The USA had a capitalist economic system in which private enterprise was paramount and in which there was very little Government interference. Industries grew wealthy partly because of the relative abundance and cheapness of natural resources, partly through the availability of cheap, often immigrant labour, but mainly through the overwhelming demand in a continent advancing so quickly. Huge industrial concerns grew up in the great cities; but small-scale industry thrived too.
When Sauerkraut became ‘Liberty Cabbage’
Changing attitudes towards immigration in the 1920s
A Nation of Minorities
America needed immigrants to settle the prairies, construct the railroads and operate the new industries, and in the process created a vibrant multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and powerful nation. A multi-ethnic society is where there is more than one ethnic group forming the basis of the population. In the USA, people of many races emigrated from the country of their birth to start a new life. The USA was willing to take in people who felt they had to leave their native country. The vast majority of those who journeyed to America did so in an attempt to improve their lives and the prospects for their children.
The USA has often been referred to as a ‘melting pot’. It is a nation with both black and white minorities. There are few places in the world not represented within America’s population. America, ‘Land of the Free’, the ‘Land of Unlimited Opportunity’, has acted like a magnet to the world’s poor and oppressed as well as to its adventurers and go-getters. Apart for the Native American Indians, every other American was either an immigrant or a descendant of people who had emigrated in pursuit of the ‘American dream’ of freedom, opportunity and prosperity. That has given hope to countless millions over successive generations.
Where did the immigrants come from?
During the later part of the c.19th and early c.20th, immigration rates were high. As many as 400,000 people per year emigrated to the USA, amounting to 35 million between 1850 and 1914. In these years, 1% of the annual increase of the US population was due to immigration alone. Between 1900 and 1920 more than 14 million immigrants landed in America so increasing the population to more than 106 million. Where did these people come from?
‘Old immigration’ [1820s-1880s] - mostly Protestants from Northern Europe – Britain, Germany and Scandinavia many escaping mistreatment due to their religious beliefs. By 1917 their children were first and second generations of US citizens who were proud of their roots but committed to an ideal view of America that was shaped by their own background and beliefs. They tend to be known as WASP’s – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
The ‘New immigration’ [1880-1920] - mostly made up of poor and illiterate people from eastern and southern Europe who were held in some contempt by many American WASPs. Assimilation was difficult for these new arrivals mainly from Italy, Poland and Russia.
Why were immigration controls introduced during the 1920s?
AMERICA FOR AMERICANS
he USA, after 300 years of virtually free immigration, suddenly all but shut its doors in the 1920s. The era in which America was a safe haven was gone. But, with closer scrutiny it can be seen that the immigration controls introduced in the 1920s were not the radical changes they may appear. Indeed, immigration controls were apparent before World War One. It can be said that immigration controls were not a new phenomenon in the 1920s.
It would be wrong to think that immigration controls were a sudden step taken by the US Government in the 1920s. The first calls for immigration restrictions were made in the 19th century, during which time clear signs of anti-immigrant feeling became apparent. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were common, as was the widespread fear of immigrant radicalism. The movement that called for a curb on immigration was born out of these fears. In 1884, the Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston. It claimed that America was in danger of being swamped by ‘lesser breeds’ and campaigned for the literacy test as a way of making sure that many of the ‘new’ immigrants did not get into America. A series of immigration laws were passed.
In 1882, the first Federal Immigration Act was passed placing restrictions on convicts, lunatics and paupers entering the country. It was closely followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in California that excluded Chinese immigrants entering the state. In 1907, the Gentleman’s Agreement followed after an attempt to segregate Japanese and white-American schooling by the San Francisco authorities. After provoking great anger in Japan, the President was forced to see that San Francisco withdrew the segregation, on the condition that Japanese labourers were denied passports that would allow them to emigrate to the USA. The Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade ‘aliens’ from owning any agricultural land in California. It was meant to apply to all recent immigrants but was more directed at the Japanese. Eleven other states quickly followed the Californian example.
Therefore, calls for immigration controls began in the 19th century and had widespread support by 1914.
World War One was a catalyst (sped up process) of the movement to limit immigration. During the war the newest public relations techniques developed by businessmen were used to ‘sell’ Americans the war and generate hatred towards the Germans. Soon, anyone and anything that smacked of foreign culture became suspect, and patriotism often degenerated into an ugly xenophobia. For example:
World War One had revealed that many immigrants in the USA still had tentative sympathies for their mother country. Life for foreign-born Americans was not an easy one. If they were born in –
Germany, Austria or Italy they were immediately suspected as sympathisers of the Kaiser
Ireland they were suspected as being dangerously anti-British and potentially anti-American saboteurs if they were Catholic
Eastern Europe, they were suspected of being Communists or anarchists.
Once World War One had ended, many Americans began to look upon the whole conflict as a nightmare and regretted that their country had become involved in European affairs. Many felt hostile to anything foreign. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and consequently, refused to make the USA a member of the League of Nations.
Isolationism had its counterpart in a determination to curb immigration, to avoid ‘alien contamination’ and to preserve the old American stock ethnically before it was too late.