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To what extent was America xenophobic in the 1920's?

American immigration policy was often based upon prejudice and misunderstanding. The period of the 1920's, however, saw immigrants treated in a way that went beyond this. Americans became what is known a xenophobic. Xenophobia is the irrational fear of foreigners and the 1920's saw plenty of irrational fear and irrational actions.

Immigrants and Immigration During The Twenties - Years of Intolerance


Even though the 1920's are often referred to as the "roaring 20's" they were not all lighthearted and good times. The 20's were years of tremendous social and political changes. In Russia the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Czar (King) of Russia. The Bolsheviks were communists. Americans were horrified by the newspaper accounts of the violence. Even more, communists believed in government ownership of all wealth. Americans were terrified that a communist revolution could break out in the United States. They feared that their money and wealth would be taken away as well as the violence that would come with such a revolution. Communists were blamed for strikes, terrorist bombings like Haymarket Square, and race riots. Now, many Americans hated and feared communists. Even though communists were never really much of a threat, American's fear mushroomed into a kind of national panic known as the Red Scare. Americans saw Europe as a breeding ground for socialism and communism and as a result blamed immigrants, who were most always from Europe. The Red Scare reached a peak in 1920 when the federal government jailed thousands of aliens suspected of being communists. At the same time President Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General, A Mitchell Palmer launched a series of Justice Department raids against the headquarters of radical groups in 33 cities. In these Palmer Raids over 3,000 people were denied due process rights like reasonable bail, the right to a defense lawyer and jury trials. Over 550 aliens among them were eventually deported.

The fear and hatred of outsiders, xenophobia, lingered on throughout the decade. It was a period of great intolerance. Some Americans were not willing to share their rights with others. Blacks, Roman Catholics and immigrants form Southern and Eastern Europe, who were mostly Jewish, were all targets of this intolerance. So was anyone who was different. Some people felt that "America must be kept American." In 1921 Congress passes the Emergency Quota Act closing the door to most Southern and Eastern European immigrants.

On April 15, 1920 a paymaster and a guard were killed outside a shoe factory on Braintree, Massachusetts. The money they were carrying, some fifteen thousand dollars, was stolen. Witnesses said five people had taken part in the holdup. The police arrested two Italian immigrants; Nicola Sacco, shoemaker and Bartolomo Vanzetti, a fish peddler. Both were admitted anarchists (people who believe in the destruction of all governments) and draft dodgers.

This took place at the height of the Red Scare. Prejudice played a large role in the Sacco - Vanzetti case. There was some evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti. Both men had guns, one of which was identified as the gun carried by the murdered guard. Neither man had a good alibi for the time of the robbery.

There was good reason to doubt, however. Neither man spoke English very well and a translator was not provided for them. At the trial some witnesses swore that they saw Sacco and Vanzetti at the hold up, others however, swore they did not. Also, five people had been involved in the holdup. Where were the other three? Why hadn't any of the stolen money been found?

Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Many felt they did not get a fair trial. Later, a gangster, already sentenced to die, confessed to the killings, but the court refused to grant a another trial based on this new evidence. All over the world, people protested. Both men continued to swear they were innocent right up to the end. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on April 23, 1927

Was America xenophobic, was it an irrational fear. The fact that men were jailed unjustly and the constitution ignored suggests yes.

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