingly, immigrant groups learned almost overnight to distance themselves from black people and to interiorize mainstream society’s race prejudice.

By the first decade of the American Century, the immigrant conveyor belt had turned an Anglo-Protestant land of farmers, mechanics, traders and merchants into a polyglot beehive of low-wage industrial toilers who fueled, then as now, the world’s most powerful economy. Much of the Progressive leadership, applying itself to municipal reform, merit-based government service and moral uplift, saw a fatal point of no return fast approaching in the vital matter of national character. The Melting Pot was predicted to be but so many degrees away from its melting point. Disparaged as “dingy” whites, the newcomers seemed to multiply like kudzu in dark, festering ghettos where city machines owned every poor man’s vote. Ten years into the new century, well-financed, powerfully connected nativist organizations dedicated to preserving an America purged of runaway hyphenation–like the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), the Anglo-Saxon League and the American Eugenics Association–flourished.

Charged by Congress with investigating the facts of immigration, the 1911 Dillingham Commission trolled reams of records and observed thousands of Ellis Island immigrants to produce a report of surpassing ominousness. It found the great majority of Jews to be feebleminded, Italians to be criminals and other “races” (of which some fifty were enumerated) to be carriers of disease and bearers of suspect mores. The intelligence test developed by Stanford University’s Lewis Terman was accepted nationwide as scientifically ascertaining the inborn mental aptitudes of groups as well as individuals: the newer the immigrant group and the darker the “race,” the lower the IQ. This book’s revelation that a group of Chicago politicians scored in the “moron” range may have corroborated the Stanford-Binet’s “objectivity” in the public’s mind.

The dissenting multiculturalist voices of W.E.B. Du Bois, Horace Kallen, Randolph Bourne, the Hapgood brothers and Waldo Frank were drowned out by the cacophony of hyper-nationalism that set the stage for America’s intervention in World War I. As Boston Brahmins and Roosevelt Progressives ordered officers’ uniforms from Brooks Brothers, they were prey to massive doubts about the men they had to beat into shape for battlefield slaughter. No better than the Negroes, the hyphenated Americans had “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government,” IRL men fretted in the spring of 1917 as President Wilson’s war commenced. That same year, Congress overrode Wilson’s veto and imposed the first immigration literacy test.

In Lost Battalions, a work of stunning density and penetrating analysis, Slotkin, the Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, has achieved something of a breakthrough in his synoptic coverage of the political economy of race, ethnicity, class and gender as America came of a certain age. The book tells the story of two Army regiments of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF)–the black 369th and the hyphenated 308th. By skin color and national origin, the regiments symbolize, for Slotkin, the identity crises of a democracy at war–and at war with itself. Cynosures of a nation’s civic character, the battalions are “lost” in the ultimate sense that their rightful place in the social contract is either denied or blocked by the WASP establishment. “Thus the central paradox of American nationality,” writes Slotkin, “the conflict around which national politics would develop, was its official commitment to an ideology of civic nationality–most clearly embodied in the Declaration of Independence–while at the same time its social practice excluded from citizenship rights all those who fell on the dark side of the color line.”

The Teddy Roosevelt of “privileged violence,” masterfully profiled in Slotkin’s epic Gunfighter Nation, returns in Lost Battalions to rally his class to martial readiness at Plattsburgh and its branches across the country. Organized in May 1915 by a dozen or more lawyers and businessmen at the New York Harvard Club, the Plattsburgh military training movement (financed in part by Bernard Baruch and blessed by Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood) enrolled the sporting crowd at Yale, Princeton and Williams, and presented the War Department with a fine-tuned cohort of Anglo-Saxon paladins just in time to lead the nation’s men to war. “Aggressive fighting for the right,” Roosevelt bloviated, “is the noblest sport the world affords.”

In a series of lively biographical profiles, Slotkin introduces the Plattsburghers and similar types as they take positions in the “Melting Pot” 77th Division at New York’s Camp Upton. Maj. Charles Whittlesey of Williams and Harvard, a Wall Street lawyer with socialist loyalties and Hamlet’s temperament, will lead the immigrant 77th Division’s 308th Infantry Battalion to fame and a Medal of Honor for himself. Capt. George McMurtry, son of an Irish-born robber baron, polo-playing Harvard man and Rough Rider veteran, serves as Whittlesey’s second. Lieut. Julius Ochs Adler (Princeton ’14), nephew of New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, is a rare Jewish Plattsburgher who fields both a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. The 77th boasted some of the best men from the table at Delmonico’s, and a wag cracked that the problem with the division was that its officers came from “below Fulton Street and all the men from above it.” In his book Paths of Glory, Irvin Cobb, one of the South’s most popular wordsmiths, demeaned the Camp Upton conscripts as “a huddle of unhappy aliens, speaking in alien tongues, and knowing little of the cause for which they must fight, and possibly caring less.”

Upper-crust Jews, represented by the American Jewish Congress and the American Hebrew, generally responded positively to Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” incantations. In the words of one prominent rabbi, Jews needed to be “trained to be heroic.” Congressman Victor Berger and the pacifist Debsian socialists did not speak for rabbi Stephen Wise or financier Jacob Schiff. The noblesse oblige of people of color who boasted family, education, professional accomplishment and commitment to racial uplift mirrored that of the Anglo upper crust. Like the Uptown Jews, Du Bois’s Talented Tenth (the black equivalents of the Plattsburghers) accepted the war as a splendid opportunity to display the virtues of manhood and national solidarity. How wide the door of opportunity might open was uncertain. The War Department and a great many white Americans preferred that Negroes be confined to labor brigades and barred altogether from fighting.

It is here that Lost Battalions deploys a narrative symmetry of gratifying complexity. If the intraracial controversy over unconditional participation in the war is somewhat underplayed (one misses Du Bois’s fiery nemesis, William Monroe Trotter, who lambasted the degrading treatment of black soldiers in the Army), Slotkin’s main story is properly the Talented Tenth wager that citizenship can be bought with blood–that manly, unquestioning sacrifice befits a race applying for full entry into the white Republic. True enough, White House silence after the race riot in East St. Louis, a veritable pogrom less than three months after the declaration of war, enraged the race’s leaders. But the deal brokered by Roosevelt’s Plattsburghers with the reluctant War Department for 1,000 black men commissioned at Iowa’s Camp Des Moines, the reasonable expectation of a “Roosevelt Division” commanded by colored West Pointer Charles Young and the promise of a captain’s commission in military intelligence for Du Bois carried the day for war. Harlem’s 15th Infantry Regiment was attached to a never fully assembled Negro 93rd Division at Camp Des Moines.

Volunteered service was the “strongest argument and the noblest appeal for political and economic rights,” Adam Clayton Powell Sr. sermonized. With one breath, W.E.B. Du Bois, socialist and pacifist, cried out from the pages of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in the fall of 1917 that “no land that loves to lynch ‘niggers’ can lead the hosts of Almighty God.” Yet in another breath the next year, in “Close Ranks,” the most famous of his many compelling editorials, he summoned his people to the colors unconditionally: “Let us while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens.” A thousand Negro officers marching the race across the Western Front into civic respectability finally beguiled all but the young A. Philip Randolph and a handful of skeptics. Civil rights can be addressed after victory, Frederick Douglass’s officer son promised.

Woodrow Wilson’s War Department rigged the game from the beginning: Units were not to be commanded by black officers at rank above captain; no new black field-grade officers would be commissioned; one-third of the black men commissioned at Des Moines were to be selected from noncommissioned regulars (many barely literate). Lieutenant Colonel Young’s removal from active duty and his forced retirement on questionable medical grounds even as Du Bois’s “Close Ranks” appeared not only mocked the aspirations of the black would-be Plattsburghers but signaled unmistakably a quasi-official military design to disparage a race. Lost Battalions relates this staple story without endorsing what this reviewer believes a contextualized reading of the evidence confirms to have been an institutional conspiracy.

Harlem’s 15th Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard (the US 369th) left Camp Des Moines minimally trained and badly equipped, with near race riots dogging its course until it sailed for Europe, among the first American units to see action. None of the 15th’s original ranking officers kept their positions. The very image of Plattsburghers–regimental Col. Charles Fillmore, who had years of military experience, and Vertner Tandy (MIT), an accomplished architect–accepted demotion to stand along with Capt. Napoleon Bonaparte Marshall (Exeter, Howard, Harvard Law) and well-known band leader Lieut. James Reese Europe. Only one or two of the 369th’s white officers were Plattsburghers: the rich Capt. Hamilton Fish Jr., a Secretary of State’s great-grandson (Harvard ’10); and regimental Col. William Hayward, a senator’s son and politically well-connected Manhattan lawyer, whose matinee-idol looks graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Maj. Arthur Little’s social background seems to have been merely respectable, but he had more than a decade of National Guard service and went on to write a valuable memoir, From Harlem to the Rhine. Even though white officers led the 369th by virtue of racist policy, Hayward, Little and their fellow whites were savvy enough to cultivate the respect of a population of enlisted men distinguished by the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle and Horace Pippin. Private Pippin’s vivid yet barely literate notebooks serve as Lost Battalions‘s best primary source for the enlisted man’s view of the war.

The War Department lent the 369th to the French Fourth Army and gladly forgot about the unit until its spectacular performance during 191 days under German fire, a shower of Croix de Guerre and the fabulous capture of a dozen or more Germans by privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts made official notice unavoidable. “Now is our opportunity to prove what we can do,” Du Bois boasted in Crisis. But that was exactly what concerned the Southern whites who dominated the Army’s officer corps. Slotkin discloses the cynical news that “in the midst of the July fighting, Pershing’s headquarters ordered all of the Black officers in the 369th transferred and replaced by White.” An exception was made for Lieutenant Europe, the band master. The French High Command honored the regiment as the first Allied unit chosen to lead the march to the Rhine at war’s end. The American High Command excluded the 369th, along with all black soldiers, from marching with US forces in the victory parade on the Champs Elysées. On the War Department’s adamant insistence, no African-Americans were to be depicted in the heroic frieze in France’s Panthéon de la Guerre. On a post-Armistice NAACP inspection tour, Du Bois discovered and published the US Army’s secret communiqué advising French military and civilian authorities to respect the segregationist practices of white Americans when dealing with black Americans. So much for Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 promise to black people: “Out of this conflict you need expect nothing less than the enjoyment of full citizenship rights–the same as are enjoyed by every other citizen.”

Slotkin’s reconstruction of the 308th Infantry Battalion’s free-fall into glory offers a mountain of evidence in support of Clemenceau’s axiom that the business of war is too serious to be left to generals. With domestic politics and military pride in play, General Pershing launched the AEF’s long-awaited offensive in the Meuse-Argonne sector in late September 1918. As Slotkin writes, “Pershing’s own calculations were wrong in nearly every respect,” and whatever could go wrong did. Major Whittlesey’s Irish, Italians, Jews, Slavs and three Chinese were surrounded by German storm troopers at a place called Charlevaux Mill. Pulverized by “friendly” fire, bonding across lines of class and ethnicity in muddy trenches and reduced from 675 to 200 men, the “lost battalion” was rescued in the eleventh hour when Abe Krotoshinsky, a diminutive Polish Jew, crawled past the Germans and returned with a relief force. As reported by the press, Whittlesey’s polite refusal of German surrender terms became “Go to hell!” Charlevaux Mill became another Alamo or San Juan Hill, and Krotoshinsky was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross. The New York Globe editorialized superciliously that “by a clever alchemy America transmutes blighted raw material into men.” Yet hardly had the guns fallen silent on the Western front than Literary Digest warned that the Melting Pot “has proved…a delusion and a snare.”

Slotkin’s splendid narrative presses on with the saga of nationality and race for many more pages beyond the Great War to the civil rights era: to the Red Scare and the convergence of anticommunism and anti-Semitism; to the Red Summer of ubiquitous race riots and the emergence of the “New Negro”; to the victory of reactionary nativism in the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924; to quotas for Jews and segregation of blacks in elite universities. The political climate of the 1920s drove Krotoshinksy to Palestine for a time. Whittlesey left no suicide note, yet somehow we understand why he chose death over living as an exploited symbol. The 369th returned home to a fine parade up Fifth Avenue and disappearance from memory, along with heroes Johnson and Needham, who faded into impoverished obscurity. African-Americans never forgot the valor of the 369th Hell Fighters, but they also remembered, as World War II approached, that their country betrayed the promise by which Du Bois and others had believed full citizenship would come.

Lost Battalions ends with a qualifiedly positive answer to its own crucial question: whether “a ‘nation of nations’ can maintain itself as a nation-state.” By the end of the Great Depression, most of the ethnics had entered the American mainstream as full-fledged whites. Nine years after World War II, African-Americans resumed their interrupted march to full citizenship with Brown v. Board of Education. And yet the rediscovery of race has become the perennial surprise of our public life. Whatever the controlling fictions of the moment–remedied at law, solved by integration, submerged in diversity, transcended by colorblindness, supplanted by class–the Du Boisian problem of the twentieth century repeatedly asserts itself as an aggrieved, shameful and increasingly toxic presence even in this new century. Presidential elections are vitiated by de facto intimidation and systemic exclusion of people of color. Natural disasters morph into Homeric catastrophes of the adjourned national commitment to equal opportunity. At one point in his teeming narrative, Slotkin observes that the Hell Fighters and the Lost Battalion “continued to fight the same war on separate battlefields.” For African-Americans, the war continues.