just asking questions

Daniel Okrent on the Familiar-Sounding Immigration Panic of 100 Years Ago

New arrivals at Ellis Island, October 30, 1912. Photo: Library of Congress

In 1924, the United States closed the golden door at Ellis Island. With the passage of the Immigration Act that year, America went from allowing more or less unlimited immigration to a draconian country-by-country quota, and banned East Asian immigration altogether for the next 40 years. As Daniel Okrent’s new book The Guarded Gate explains, it was the conclusion of a 30-year campaign on the part of many elite social scientists — using the most blinkered, data-free studies you could possibly imagine — to keep America from being overrun by nonwhite people. By which they did not even principally mean people who weren’t white; they were most worried about Italians, Jews, Greeks, Hungarians, and other people from southern and eastern Europe. (Immigrants from Africa and India and China were kept out as well, but that was a given.) I talked to Okrent, whose previous work includes superb histories of Prohibition and Rockefeller Center — not to mention the rotisserie league fantasy-baseball scoring system — about the murderously bad science that mixed with politics a century ago. Turns out that, had that law been enacted a few years earlier, neither of us would be here to have that conversation.

To start us off, talk a little about the origins of “race science” — basically the pseudoscience behind eugenics — and how it went from being a little corner of intellectual thought to the dominant way of thinking about immigration politics.

There had been people trying to impose limits on immigration since 1895, and they were getting nowhere with it — bills would pass in Congress and then they’d be vetoed, four consecutive times by three different presidents. And then they latched onto this new science, or so-called science, of eugenics, which had come out of England to cross the ocean around 1902. And it was originally a positive enterprise, in that the creator, Francis Galton, wanted better babies — the best of the best. Galton came up with the idea of finding the 5,000 most appealing, genetically best young men and young women, having them married in a mass ceremony at Westminster Abbey by Queen Victoria, and then they’d all be paid an annual stipend so they would not have to worry about working, and get down to the serious work of making better babies for Britain.

By the time the theory had been in the U.S. for about ten years, the negative eugenics began to be expressed, which was not just “let’s make better children by breeding the best of the best” but “let’s stop the breeding of the lesser people.” By 1916, after much frustration of not being able to pass any restriction laws, the anti-immigrationists were joined to the eugenicists by Madison Grant, a rather amazing and repellent figure, the founder of the Bronx Zoo and one of the leading conservationists in the U.S., and he wanted to conserve the American bloodstream, as he put it, as much as he wanted to conserve the country’s natural wonders. What had been a discussion about individuals — “let’s keep individuals who have bad genes out of the country” — Madison Grant joined to the larger idea of keeping out whole sectors of the immigrant population, namely everyone from eastern and southern Europe.

The quasi-scientific reasoning behind it is just so crackpotty.

Looking back on it, it seems absolutely insane that people would believe this. And yet it was accepted as valid science in the highest institutions of scientific research and higher learning in the country.

Every other page, it seems like there’s a moment of “really?”

Yeah — “you’re not gonna believe this one.”

Yet quite a few of the eugenics advocates were well-intentioned people with other ideas that were good, as well as this one huge, appalling blind spot.

That’s a particular oddity about it — Margaret Sanger, for example, in her campaigning for birth control, was campaigning for planned breeding. Now, allowing women to use birth control is very different from “let’s not let lesser women reproduce,” but in fact that was something she supported. I think in Sanger’s case it had more to do with the fact that if anybody supported her campaign, she would support their campaign. But there was an undeniable element of an idealistic imposition of the eugenic ideas on poor people.

The immigration debate back then didn’t split neatly along the left-right divide, the way it does now.

Progressives were an odd thing. If you consider really the essence of the turn-of-the-century progressive, he or she believed in the use of the power of government to improve the lives of individuals, and they were the ones that would do the improving. Expertise and so-called science would be applied to all of society’s problems. So you get a man like Joseph Lee, who was a most charitable progressive actor and thinker and philanthropist in Boston, who on the one hand wanted to keep the schools open late at night so that the immigrants could learn English, and on the other was saying that we had to keep the Jews out, and keep the Italians out, and if we didn’t we’d become a “Dago nation.” That’s a direct quote from this man who supported the International League for Peace and Freedom, and black churches in Boston and a black training school in the South, and any number of progressive causes we’d support today.

Was there an opposition with any power, or was this view pretty universal?

There were people who opposed it, notably the great anthropologist Franz Boas, but he made no headway at all, and those corners of academia that opposed it were drowned out by the chorus that was pro-eugenic. Partly that was because there was, in addition to the racial eugenics driven by those who hated the southern and eastern Europeans, this progressive and liberal aspect to it. So it became a dominant and accepted ideology …

A bipartisan terrible idea.

Yeah. A bipartisan horror, across the ideological spectrum.

It sounds like World War I scared a lot of people, too.

That was used by the immigration restrictionists and eugenicists to sound the alarm and make it scarier. There was a belief among them, or at least they made this point in public, that World War I was the white civil war — fought between nationals from northern Europe, the Germans, and the Austrians against the Brits and the French, and it didn’t really involve the eastern and southern end of the rest of the continent. They’re killing each other, millions or hundreds of thousands are dying, “the best of our people, these brave soldiers, it’s desperate — if we want to keep the bloodstream pumping, if we want to keep our nation, and the white race” — a term not applied to eastern and southern Europeans — “we’ve gotta increase our reproduction and cut down their reproduction.”

That never stopped surprising me as I went through the book — that “white people” to these folks didn’t even include Italians or Hungarians or Greeks.

It says something about the need that people have to have a group where another group is beneath them. When you decide a group is beneath yours, you assign to them values that maybe have nothing to do with who they really are.

Even as this kind of racialist talk got mainstreamed, I notice that the White House was not onboard, at least publicly, for a long time.

Immigrants had one powerful thing that presidents cared about — votes. Those who had been arriving since 1890 were a very important political bloc, and even somebody as racialist, or racist, as Woodrow Wilson vetoed this bill. And all the veto messages — Grover Cleveland, Taft, twice Wilson — said “this isn’t the America that we’ve always said it is, that you agree with, we’re the land of the free, and our doors are open, and we’re a better country for it, we’re a nation of immigrants” — what they were saying to some degree is that we are a nation of immigrants who have votes.

And then it came down to Calvin Coolidge, who was willing to go along and sign it.

Coolidge [as vice-president] steps out on the stage in 1921 with an article in Good Housekeeping, of all places, where he attributes all of the eugenic principles of immigration restriction to what he called biological laws. They had proven these people are inferior, and they must be kept out. He had to wait for Harding to die, but Harding was very much with the program.

One person who eventually went along and voted for the quota system was Fiorello La Guardia, when he was in Congress. That surprised me.

There were a lot of men of the left who said, in a sort of desperation, “please, please, accept my people.” La Guardia was perfect — he was half-Italian, half-Jewish. “These are people who are worth keeping, but those Asians, maybe not!” The same thing was said by several other Jewish congressmen. “We are assimilated; they will not be able to assimilate.”

And then a completely unlikely character shows up when you least expect him: Maxwell Perkins, the editor at Scribner who handled F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

For me, it’s really one of the many nice things about this publishing experience: that the book is published by Scribner, and Scribner was sort of the official publisher of the eugenics movement. Obviously the ownership isn’t connected in any way to the family ownership in the 1920s.

Did you or they know this before they bought it — was it in your book proposal?

No, it was not. But I discovered it fairly soon. I was reading a biography of Madison Grant, and then went to the Princeton library and dug into the [Charles Scribner’s Sons] papers, and found Perkins present throughout the period, starting with his connection with Grant in the teens through their reconnecting in 1933 at a time when Perkins said some pretty awful things that have been left out of most versions of his life. When Madison Grant comes back to Princeton in 1933 to publish another book, and the book doesn’t do terribly well — Hitler’s already been in power for a year — Perkins writes to Grant “the trouble with reviewers is simply that all of them today happen to be from those races whose prejudice runs counter to the book.” And then he says the reviews will be better in England, because — direct quote — “the Jews are less powerful there than here.”

Well then.

It’s pretty shocking, given what we think we know about Perkins, to see him associate with something like this. It’s not just that as a young editor he got involved in publishing Grant and the really loathsome Lothrop Stoddard, who wrote endlessly about the need for white supremacy — that he was still carrying it into the 1930s is shocking.

[For Scribner] it’s like Brown or Georgetown discovering, or making it clear that they know, they were involved in the slave trade and making a clean breast of it. Frankly it’s probably better for them that Scribner is publishing it, rather than someone else.

Another institution that was really bad back then and has finally come clean is the American Museum of Natural History.

That institution sitting on public land and getting public tax money from the residents of the city of New York? Many of whom, if not most of whom, the management of the museum would have wished had gotten out of town, or never gotten into town? The propaganda that was dressed in intellectual language came out of the 1921 conference that was held there, but in fact throughout the regime of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who ran the place and believed that these people of eastern and southern Europe were bad genetically, not just because of their intelligence but were less moral than Americans — not Americans, “Nordics.”

I love how they often called those northern European white people “native Americans.” Which they sure weren’t.


Speaking of institutional stuff — I noticed a line in your acknowledgments section saying that one unnamed librarian at Harvard was extremely unhelpful. Want to dish?

[Laughs.] If you were to take all the satiric, parodic versions of the Harvard snob, there was a woman there who took it to the nth degree. I mean, she was just impossible. What is your affiliation, Mr. Okrent? Well, I don’t have any affiliation — I’m an independent scholar, historian, journalist, pick your term. Well, I don’t know if we can be as cooperative with you as you would like us to be … I mean, it was really a jaw-dropper. I do know her name, but I thought that it wasn’t fair to pounce on her. What I’m waiting for is for the book to reach the Houghton Library, and for the staff there to figure out which one I’m talking about.

I must say that as I read this I kept feeling personal twinges, because it’s my own family’s story — and, you say in the prologue, yours too. If that bill had passed a few years earlier, my own grandfathers, both of whom came over from Greece in 1913, would have been kept out after the door closed.

Yeah — and it got slammed on Greeks much more harshly than on Jews and Italians. There had been a lot of Jews and Italians here in the 1890s and very few Greeks, so the Greek quota was set at 100 people a year! Though not as bad as the Liberian quota, which was one-half person per year.

Wait, my grandmother came over after that quota was set, because my grandfather went back to Greece to get a wife. So she was one of the 100?

No — if they were already married, that was chain migration and didn’t count against the total. Same way that my mother got in, with her father. The term chain migration belongs to the current moment, but it was very much a factor back then. When Joe Lee says “Europe will soon be drained of all its Jews, perhaps to its benefit but not to ours,” it’s chain migration he was really flipping out about then.

Daniel Okrent on a Familiar Immigration Panic 100 Years Ago