Was Puerto Rican Citizenship All about the Draft?

It has often been said that the Jones-Shafroth Act, which brought U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico in 1917, was motivated by the need to draft more soldiers for the U.S. army. But is this true? A new paper by Harry Franqui-Rivera describes this idea as “enshrined in Puerto Rican popular … mythology,” but false.

Dr. Franqui-Rivera is a Research Associate at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in Hunter College, City University of New York. He points out that President Theodore Roosevelt was a staunch supporter of citizenship for the people of Puerto Rico, and that the War Department proposed citizenship for certain Puerto Ricans in 1909. Presidents Taft and Wilson and their appointees for Governor of Puerto Rico all supported citizenship for Puerto Rico. These efforts predated the First World War significantly.

In fact, the Jones-Shafroth Act itself predated the entry of the United States into World War I, though it could be argued that the federal government was aware that war was on the horizon when the act was passed. Does that mean that Congress had the use of Puerto Ricans as cannon fodder in mind when they developed the law?

Dr. Franqui-Rivera says otherwise.

In 1912, after years of U.S. leaders’ fighting for citizenship for Puerto Ricans and being blocked by Congress, Puerto Rico’s Independence Party was established. By 1915, the dominant political party on the Island had, according to Franqui-Rivera, decided that Congress would not allow either statehood or independence for Puerto Rico. Then Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera was looking at Australia and Canada as examples.

These countries were members of the British Commonwealth, and the insertion of this idea into Puerto Rican politics led to a lot of confusion down the line. The United States doesn’t have a Commonwealth like Great Britain’s, and never has had. “Commonwealth” has no legal meaning in U.S. politics.

As the first World War began in Europe, Puerto Rico’s leaders and the federal government were sparring over the Jones-Shafroth Act. Governor Arthur Yager argued that U.S. citizenship would stave off the desire for independence and that Puerto Ricans deserved this reward for their cooperation with the United States, but local leaders were concerned about the idea of citizenship without statehood.

Franqui-Rivera suggests that the perceived need for the Panama Canal as war spread across the world was probably more motivating than the desire to draft residents of Puerto Rico. “A friendly native population that could assist in the defense of the Island, mostly by not joining or welcoming invading forces, was deemed imperative by the U.S. Navy and the War Department since 1899,” the author argues. “This point had been stressed before the war and linked to U.S. citizenship for Puerto Ricans years before the United States entered the conflict.”

Rather than seeing citizenship as a means of gaining soldiers, the federal government considered it a way to gain loyal citizens in a geographically strategic position. “Congress and President Woodrow Wilson were affirming that the U.S. intended to hold the island in perpetuity since there was no precedent for an American territory populated with American citizens to be allowed to separate from the Union,” says Franqui-Rivera. “Puerto Rico had to be held as an American possession for its militarily value, and American citizenship might very well do the trick.”

President Wilson’s “New Diplomacy” included self-determination as a major pillar, and holding a colony didn’t fit well with that. In December of 1915, Wilson insisted that Congress must provide more self-government for Puerto Rico. He spoke, as Ronald Reagan did later in the century, about the difficulty of claiming to support freedom around the world while holding a colony. Citizenship for Puerto Rico could add credibility for the United States.

A month after the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed, the government of Puerto Rico offered volunteers to the U.S. military, and the offer was declined by the Secretary of War. A month later, the Selective Service Act of 1917 established the military draft, and it excluded the territories of Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. These facts by themselves should indicate that drafting Puerto Rican soldiers was not the reason for the Jones Act.

The Puerto Rican legislature asked that Puerto Rico be included in the draft, and newspapers supported this act of patriotism. President Wilson proclaimed that July 5, 1917, would be the date when Puerto Ricans would be allowed to register. On that first day, 104,550 Puerto Ricans registered for the draft.

The same impressive level of patriotic engagement by Puerto Ricans in the U.S. military has continued in the 21st century.

Franqui-Rivera does not suggest that the United States had lofty or even admirable motives for conferring citizenship on the people of Puerto Rico. However, it is clear that gaining men to draft was not a significant motivation for the Jones-Shafroth Act.  Read the full paper.

 

 

 

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