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History Essay

Task: To what extent was racism the main reason for changing attitudes towards immigration in the 1920s?

In the years before the 1920s, the USA had a very loose immigration policy, known as an 'open door' policy, with 35 million people coming to the USA between 1850 and 1914. By the 1920s, this had changed and the changing attitudes to immigration meant the 'open door' closed. There has been a lot of debate concerning the reasons for this and an arguably strong factor is racism, as 'old' immigrants felt threatened and didn't like the new immigrants for a variety of different reasons, causing them to want control over immigration. However, there are meant reasons for this other than racism which must also be examined, including the laws passed pre- and during the 1920s which started the trend of immigration limitation, isolationism, the effects of World War One and the social, political and economic paranoia of the Americans.

The first reason for changing attitudes to immigration was racism. There were specific grounds that Americans were racist about, including religion. Roger Daniels wrote, rather accurately, that "American Protestant leaders regarded Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish immigrants with alarm". This was because most Americans at this point were WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and they felt threatened by this sea of new religions and the countries from whence the practicers of these religions came from. WASPs were typically from Western Europe and as immigration from these countries dwindled, more and more immigrants were coming from places like Italy, Russia and Asia. Problems in their homelands and promises of fortune in America had caused their mass immigration and Americans, or WASPs in particular, were terrified that these problems at home, such as poverty, discrimination and schisms in governments would spread to America, through the immigrants, and so the 'open door' approach shifted to a more hostile attitude towards immigration.

Attitudes towards immigration also changed due to the immigration laws passed pre and during the 1920s, though this was not a new shift. The first Federal Immigration Act was passed in 1882, placing restrictions on the entry of convicts, lunatics and severely poor people into America, the same year as the Californian Chinese Exclusion Act, which is self-explanatory. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1884 in Boston, even claimed the swamp of 'lesser breeds' was a threat to American society, demanding a literacy test, hoping to maintain the image that those who come to America will definitely be successful. So nobody could be surprised when the Emergency Immigration Law Act of 1921 was passed, meaning only 350000 immigrants were allowed entrance to the USA per year and imposed an annual limit of 3% of the number of people from each immigrant's country already within America. The Quota Acts drastically reduced immigration from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, bringing the majority of new immigrants from West Europe and Scandinavia. This further changed attitudes towards America, as is proven by the 80% of immigrants in 1921 being from these places.

A third reason for the changing attitudes towards immigration is the isolationism of America. Isolationism is the policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially in politics. The reason America was isolationist is simple; they were a new country with a booming industry and a population made up from a variety of different ethnicities. If they as a country were to take sides in foreign matters, there would be division within the USA, as the people hailing from the countries America was disagreeing with would be likely to side with their homeland. In order to bring as little internal fighting as possible, America's borders shut further to minimise the number of immigrants from countries with such conflicting ideals.

The First World War was another reason for the changing attitudes towards immigration in the 1920s, lasting from 1914 until 1918, with American declaring war on Germany on the 2nd of April, 1917. It could very definitely be argued that by the end of the war, many American citizens regretted their country's involvement in what had been a European war, which manifested in a hostility towards anything foreign and the Senate refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which meant the USA couldn't join the League of Nations. With America's xenophobia, this was possibly a good thing, as German Americans were beaten, tarred and feathered, Sauerkraut became Liberty Cabbage, Irish-Catholic immigrants were suspected of being anti-British and anti-American, and Eastern European immigrants were suspected of Communism and anarchy. After WW1, the USA was terrified that the same thing would happen again, with America as the battlefield, so they clamped down further on immigration, particularly from the aforementioned countries.

Another reason as to why immigration received such changing attitudes in the 1920s was the social fear of immigration. New immigrants posed a threat to the housing supply in larger city areas, boosting demand for cheap housing, which meant landlords could greatly increase their rents without improving their property, which caused competition for housing. Slums and Ghettoes sprung up in major cities, with over 17 Little Italys in Chicago by 1920, and the bare minimum, two feet of ventilation, was left between housing blocks, leading to fire hazards, little privacy, sunshine or free space. Disease ran rampant in these housing blocks, but the cheap rent meant they simply attracted new immigrants, which meant the old ones moved out and these blocks grew into slums, which WASPs blamed on the immigrants, further damaging social attitudes towards immigration. Prohibition was another factor in the social fear of immigrants by Americans, with the 1919 Eighteenth Amendment banning the manufacture, sale and transport of liquors with an alcohol ratio of over 0.5%. This caused the Italian Mafia to become more popular in American cities with bootleggers like Al Capone becoming involved in supplying alcohol during this era. Paranoia arose in the well-to-do, about shoot-outs by Italian immigrants, and that caused all Italian immigrants to be painted with the same anarchist brush, and so attitudes further changed towards immigration.

Political reasons, specifically the Red Scare, were important in the reason for an attitude shift concerning immigration in the 1920s. Immigrants found themselves under attack because the USE feared a revolution may occur. The Russian Revolution had occurred in 1917, when an established Communist state, the Bolsheviks, began spreading an anti-Capitalism revolution. This worried America because they were Capitalistic, and they feared the strikes in 1919 in the USA, or the Red Scare, had been caused by Russian and Eastern European immigrants wishing to spread a similar thing in the USA. In the Palmer Raids of January, 1920, there were raids on Communists in 33 cities across America, with 6000 people jailed and 600 people deported. A few people's paranoia developed a theory; the "Reds under the bed" theory, that Communists were everywhere, plotting revolution. This threat was overly exaggerated by the media and word of mouth, since most immigrants were too busy building lives in America to attempt to overthrow the American political system, though it is widely regarded as a valid reason for the attitude change towards immigrants in the 1920s, as this paranoia was definitely a factor in why there were so few Eastern European and Russian immigrants after 1919.

Economic fears definitely link to the changing attitudes to immigration in the 1920s, as there was a belief that new immigrants were taking up American's jobs. Although wartime had been good for America, economically, at the end of the war, there was less production. Hence, factories closed, people lost jobs and there was an economic slump, meaning competition for felt that working for little pay and long hours was beneath their status as the real Americans, and so left this to new immigrants at first, until the employers began to lower wages and increase hours, meaning that new immigrants, more willing to work in order to survive rather than to make a profit straightaway, found it easier to find jobs, causing even more bitterness in the way older immigrants perceived this new threat to their income, thus the logical assumption was that the less immigration allowed, the more jobs there would be for the 'real' Americans. The Labour Unions, or Trade Unions, despised new immigrants as well known strike breakers, as the immigrant population was so desperate for work, they would be used as strike breakers, which the typical American hated as this meant they didn't get what they wanted from the factories, be it better conditions or better pay. This meant popular opinion towards new immigrants shifted even further towards distaste.

To conclude, overall, a great many factors were important in the changing attitudes towards immigration during the 1920s. The most important point, however, was clearly racism, as Americans felt threatened by the sea of 'inferior' immigrants with different ethnicities, political beliefs and religions to their own, calling for immigration limitation, and the other points undeniably tie into this racist belief system. Other factors must be considered, however, such as immigration laws, isolationism and the First World War, as foreign problems would be brought along with these new immigrants, alongside their loyalties being called into question. More contributions towards the changing attitudes were social fear, political reasons and economic fears, since the USA was overly paranoid about the repercussions of immigration concerning change on all three levels.