With the outbreak of war in Europe in August 1914, the geographical and political isolation— that placed foreign policy above controversy, rendered immigrant attitudes nonpolitical, facilitated assimilation, and shielded the melting pot—quickly dissipated. Foreigners who earlier solicited American support—like Edmond Genet and Lajos Kossuth—annoyed nativists, but did not change American noninterventionism. Even the wars with Mexico and Spain underlined unity. But now Europe seemed much closer. President Wilson's assurance that the United States would not intervene notwithstanding, nativism as a force for patriotism and national unity stressed conformity—targeting German Americans and political radicals. Divisive themes, like anti-Catholicism and Teutonic racism, disappeared from the nativist lexicon.
Nativism in World War I had much in common with xenophobia during the Quasi-War. The chief assertion of American nationalism, termed "100 percent Americanism" after U.S. intervention, attested to the realization of cultural and social diversity amidst crisis. First-and second-generation immigrants comprised one-third of America's population—a point made more problematic by the loss of confidence by Progressive reformers. Hence, the preparedness campaign during the period of neutrality (1914–1917) focused primarily on German immigrants. Well-organized, prosperous, and self-consciously retaining old-world customs, German Americans mobilized following the outbreak of war to block munitions shipments to belligerents and counter sensational "Hun" propaganda stories emanating from London. In January 1915 the German-American Alliance met in New York, demonstrating a great show of unity—and outraging American nativists.
This gathering coincided with Germany's announcement of submarine warfare against Britain and with German attempts to bomb American vessels and munitions plants. Soon politicians and editors condemned the apparent conspiracy, decrying "hyphenate" Americans (but never Anglo-Americans, the antiwar activist Randolph Bourne pointed out) and heeding former President Roosevelt's point that any apostasy from total allegiance smacked of "moral treason." "America for the Americans!" he thundered. "Our bitter experience should teach us for a generation… to crush under our heel every movement that smacks in the smallest degree of playing the German game." President Wilson's counsel at the outset that Americans "be neutral in thought as well as in deed" quickly went by the board as citizens chose sides and sought to profit from the conflict by selling matériel and munitions to the belligerents. Britain, of course, held the advantage there.
As American neutrality became increasingly pro-British, radicals and dissenters joined German immigrants as surrogate enemies for patriotic citizens. Men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Augustus Gardner, wealthy New England Brahmins, moved easily from attacking new immigrants and labor unions to alerting citizens about the dangers posed by pacifists and German Americans. Citizens organizations like the National Security League and American Defense Society competed to strengthen the military and impose unity in all areas of life. German submarine warfare and propaganda played into the hands of these grassroots patriots, whose distrust of immigrants was shared increasingly by the Wilson administration. Although the German-American Alliance forbade political activity, state and local immigrant groups continued to lobby, no doubt exacerbating the bitter feelings that peaked during the 1916 election campaign. Denouncing "that small alien element among us which puts loyalty to any foreign power before loyalty to the United States," Wilson and the Democratic Party portrayed Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes—who refused to get involved with the hyphenate issue—as "a dupe of the Kaiser in pro-British areas, and as a Roosevelt-dominated jingo spoiling for war with Germany in areas with a large Teutonic population." The president played both sides of the nativist coin.
The mailed fist of patriotism fell even harder on German Americans once the United States entered the war. Ironically, as the Republic moved to make the world safe for democracy, American-style, patriots nearly tore up the Bill of Rights. Ethnic fidelity now became a sine qua non of foreign policy, even more so with the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917. German culture came under attack on all fronts, with hamburgers, sauerkraut, Beethoven, and German language instruction disappearing. The Department of Justice gave vigilante groups like the American Protective League carte blanche to ferret spies and saboteurs from the German-socialist-pacifist–International Workers of the World–trade unionist monolith. In Collinsville, Illinois, an area previously scarred by racial and labor-management violence, Robert Paul Praeger was lynched in April 1918. Praeger was a socialist and a radical, and his death drew little support for civil liberties. Indeed, most observers considered Praeger's hanging evidence of the inadequacy of federal legislation to suppress sedition. The New Republic called this argument "a species of sickening cant," but editors and politicians who disdained vigilante justice praised passage of the Sedition Act of 1918.
Nativism did not diminish with the end of the war. Indeed, the martial psychology of 1917–1918 intensified in the face of postwar domestic dislocations, the apparent menace posed by the Bolsheviks, and, most important, the sudden loss of unity and purpose fostered by war. "War is the health of the state," Randolph Bourne averred cynically, but with peace American democracy suffered anew. The Red Scare of 1919–1920 reflected anxiety at the racial violence, inflation, and economic recession attending demobilization and reconversion, as well as the appearance of new American communist parties, directed by the Moscow Comintern, and significant immigrant presence in the violent steel and textile strikes of 1919. Led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and "sustained by large numbers of business and political leaders, corporations and interest groups, several agencies of government, superpatriotic societies, and the press," federal agents targeted as security threats anarchists, communists, radical labor groups, and other citizens who had opposed the war.
The Bolshevik threat affected debate on the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. Republicans and Democrats alike denounced as misguided Wilson's messianic prophecy to remake the world in the Republic's image and pointed out that Americans could never trust Old World statesmen. "Men had died," the poet Ezra Pound wrote, "for an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilization." Hence, when Wilson argued that the new League of Nations would stem the Bolshevik threat, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler retorted that the Versailles Treaty was "unpatriotic and un-American," an example of "subtle, half-conscious socialism." American fears peaked on 2 June 1919, when a dynamite explosion rocked Palmer's home on K Street in Washington (and blew up the perpetrator), and bombs exploded at the homes of leading citizens in eight other cities. An erstwhile Quaker with political ambitions, Palmer set out to destroy the "reds" and capture the Democratic nomination for president in 1920. He created a General Intelligence Division, led by J. Edgar Hoover, which soon amassed more than 200,000 cards detailing the character of radical organizations and publications and the case histories of more than 60,000 "dangerous radicals."
Incapacitated by a stroke, Wilson could not restrain Palmer, whose crusade soon left its mark. Within months the Palmer raids, strengthened by support from the newly formed American Legion, led to the deportation of 249 Russian immigrants whose Bolshevism was more imagined than real. The Lusk Committee in New York expelled five socialist delegates from the state legislature; business leaders fostered scare propaganda to deflect labor grievances; California prohibited Japanese from owning land; an Illinois mob turned on Italian settlers, beating them and razing their homes; and one patriot charged that Albert Einstein's theory of relativity had Bolshevik origins. Most Americans, one cynic noted, could not distinguish between Bolshevism and rheumatism, but no matter. The Soviets would provide a whipping boy for nativist patriots for the next seventy years.
When domestic conditions improved in 1920, the Red Scare collapsed—but not before Palmer himself became a victim of the episode. His presidential hopes evaporated along with the crisis. Nonetheless, World War I and the Red Scare cast a long shadow into the 1920s and beyond. Soviet-American relations were poisoned from the beginning by judgments and actions conditioned by wartime and postwar xenophobia. Bipartisan disillusionment with the politics of Europe contributed to the economic protectionism of the 1920s and also influenced the refusal of the United States to join the World Court. The linking of radicalism with disloyalty tarnished the labor movement for more than a decade. In Massachusetts, two Italian anarchists were executed after a trial that arrayed the values of the Brahmin establishment against alien radicalism. Liberals may have been outraged and transformed the defendants into martyrs after their death, but presiding Judge Webster Thayer's censure of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti as "anarchist bastards" epitomized the feelings toward southeastern Europe and radical politics held by most Americans.
Most important, the Red Scare gave the Immigration Restriction League "evidence" to show that the melting pot threatened American society and culture. The early 1920s witnessed the full flowering of Anglo-Saxon racism, part of the nostalgic drive toward Protestant Anglo-conformity that gave the decade its ambiguous cultural tone. The "roaring twenties" clashed with an "anxious twenties," in which sober citizens questioned the multicultural, interdependent, consumer-oriented future and hearkened toward a simpler past. The notion that a person's genes determined one's destiny found expression in university quotas and employment restrictions against Jews, the writings of Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, the popularity of IQ tests and eugenics, and the renewal of congressional debate on immigration. Led by Albert Johnson of Washington, long an enemy of local Wobblies, congressional restrictionists overrode President Wilson's veto in early 1921 and passed legislation limiting immigration based upon nationality: the number of immigrants per year from one country could not surpass 3 percent of the total of that nationality resident in the United States in 1910. Three years later the Johnson-Reed Act closed the door to "inferior" peoples. Quotas would now reflect resident populations of 1890; after 1927 immigration would be limited to 150,000 persons annually, and Asians would be excluded. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover agreed, suggesting "biological and cultural grounds why there should be no mixture of Oriental and Caucasian blood." President Calvin Coolidge did not mince words. He noted in signing the bill that "America must be kept American."
If the Red Scare prevented Americans from adapting to postwar realities, it was not surprising that during the decade after the conflict many citizens wrestled with fundamental social tensions by seeking to revive the attitudes and values of an earlier era. Nativist defenders of an idealized Gemeinschaft ("community") culture sought to halt the intrusion of modernity. What historian John Higham called the tribal twenties exhibited a retrospective idealism, at once parochial and nationalistic, at war with urbanism, secularism, and ethnic diversity. This cultural strain drove a significant part of the populace to embrace Anglo conformity as its rejoinder to the challenges posed by modern urban-industrial America—not least its liberated women, hot films, and jazz. In the 1920 census, for the first time in the nation's history, urban residents outnumbered their rural cousins—and there would be no restoration of a preindustrial epoch. Henry Ford epitomized the cultural problem of Americans enjoying the fruits of mass production and postwar technological prowess and lamenting the sociocultural consequences of change. The father of mass production—his assembly line devastated traditional skills and his Model T automobile revolutionized travel (and also provided a bedroom on wheels and means to escape small-town surveillance)—Ford became the most notorious anti-Semite of the interwar era. A scion of the rural Midwest, he organized a "peace ship" in 1915 to halt the European war. Initially supporting Wilson's League of Nations and dunning intolerant patriots during the Red Scare, Ford met frustration at every turn.
Disillusionment and economic problems in 1920 led to Ford's espousal of an ideological anti-Semitism that ultimately caught the attention of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. In the pages of his Dearborn Independent, he came to blame just about every modern problem (and personal peeve) on the Jews. The short list included gamblers, booze and cigarettes, immigrants, Bolsheviks, bankers, and unions, but the underlying peril was a sinister Jewish cabal seeking to dominate the world. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist forgery in Russia in 1891, provided Ford documentation for his facile explanation of dismaying cultural trends and a dramatic symbol of the danger posed by international political cooperation.
Similar malice toward immigrants and internationalism colored the discourse of the Ku Klux Klan, reborn in 1915 and peaking eight years later with 2.3 million members. The soul of the organization, splintered into groups reflecting regional nativist animosities (against blacks in the South, Asians in the West, Catholics in the Midwest, and Jews in the Northeast), lay in America's urbanizing towns and villages—under siege from modernism, however defined. These were the same venues that gave Henry Ford his major support. Although Klan rhetoric primarily targeted these minorities, actual violence generally fell upon white, Anglo-Saxon apostates who strayed from traditional Protestant moral codes. Bootleggers, feckless husbands, and cheating wives comprised major targets for the Klan, which also prospered in urban centers in the Midwest and Southwest, reflecting demographic change wrought by World War I. Imperial Wizard Hiram W. Evans led the Klan in its "fight for Americanism," which included, among other items, support for Prohibition, immigration restriction, anti-evolution laws, and family values.
The 1920s included numerous examples of rural-minded, defensive imperialism. Yet as tribal nativists moved to prevent command of the nation's destiny from passing from Main Street to the metropolis, they affirmed the material benefits of the modernity they so grimly denounced. This contradiction mirrored a similar ambivalence in American foreign relations during the 1920s and 1930s. On one hand, Washington rejected political commitments like the League of Nations and the World Court. On the other, as William Appleman Williams and Emily Rosenberg demonstrate, apart from its protectionist tariffs, the United States proved adept internationally in economic and cultural realms, particularly in its search for markets and influence in Europe, China, Latin America, and the Middle East. Being in the world, but not of it, hearkened back to the original reason why English Puritans settled in the New World in the early seventeenth century. Now, however, this quest for what Warren I. Cohen deemed "an empire without tears" confirmed the superior morality of Americans, but did not prepare them for constructive global action in case of crisis.
Nevertheless, nativism as an organized movement triumphed with passage of the National Origins Act of 1924. The law produced a sharp decrease in the volume of European and Asian newcomers and hastened the Americanization of newcomers already present in the United States. The Great Depression that began in 1929 also advanced the assimilation process, for economic difficulties blurred cultural distinctions between ethnic groups as it sharpened class feelings in the working population. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal also diminished the power of immigrant cultural and social groups by making immigrants and natives alike look to government for relief. Developments in mass communication—documentary films, Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats and radio itself, Works Progress Administration guidebooks and chronicles—also subjected Americans to unprecedented common experience. Finally, nativist attempts to cleanse the body politic of alien growth in fact shielded minorities by sharply restricting fields open to them. With the advent of economic catastrophe in 1929, Americans directed their bitterness at the establishment—white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant.
Even before the depression, social scientists initiated what John Higham termed a "massive assault on racial thinking and ethnocentrism." American loathing of Nazism during the late 1930s and World War II strengthened this trend and helped prevent the sort of vicious nativism that appeared after 1916. The German-American community also remembered the indignities it encountered, and after a bitter debate on intervention in the European War, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor served further to unify the nation. Hence, American anti-German hatred focused not upon German immigrants and their offspring, but upon Hitler, his political hierarchy, and the Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy. Official policy made this distinction until the end of the war. Not surprisingly, then, anti-Catholicism and racial nativism became less important, remaining powerful only among dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt haters.
Indeed, from the 1930s on persons who advocated old-fashioned 100 percent Americanism risked identification with European anti-Semitism and fascism. The Great Depression gave several mass leaders a name and national following. The most famous, Huey Long of Louisiana, was assassinated in 1935, after he helped defeat Washington's attempt to join the World Court. The others included Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest from Royal Oak, Michigan; the spiritualist William Dudley Pelley, founder of the Silver Shirt Legion; and Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German-American Bund. These men exhibited a curiously inverted form of nativism. Father Coughlin (borrowing from Henry Ford and earlier populists and anticipating the strategy and tactics of Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin) denounced treason within government circles, fingering President Herbert Hoover, Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, government bureaucrats, and ultimately the entire Roosevelt administration. Here were the real "aliens," agents of a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy that threatened the Republic.