American Serbs and Old World Politics

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American Serbs and Old World Politics

The year ahead is likely to bring various unforeseen foreign policy challenges

By Alex N. DRAGNICH

Political science professor Alex N. Dragnich (1912–2009) served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and as the Cultural Attache and Public Affairs Officer in the American Embassy in Yugoslavia. Dragnich wrote extensively on Serbian subjects

THE SERBS who immigrated to the United States prior to the First World War were largely from European areas that were not at that time part of Serbia, but rather from regions ruled by Turkey and Austria-Hungary, as well as from the other Serbian state, Montenegro. Because a large majority of these Serbian immigrants hoped to return some day, and because they desired «their areas» to unite with Serbia, they were keenly interested in developments in that part of the world. This interest was kindled as early as 1875, when in that year the Serbs revolted against the Turks in the argely Serbian provinces of Bosnia and Hercegovina. It was considerably heightened by Austria-Hungary’s annexation in 1908 of these provinces, and further magnified by Serbia’s and Montenegro’s uccesses in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), which resulted in the liberation of some Serbian territories and their unification with Serbia and Montenegro. With the coming of World War I, it became obvious to Serbian immigrants in the United States that radical changes would occur in the areas from which they had come.
While periodically waxing and waning in subsequent years, this interest and concern has continued as a preoccupation of many American Serbs.

Perhaps the earliest recorded action of American Serbs in response to developments in the «Old World» was the formation in 1875 of a relief committee by South Slavs in the San Francisco area to aid their co-nationals struggling against the Turks in Bosnia-Hercegovina.1
With a membership of 18, and calling itself the Slavonic Committee, it addressed letters to other South Slav groups on the Pacific Coast and urged them to organize similar relief committees. Two or three young men even left and joined the insurgents. Three years later, in 1878, South Slav immigrants on the Pacific Coast especially Serbs, rejoiced in the Slavic triumph over the Turks. The consequent territorial expansion of Serbia and Montenegro, and their formal international recognition as independent states was met with general jubilation among American Serbs.

Subsequent events in the «Old World», notably the overthrow of the Obrenovic dynasty in Belgrade in 1903, resulted in some division among American Serbs. The return to a democratic political system in Serbia in the years after 1903, however, restored considerable unity and pride among them, and when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908, they responded with hostility.

Some Serbian organizations and Serbian-language newspapers, founded early in this century, engaged in their first significant political action at the time of the annexation. They expressed bitterness at the actions of Austria-Hungary, and called for assemblies of American Serbs that would demand liberation headed by a number of Serbian fraternal organizations, several of which had their own newspapers, usually weeklies. Also, in the course of the war, some new newspapers were founded, as well as the organizations, The Yugoslav National Council and The Serbian National Defense Council. The best known American Serbs in that period were the inventor, Nikola Tesla, the professor of physics at Columbia University, Dr. Michael Pupin, and New York University’s educational psychologist, Dr. Paul R. Radosavljevich – all of them immigrants. All three held leading positions in the main Serb-American organizations, although Tesla’s role seems to have been nominal. Pupin was perhaps the most prestigious, the ost active, and the most influential.
He had been made honorary Serbian Consul in New York as early as 1911, and he knew President Wilson personally. In 1919 he was called to the Versailles Peace Conference by Nikola Pasic, the principal delegate of the new Yugoslav state.
The activities of American Serbs were also spurred on by the initiative f Serbs from abroad. Among these were Bishop NikolaiVelimirovic, Milan Pribicevic (chief of the Serbian military mission to the U.S.), Milenko Vesnic (Serbian Minister in Paris), as well as others, not to mention members of the Yugoslav Committee in London. Each of the three persons entioned here made trips to the United States in the course of World War I, and spoke to Serbian and other South Slav organizations, and conferred with their leaders. Vesnic even addressed the U. S. Congress in January 1918, although he was careful o avoid taking positions that would e in conflict with U. S. foreign policy, especially on the question of the future of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Photographs of and stories concerning the Serbian military mission appeared in leading U.S. newspapers as well as in Serbian-language publications.
Interest in, and concern for, the fate of Serbian people in Serbia was considerably sparked by the activities of a young Serbian lady, Helen Lozanitch.4 Only in her twenties, she ame to the United States in 1915 as a delegate of the Serbian Red Cross to seek help. She was successful in seeing many influential Americans, from resident Wilson and ex-presidents aft and Roosevelt to the elite of New England society, and found much sympathy for and an understanding of the Serbian cause. Many doors were opened for her by Professor Michael Pupin, one of the best known American Serbs. Publicity concerning her activities came to the attention of other American Serbs, who responded n various ways. She spoke to Serbian gatherings in many American cities. Another person who contributed immensely to the Serbian cause was Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, considered one of the outstanding personalities of the Serbian Orthodox Church in modern times. He spoke not only o Serbian American groups, but also delivered a number of sermons in Anglican and Episcopal churches.
American Serbs who collected ome $60,000 for the Serbian Red ross during the Balkan Wars, raised ome $250,000 in the first two years of World War I.5 Moreover, during he Balkan Wars, some 8 000 American Serbs left the United States to join the Serbian and Montenegrin armies, and in World War I some additional volunteers went.
6 Many American Serbs (especially those from Montenegro) id not wait to be called home, ut began returning in smaller groups as soon as the war broke out. Interestingly enough, the Montenegrin fraternal organization in Butte, Montana decided to disband because so many of its members left the United tates as volunteers. The Serbian and Montenegrin governments worked through their representatives abroad and through those of allied countries to facilitate the return of the volunteers.7

The recruitment of volunteers was engineered mainly by the Serbian National Defense Council of America, an organization created 1914 and patterned after the one in Serbia. Professor Pupin was instrumental in arranging with British and Italian
shipping companies for an inexpensive transport of the volunteers.
Some were transported in ritish navy vessels. Some were on their way when the Serbian army was compelled to withdraw across Albania, eventually establishing itself on the Greek island of Corfu. When in 1916, the Serbian forces, rested and reequipped, rejoined the struggle on the Salonika Front, thousands of American Serbs were among them.8 While the appeal for volunteers was widespread among South Slavs in the United States, Cizmic reports that although the Serbs were the least numerous among the South Slavs in the United States, they provided most of the volunteers. Few Croats or Slovenes volunteered. 9

The small number of Serbian social democrats were divided, both to preparedness and defense in the United States as well as to war developments in Europe.
10 Many Serbian socialists were for winning the war first; they were opposed to peace at any price. The coming of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia divided them further, and they in effect played no role among American Serbs. In the years following World War I, however, some of their remnants got together and played a role in the U. S. Communist movement.
For the most part, therefore, there was unity and cooperation among American Serbs in the course of the first year of World War I. In 1915, for example, there were a number of meetings held, in which Croats and Slovenes also participated, in which the theme of South Slav unity was stressed. This was in line with the Serbian cabinet’s avowed aim to create a common state after the war. From a meeting in New York in August, 1915, a telegram was sent to the Serbian Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic, urging him to work so that not a parcel of South Slav lands should remain under foreign rule, and that all South Slav lands shouldbe united with Serbia and Montenegro.
The voices of discord were few and ineffectual. To be sure, there was disappointment among American Serbs because of the inconsequential number of Croats and Slovenes who volunteered to join the Serbian forces, but more because of the
failure of South Slavs in AustriaHungary to create any difficulties (sabotage, desertions, etc.) for the regime.12 Although these disappointments were rarely expressed in public, perhaps in them were germinated the first doubts as to the wisdom of a common South Slav state.
More concrete steps toward influencing the outcome of old world politics were taken in October 1916, with the creation in Pittsburgh of the Yugoslav National Council, which received greetings from Pašić and the Serbian Prince-Regent, Alexander.
13 This was a followup on a meeting in Chicago in March 1915, where Paja Radosavljevich was the most prominent Serb,14 and where the Croats and Slovenes were better represented than at Pittsburgh. A short time before the latter meeting a Yugoslav Office had been established in Cleveland, Ohio, as a representative of the Yugoslav Committee in London.15 Soon it became the secretariat of the Executive Council of the Yugoslav National Council, and in February 1917, pursuant to initiative from the Yugoslav Committee, it moved its office to Washington, D.C., and in April began to put out a bulletin in English. The aim was to coordinate its work with the Serbian Legation. Relations between the Council and the Serbian Minister, Ljuba Mihailović, were so close that for all practical purposes he was looked upon as a member of the Council. Nonetheless, dissension developed because Michael Pupin and some other Serbs sensed that there were moves in the Yugoslav National Council to deny to Serbia the leading role in the struggle for unification.16
Their argument was apparently based on the proposition that Serbia had been defeated and occupied by the enemy (ignoring the Serbian government and armed forces in exile), and as such, Serbs would be on the same level as all other South Slavs.
Pupin believed that he and Serbia deserved better. After all, he had done more than anyone else in publicizing the South Slav question before the American public and American politicians.
Although a friend of President Wilson, Pupin as a Republican was able to get Theodore Roosevelt to come out in support of a Yugoslav state, even though earlier Roosevelt had said that religious differences between Serbs and Croats were too great for their unification to succeed. And Serbia’s sacrifices in the war were too well known to dwell upon.
Although he had a leading role in the Council, Pupin was instrumental in the creation in New York in February 1917 of a Serbian National Defense Council that would be a part of the counterpart organization in Serbia.
The avowed aim was to unite American Serbs so that there would be a distinct Serbian voice in South Slav matters. For this Pupin and his collaborators were accused of being for a Great Serbia instead of a Yugoslav state, a charge which Pupin denied. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to give up his leading role and to become honorary president. Miloš Trivunac became president. Interpreting this as a defeat for Pupin, many of his opponents joined in open criticisms of him.
Pupin’s retort was to resign as member of the Yugoslav National Council. Prime Minister Pašić sought to dispel the disunity by setting up a regular Serbian consulate in New York, but since Pupin was still retained as honorary consul, his opponents were convinced that nothing had changed.
In July 1917, American Serbs were confronted by a new factor in the question of old world politics.
In that month Serbian Prime Minister Pašić had conferred with Ante Trumbić, President of the Yugoslav Committee, and the two of them had signed an agreement which came to be known as the Corfu Declaration.17
This agreement set forth in fourteen separate points how the new common state (to be known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) would be created.
One of those points provided that the new state would be a constitutional, democratic, and parliamentary monarchy, under the Karadjordjević (Serbian) dynasty.
The Corfu Declaration, while a big step forward in uniting the Slavs in their determination to destroy the Austro-Hungarian empire, was also the source of confusion and doubt. Although the first serious attacks on the Corfu Declaration came from
Croatian and Slovene groups in America,18 American Serbs were also uneasy. They wondered about the wisdom of giving up Serbia’s democratic constitution, her flag, and other national symbols for new ones yet to be created.
American Serbs from Montenegro did not like the Declaration because no representative from Montenegro took part in the negotiations on Corfu.
Nevertheless, these Serbs from Montenegro, aside from a small minority, voiced their strong support for union with Serbia, seemingly regarding South Slav union as secondary. A convention of delegates of Montenegrin
organizations, held in Chicago on January 28, 1918, declared «their solidarity with the ideal and program of the Serbian National Defense League of America».19
On May 28, 1918, a memorandum was sent to President Wilson, purportedly representing the views of 29 communities of immigrants from Montenegro, asserting that Montenegro was always the cradle of Serbian freedom and that she
never rejected that role.20 Nevertheless, King Nikola of Montenegro (then in Paris) succeeded in sending a minister to setup a legation in Washington, which was recognized by the U.S. despite efforts of the Serbian government and others to block it.
Among Croatian and Slovene critics of the Corfu Declaration, the main bone of contention seemed to be the Karadjordjević dynasty and the presumed favorable position this would give Serbia.
They wanted the Constituent Assembly (provided for in the Declaration) to have the power to get rid of the dynasty altogether. Pupin, still a powerful force among American Serbs, argued in December 1917 that the projected Yugoslav state would grow out of the cooperation of the South Slavs, but also out of the victories of Serbian arms (then fighting on the Salonika front) and those of the Allies. It was natural he said, that the Allies would see in Serbia a source of stability.21
But some American Serbs continued to spread certain vicious but untrue charges against Pupin, all of which contributed to dissension among Serbs as well as other South Slavs.22
Most of these debates among American Serbs, as well as among other South Slavs, were taking place at a time when the Allied Powers still had made no commitment to the destruction of Austria Hungary and the creation of a South Slav state. With the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in late 1917, Russia was to play no role in the South Slav question. Statements by Prime Minister Lloyd George in England and by President Woodrow Wilson gave no encouragement to the proponents of Yugoslav unity.
Moreover, the American and British press tended to be friendly toward Turkey and Bulgaria, and against the dissolution of Austria-Hungary. Not until some time had passed in 1918 was it clear that the Allies would support the creation of a South Slav state. It should be noted that the United States did not even declare war against Austria-Hungary until December 1917, and did not come out in favor of dissolution of the Dual Monarchy until March 1918.
The Yugoslav National Council sought to establish direct contacts with high officials of the U.S. government, but without success. It did succeed, however, in having its representatives appear before the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate. In June 1918, the Council sought to get official recognition from the U.S. government, even though this was contrary to the policy of the Serbian government as well as Pupin.23
Although it did not succeed, the effort increased the already existing division in the Council. This was aggravated further by the Council’s coming out in favor of a republic instead of a monarchy. This action angered the Council’s Serbian members, and especially Pupin and his followers.
24 The end result was that the Council was left without any significant influence. The concerns and efforts of American Serbs, as well as others, to influence old world politics were overtaken by events.
With the collapse of the Central Powers, a hastily formed provisional government came into being in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.
On December 1, 1918 its representatives met in Belgrade with Serbian representatives, including Prince Regent Alexander, and proclaimed the formation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The new state was established before the Peace Conference could meet in 1919 in Versailles, which merely recognized what had taken place in Belgrade.

JANUARY 25, 2014 – LIBERTY, The official publication of the Serbian National Defense Council of America American Serbs and Old World

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