Although the Immigration Act of 1924 was mainly the unfortunate result of discriminatory racial theories of nativism and antiforeignism, other factors influenced also Congress to pass the restrictive act, including the rising Red Scare and the spread of the new Ku Klux Klan.
The largest factor in the Congressional passing of the Immigration Act of 1920 was the fundamental American belief that native Americans were superior to foreigners, including the 800,000 immigrants who flooded the country in 1920-1921. About two-thirds of them were from southern and eastern Europe. The one-hundred-percent Americans, recoiling at the sight of this resumed New Immigration, were disgusted at the influx of sickly Europeans. Senator Ellison D. Smith expressed his nativist concerns in his 1924 Congressional Record by stating, I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated [Anglo-Saxon] American citizenship It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries.
Congress temporarily plugged the breach with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted European immigration in any given year to a definite quota of 3 percent of the people of their nationality who had been living in the United States in 1910. However, this national-origins system was relatively favorable to the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, for by 1910 immense numbers of them had already arrived. According to the United States Bureau of the Census, southern and eastern European immigration reached 1,250,000 in 1905 and a considerable 700,000 in 1910.
Thus, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was replaced by the Immigration Act of 1924. The United States Bureau of Immigration explained in its Annual Report of the Commission-General Immigration of 1924 that the number of each nationality who may be admitted annually is limited to 2 percent of the population of such nationality resident in the United States according to the census of 1890 (when comparatively few southern Europeans had arrived). Southern Europeans bitterly denounced the device as unfair and discriminatory, but their complaints were drowned out by the triumphant cheers of the nativists who believed that blue-eyed and fair-haired northern Europeans were of better blood.
The purpose was clearly to freeze Americas existing racial composition, which was largely northern European. A flagrant discriminatory section of the Immigration Act of 1924 slammed the door absolutely against Japanese immigrants. Henry P. Fairchild explained in Immigration that the new immigrants come because they believe that the wage which they can receive in America can establish a higher standard than the one to which they have been accustomed and this wage for which they are willing to sell their labor is in general appreciably below that which the native American workman requires to support his standard which means that the American workman is continually underbid in the labor market by vast numbers of alien laborers. So antiforeign were the Americans that they virtually hung a No Vacancy sign on the Statue of Liberty, claiming that the nation was filling up.
Antiforeignism grew to an unparalleled height when the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 spawned a tiny Communist party in America. Tensions were heightened by an epidemic of strikes that convulsed the Republic at wars end; upstanding Americans jumped to the conclusion that labor troubles were fomented by bomb-and-whisker Bolsheviks from red Russia. A general strike in Seattle in 1919, though modest in its demands and orderly in its methods, prompted a call from the mayor for federal troops to head off the anarchy of Russia. In the same year, the Philadelphia Enquirer printed a political cartoon depicting an evil-looking bearded man wielding a large sword labeled BOLSHEVISM and a flaming torch labeled ANARCHY, burning the United States flag. Apparently, the evil Bolsheviks posed an immediate danger against the very core of Americas beliefs.
Threatened by the Red Scare, evangelist Billy Sunday described a Bolshevik as a guy with a face like a porcupine and a breath that would scare a pole cat and stated that he would fill the jails so full of them that their feet would stick out the window. The American Legion, superpatriotic voice of veterans, even joined the anti-Bolshevik chorus by zealously attacking political leftists in the United States as enemy reds. In 1924 Mr. Moran Keaton sent a telegram to Honorable John E. Raker expressing his 100 percent [support] in your fight to make this coast a white mans country. Naturally, the American Legion was listed as an organization in favor of the bill to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States in the 1924 Congressional Record; other groups included Native Sons of the Golden West and the Patriotic Order of the Sons of America.
A 1920 editorial from The Saturday Evening Post stated that [Americans] see the negro problem; but they cannot grasp the Russian problem. They do not understand that many of these alien peoples are temperamentally and racially unfitted for easy assimilation. It seemed that fear was fueling the close-mindedness of a large section of America. Unfortunately, the inflamed antiredism and antiforeignism translated into a bigoted aversion to immigrants, contributing significantly to the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924.
Spawned by the postwar reaction, a new Ku Klux Klan mushroomed fearsomely in the early 1920s. Spreading anti-foreign, anti-Catholic, anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-pacifist, anti-Communist, anti-internationalist, pro-Anglo-Saxon, pro-native American, and pro-Protestant sentiments, the Klan led an extreme, ultraconservative uprising against many of the forces of diversity and modernity that were transforming American culture. The KKK spread with astonishing rapidity, especially in the Midwest and the Bible Belt South, wielding potent political influence and an attachment of nearly 5 million dues-paying members.
As Hiram W. Evans explained in The Klans Fight for Americanism from The North American Review, we are intolerant of everything that strikes at the foundations of our race, our country or our freedom of worship. Evans felt threatened by any attempt to use the privileges and opportunities which aliens hold only as through our generosity as levers to force us to change our civilization. The Klan was indeed an alarming manifestation of the intolerance and prejudice plaguing people anxious about the dizzying pace of social change in the 1920s; the last thing they wanted was unrestricted immigration.
The Ku Klux Klans spread did not reach the North and the East as much as it reached the Midwest and South, as revealed in the 1924 Congressional Record. Of the sixty-two members of the House of Representatives who voted nay on the Immigration Act of 1924, only one was from the South (W. Turner Logan from South Carolina). American sectionalism unsurprisingly showed its patchy face; the North has usually been more morally superior and tolerating of different cultures, so naturally the North would vote against an anti-immigration act.
The fear of Communists and the degradation of one-hundred-percent Americans far outweighed the desire to be hospitable. The passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 demonstrated that the Red Scare, combined with nativism, could produce barefaced bigotry. Ironically, the Americans attempt to preserve their splendid stock resulted in the blatant violation of the fundamental American principle of welcoming foreigners. Genuinely frightened for their livelihood, the American people switched into survival mode and tried to save themselves with little disregard for the immigrants, whose welfare was not a priority. The poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty may be etched in stone, but even such prominent idealism becomes trivial when Americans feel that their well-being is at risk.
* The American Pageant Textbook* 1973 DBQ
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