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The Impact of WW1 a Key Factor in the US Decision to Restrict Immigration 1917-29

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Before WW1, the USA was famous for its open door approach to immigration. The country was a melting pot of nationalities where immigrants and citizens alike shared a common goal: the attainment of the American Dream, which argued any person, from any background, could succeed in achieving their goals if they worked hard enough. The majority of immigrants – poor, uneducated and unskilled – jumped at the opportunity to make the crossing to Ellis Island. However, after America’s entry into the war in 1917, federal government decided to impose restrictions on immigration in the form of the 1917 Immigration Act. This was followed by further laws in 1921, 1924 and 1929 which made it increasingly hard for immigrants, in particular those without desired skills, to enter the US. There is debate as to the true intention behind this move: some argue it was reactionary, in response to the Red Scare of 1919-1920. Perhaps it was just a form of passive racism that reflected the mood of the country at the time. Others plead more patriotic reasons; the idea that foreigners were distrusted in times of crisis and weakened the US war efforts.

As patriotism grows to strengthen morale during war time, so too does resentment of foreigners who begin to be seen increasingly as ‘outsiders’. This feeling was particularly strong in the US as it was primarily Italian-Americans protesting against the fighting which was viewed as disloyal. Citizens felt immigrants were corroding the unity of the country: they also feared ‘aliens’ could easily betray America by being loyal to their home countries. The USA distrusted immigrants already living in America; the idea of allowing more in was considered outrageous. This argument is slightly flawed in that an immigrant’s loyalty was likely to be, in fact, with America – the country that had provided refuge and opportunity to them – as opposed to their country of origin which they had deliberately left in search of a better life.

Resentment also stemmed from the fact that existing immigrants were relied on heavily as cheap labour throughout the war in munitions factories and on farms. White Americans, in particular, saw immigrants as ‘stealing’ their jobs, meaning many WASPs were left either unemployed or surviving on low wages in order to compete with the incredibly low wage accepted by African American immigrants. WASPs wanted American jobs for American people; they viewed immigration as an obstacle to this.

America, as a country built around the concept of liberty and independence, greatly feared any form of strong left wing view that centres on providing equality at the expense of freedom. Therefore, the ‘Red Scare’ of 1919-1920 – a period of heightened fear of communists, socialists and anarchists – prompted further controls on immigration in an attempt to stop more ‘revolutionary reds’ entering the country. Although this seems rash, the action can be justified as an appropriate response to this fear as most of the reds were indeed immigrants or of recent immigrant descent. In 1919, only 7% of the American Communist Party could speak English.

The ACP, alongside the Communist Party of America, was supported by Russian giant the Comintern, who later supported the Chinese Communist Party in their rise to power in China. This link was a significant worry for the US: they were concerned by the success of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the influence it was having on the revolutionary minds of America. This fear was increased by a rise in Trade Union activity and striking. The 1919 Steel Workers Strike lasted two months and culminated in the death of 20 miners and the loss of $200million of worker’s wages. Initially, the workers had public support but as they were accused of being radicals, sympathy was lost. The idea of the radical was inextricably linked to immigrants and people associated the ‘troublesome’ strikers with the reds. Indeed, many of them were, further infuriating the Americans as they were exhibiting their left wing tendencies whilst occupying jobs believed to have been taken from US citizens.

Beneath concerns about the war and communism lay pre-existing racial tensions that had been present in America since it gained independence in 1776. It can be argued that the stringent immigration controls posed after 1917 were just a form of indirect racism in response to the general mood of the country. Long standing belief in the inferiority of African Americans and other immigrants led to restrictions being placed on their constitutional rights to voting and liberty, as well as the murders of 2000 aforementioned citizens by lynch mobs. One teenage African American was stoned to death for accidently crossing on to a whites only beach: this triggered a spate of violence from both blacks and whites across at least 20 cities in the South. The mood was aided by the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915. By the mid 1920s, the Klan claimed a membership of up to 5million white Americans who terrorised minorities – particularly immigrants – in their distinctive white robes. The violence between racial groups centred mainly in the South illustrates the huge strain between white and black Americans and goes some way to explaining why government (run, of course, by WASPs) introduced tighter controls on immigration.

Although pre-existing racial tensions may have added pressure to moves to restrict immigration, they are unlikely to have been a significant primary cause because they had been present in America for so long: before 1917, attitudes to immigration were liberal despite the strains in society between immigrants. It would seem more legitimate to argue that tough circumstances, i.e. WW1, created a natural need for a scapegoat which, as they were a relatively powerless minority, was realised on the immigrants. Fear, poverty, loss of life and general turmoil combined to create resentment for any part of society which reminded WASPs of the outside world they were fighting. This was only exacerbated by the employment and housing race that appeared to be dominated by immigrants. Furthermore, fear of reds – again a symbol of a threat from the outside world, namely Russia – caused immigrants to be scapegoated in the name of the comforting notion of a proactive fight against the perceived danger.

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