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.

Back To Regents Syllabus