Effects of World War I
Upon U.S. policies towards immigration from Europe
“The general terms of the great immigration restriction laws of the early twenties stare up at us from the pages of every textbook in American history…The whole atmosphere in which the new restriction acts took place was different from the atmosphere of similar debates in earlier decades.
From the establishment of federal regulation in the 1880’s until the [First] World War, the main division in attitudes lay between those who wanted a general qualitative and quantitative restriction and those who held to essentially unrestricted European immigration. A large but diminishing middle group remained indifferent or undecided…
Then the new nationalism of 1917 and 1918 changed the terms of discussion. At least in native American opinion, the issue after the armistice no longer concerned the desirability of restriction but simply the proper degree and kind. The war virtually swept from the American consciousness the old belief in unrestricted immigration…
The national origins principle [underlying the permanent immigration restrictions enacted in 1924]…would admit about six of seven times as many immigrants from northwestern Europe as from southern and eastern Europe, yet by counting everybody’s ancestors (instead of the number of foreign-born at some arbitrarily chosen census date [as in the prior temporary restrictions of 1921], equal justice would be done to one and all. In short, the national origins system offered a direct implementation of racial nationalism and an answer to all charges of discrimination [emphasis added]. It gave expression to the tribal mood, and comfort to the democratic conscience.
Though the whole law grew out of prewar trends, the First World War created the extra margin of support that carried it past a veto. And before long, the war generated a climate of opinion that made these restrictions seem perilously inadequate. Although the war temporarily deferred further action by interrupting migration automatically, the European holocaust unleashed the forces that brought immigration restriction to its historic culmination.”
- John Higham, Strangers in the Land, pp. 300-01, 310-11,
322-233, Sent These to Me, p. 53