On the Eve of Immigration Restriction

October 24, 2016
By: Nicholas Trajano Molnar

“Now an acrid odor of the 1920s is again in the air.” – John Higham, President of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, 1979-1982

As the United States enters the final phase of the 2016 election season, millions of Americans will soon decide who they believe to be the best qualified to lead their nation for the next four years. America’s immigration policies have emerged yet again as one of the most controversial and contested issues between the two major political parties. Upon closer inspection, those who study the past would see striking similarities between the upcoming election and the election of 1920, when the United States found itself on the eve of immigration restriction. This article will explore the immigration and social policies of the outsider “law and order” candidate Leonard Wood and the lessons that can be drawn from his candidacy for our time. Although Wood would not earn his party’s nomination, his agenda would be taken up and expanded upon by his contemporaries in that election’s aftermath. Wood gave a popular voice to an immigration framework which ultimately used region and race to severely curtail and, in some regions, completely halt, migration to the United States for the next half century.

During the Progressive Era, Leonard Wood was one of the most popular, albeit controversial, figures of his time. The former Army surgeon and Harvard Medical School graduate had risen in the ranks of the United States military largely through the support of his friend and patron, President Theodore Roosevelt. Following the Spanish-American War, Wood served as a leading administrator in America’s colonial possessions of Cuba and the Philippines, and from 1910-1914 was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army. As a highly partisan officer, he openly joined the Republican challenge to the nation’s state of military preparedness when Democrat Woodrow Wilson stood for reelection in 1916. Wood was “admired, respected, and even revered” by “a cross section of society, from military officers to corporation managers, from statesmen to common folk, [and] from college students to common soldiers,” translating into him becoming “the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 1920.” [1]

Leonard Wood’s meteoric rise in political popularity was connected to widespread fears of anarchism and unrest in the United States after World War I. Wood was a “full-fledged convert to the Red Scare,” and, “more than any other leading candidate for the Republican nomination, he played on the public’s fear and intensified the hysteria by blaming radical activists for every American problem from race riots to labor strikes.” [2] As the leading proponent of “100 percent Americanism,” an amorphous movement that “belligerently demanded universal conformity organized through total national loyalty,” Wood saw immigration as a threat to American ideals, policies, and institutions. [3] In an official campaign publication that compiled Wood’s public speeches and political views, there was an entire chapter dedicated to his rhetoric on immigrants titled “Immigration Without Assimilation,” where he railed against the threat that radical immigration posed. Those “determined to tear down our institutions” should be deported “very promptly,” Wood demanded. “There is no use of arresting thousands of people in a spectacular manner and then failing to deport them if they are found unfit to be citizens.” Wood raised the specter of interracial miscegenation in his proposals, warning his audiences that “you know these people are going to live among you; their children are going to marry your children; their blood is going to be intermingled with yours.” And foreshadowing the era of immigration restriction that would soon follow, Wood contended that “there is no use having the portals open on the one hand for the deportation of the alien Red and wide open on the other hand for the admission of the undesirable immigrant,” warning that the United States should not “become a dumping ground of the degenerate.” [4]

Leonard Wood seemingly entered the Republican National Convention in Chicago as the popular favorite among the nominees with the largest number of committed delegates, but in reality the field was wide open. Although Wood would win the first few ballots, once the dust had settled Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio would be selected as the party’s nominee. Harding would go on to win the general election in a landslide, fostering a decade of Republican political dominance. Restricting immigration would be one of the first policies Harding would enact as President, summoning a special session of Congress to pass “emergency” quotas to curtail the movement of migrants from the world to the United States. Wood, hoping for a political appointment, would be banished to the Pacific as the new Governor-General of the Philippines, exiled thousands of miles away where he could no longer pose a threat to the party establishment.

In the current election, the one candidate who echoes Leonard Wood the most and who contends that the United States should marshal the resources to build “an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border, on day one,” has won the Republican Party’s nomination. Whether this candidate wins or loses the upcoming election will not, however, lead to an end to the rhetoric and ideas being espoused regarding the future framework of American immigration policy. Even though Leonard Wood did not become President, his policies on immigration were taken up by many of his contemporaries, including academics of the time.  In 1922, Professor Robert DeC. Ward of Harvard University quoted Wood in an article in the Scientific Monthly, arguing that the failed presidential candidate “summed up the Melting Pot problem clearly and briefly when he said: ‘the American cement has about all the sand it will stand.’” [5] By 1925, those of Wood’s ilk had won, with the United States enacting some of the most restrictive immigration measures in its history.  This blatantly racist immigration framework “completely excluded immigrants from Asia” and featured restrictive quotas based upon national origins which saw immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe plummet in favor of those from Western Europe and the British Isles, determined by Congress to be those best able to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.”

What will the framework of America’s immigration policy look like 5 years after the 2016 election? And many decades from now, what larger lessons will those who study the past be able to draw from its aftermath?  Will those who study the past conclude that, like in the 1920 election, America was on the eve of immigration restriction, or will they have a different story to tell?

[1] Jack C. Lane, Armed Progressive: General Leonard Wood, xv-xvi. For more on Leonard Wood, see Jack McCallum, Leonard Wood: Rough Rider, Surgeon, Architect of American Imperialism, and John S.D. Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood: Partners in Command.

[2] Lane, Armed Progressive, 235.

[3] John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 205.  The quote at the beginning of this article appears in the “Epilogue” of the most recent edition of Strangers in the Land.

[4] Evan J. David, Leonard Wood on National Issues: The Many-Sided Mind of a Great Executive Shown by His Public Utterances, 63-69.

[5] Robert DeC. Ward, “Some Thoughts on Immigration Restriction,” The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 15, No, 4 (Oct., 1922), 313-319.

Nicholas Trajano Molnar

Nicholas Trajano Molnar is Assistant Professor of History at the Community College of Philadelphia and author of American Mestizos, the Philippines, and the Malleability of Race, 1898-1961 (University of Missouri Press, 2017). Trajano Molnar serves as the Digital Humanities Officer of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and coordinates the “Philly Stories” Student Oral History Archive.

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