The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America
New York: Scribner, 2019
The Mayflower arrived at Plymouth 400 years ago this week. This monumental anniversary has largely gone unremembered. In the past, the Plymouth anniversary was a great event that drew our nation’s foremost orators to speak of the glories of America and its settlers. Today, Plymouth Rock mostly attracts Left-wing vandals instead of national leaders. This is what happens when your people are replaced.
In our age, the great symbol of America is Ellis Island, not Plymouth Rock. Mass immigration and the system’s mythology made our nation care more about the huddled refuse than the hardy settlers. There was a time when the descendants of the Mayflower tried to stem the tide In the past, the Plymouth anniversary was a great event that drew our nation’s foremost orators to speak of the glories of America and its settlers and protect their inheritance. They succeeded in reducing immigration, but it was already too late for the WASP elite.
My article  last week examined E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment and its foolish claims of an evil WASP caste dominating Cold War America. Baltzell’s WASPs were ethnocentric and firmly committed to the preservation of their power. The reality of post-war America belied those claims, with WASP elites happily assimilating to the new America. Boston Brahmins were not vigorously defending immigration restriction or freedom of association for whites. Instead, many of them were zealous civil rights advocates who welcomed the new Ellis Islander elites into their private clubs.
But Baltzell’s Right-wing WASP caste did exist a few decades before, and they did try to preserve the America they knew and loved. Daniel Okrent, a former New York Times editor, does a fine job of documenting this class’s support for immigration restriction in his book, The Guarded Gate. The book’s hilariously long subtitle gives away Okrent’s opinion on the matter: Bigotry, Eugenics, and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants Out of America. The journalist tells readers in the introduction his ancestors were Jewish immigrants who would’ve not been allowed in under the 1924 Immigration Act. (Shouldn’t we be thankful they made it!?) Besides this digression and his constant need to say eugenics and race science are pseudoscience, the book is readable and restrained in its liberal sermonizing. It’s a fine work on the time when WASPs struck back.
The “villains” of Okrent’s story are not cranks and outsiders. They weren’t relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party, nor were they upset immigrants “took their jobs.” They were some of the most respected and well-connected men in America, and they all shared a desire to see the historic American nation preserved. For that sin, they are branded as unredeemable bigots in official history. Yet the smears cannot obscure their elite pedigrees and high intelligence.
These rogues include pioneering biologist Charles Davenport, blue blood senator Henry Cabot Lodge, liberal philanthropist Joe Lee, sociologist Edward A. Ross, eccentric lawyer Prescott Hall, and the well-heeled writer Madison Grant. All of these men went to the best schools, attended the best clubs, shook hands with movers and shakers, and could easily claim elite status. Their stature allowed them to spread their ideas throughout the Ivy League, social clubs, Congress, and even some corporate boardrooms. This was the immigration restrictionist movement of the early 20th century. It was a fashionable idea among the nation’s aristocrats, and even considered “progressive.”
Okrent’s primary villains were not the only ones who supported immigration restriction at the time. The idea was immensely popular within the labor movement. Unions saw immigrants as scabs who took their jobs for lower pay. Restriction also enjoyed wide popularity throughout the general American population. However, it did elicit powerful opposition towards it. Any time a restriction came before Congress, it would be defeated despite receiving overwhelming support from lawmakers.
Okrent upholds Jews as his heroes in the fight against restriction. The author notes that plenty of Anglo businessmen and lawmakers opposed restriction because it interfered with profits and was somehow “un-American.” For instance, President Grover Cleveland vetoed a literacy test for immigrants because he saw it as a “radical departure from national policy” and claimed the nation wants foreigners to “share in the blessings of American citizenship.” Okrent even acknowledges that many Southern lawmakers were initially opposed to immigration restriction because they favored cheap labor and viewed the new immigrants as superior to blacks.
But these figures are not the protagonists. It’s primarily wealthy German Jews who financed campaigns against immigration restrictions and excoriated eugenics. The notorious Franz Boas, of course, is one of Okrent’s heroes. The author even champions Boas’ discredited theory that America changed the cranial shape of immigrants. Boas pops up throughout the book to vituperate against immigration restrictionists, “racism,” and nature over nurture arguments. Other esteemed Jews in Okrent’s book include German businessman Albert Ballin, who made a fortune transporting immigrants to the New World, banker Jacob Schiff, who financed efforts to resettle Jews in America; “conservative” lawyer Louis Marshall, who led the American Jewish Committee; and Illinois congressman Adolph Sabath, who continually fought restrictionist legislation. The German Jewish community was not enthusiastic about the waves of shtetl Jews coming from the East, but they eventually came to see efforts to restrict them and other immigrants as threats to themselves. They were a rival elite to WASP restrictionists, and both sides saw immigration as a battle for power.
German Jews held their noses and sided with shtetl Jews against native Americans. Without their efforts — which included writing personal letters to presidents and creating advocacy groups like the Liberal League — restrictionist legislation would have passed much earlier than it did.
Jewish advocates and wealthy businessmen were not the only obstacles to restrictionist legislation. Both Republicans and Democrats were leery of passing it over the fear it would alienate ethnic voters. It explains why Cleveland, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson all vetoed a literacy test for immigrants. Even Teddy Roosevelt, who was a friend to restrictionists and endorsed their ideas, was reluctant to sign such legislation. The problem with democracy is that many of its leaders will care more about votes than good policy. The immigration debate continues to illustrate this depressing fact.
The literacy test finally became law in 1917, due largely to war fever. President Wilson vetoed it again, but his action was overridden by Congress. The problem was the bill was too little and too late. Literacy rates were improving in the areas of Europe restrictionists wanted excluded and a refugee exemption was added to the bill that would allow many to skirt the law’s regulations. Immigration restrictionists knew that the fight was not over and more was needed to protect the historic American nation.
It should be noted that the immigration fight primarily concerned European immigration. There was near-universal support for the exclusion of Asian and other non-white immigration. Wilson, for instance, resolutely opposed “Oriental coolieism” while defending immigration from Europe. While the majority of these European immigrants would count as white, their culture and traditions were radically different from that of Anglo-Americans. It was an ethnicity-based argument in favor of restriction.
The aftermath of World War I proved a boon to restrictionists. Left-wing terrorism carried out by recent immigrants scarred the nation. Millions of Americans feared the specter of Bolshevism and wanted the gates shut to the rest of the world. Leftist agitation finally persuaded many businessmen that other things may trump their petty economic interests and it may be time to restrict immigration. Restrictionists were also gifted with presidents who backed their laws. Both Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge supported immigration restrictions. Harding campaigned on the slogan “America First” and Coolidge publicly declared America was founded by Nordic stock. “America must be kept American,” Coolidge said in his first Annual Message to Congress. “For this purpose it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration.” These two Republicans would sign legislation that would close the gates to foreign hordes for decades to come.
The first major legislation to pass was in 1921. The Emergency Immigration Act placed a maximum cap on immigration at 355,000 per year and instituted national quotas. The number of slots per country was set at three percent of the number of people from that nation who were in the U.S. by 1910. The three percent rule dramatically cut immigration from Poland, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Greece. However, the bill was only temporary. A more permanent bill was put forward three years later.
The Immigration Act of 1924 further reduced America’s maximum annual immigration intake to 160,000 and based its national quotas on the 1890 census, further reducing the flow of Southern and Eastern Europeans. The law remained virtually unchanged until the 1950s and was only fully reversed by the infamous Immigration Act of 1965. The bill was a triumph for the restrictionist cause and represented a high point for assertive ethnonationalism in the US. Immigration restriction was still widely supported for several years after. Americans refused to be pressured into taking refugees from Europe at the onset of World War II, and the war did little to persuade native Americans to give up their birthright.
But the rise of Nazism did much to quell elite enthusiasm for eugenics and racialism. Many of the villains in Okrent’s book, such as Edward A. Ross, repudiated their past views in the 1930s largely in response to the Third Reich. Eugenics associations lost prominent members and its spokesmen were eager to put distance between themselves and the Nazis. Many of these groups shuttered in the 30s and 40s. After the war, nearly all of the old immigration restrictionists were either dead or retired. There was no new blood to replace them. The first cracks within restrictionist sentiment occurred during the war when we lifted Chinese exclusion as a reward to our ally, Chiang Kai-shek. More cracks would soon follow until the whole past consensus crumbled.
The book doesn’t delve too deeply into how the restrictionists’ legacy was overturned in the years of World War II. It does strongly imply as to why this occurred. The taint of Nazism discredited eugenics and racial thought in America. The nation no longer saw itself as a people but as an idea hostile to Communism and fascism. The new elite consensus proclaimed that anyone can be an American so long as you loved equality and freedom. The new elite was quite different as well. No longer were we led by WASP patricians who saw themselves as the stewards of the historic American nation. Our new elites were the children and grandchildren of Ellis Islanders, molded in the ideas and fashions of the WASPs’ Jewish rivals. They saw our nation as the land of immigrants, not of Anglo-Saxons.
Okrent alludes to this replacement. Many of the restrictionists and eugenicists never had kids. Many of the ones who did saw their children and grandchildren marry Jews. The old elite couldn’t guard its own gates.
The book concludes with a screed blaming America’s immigration laws for the Holocaust. It delivers the final blow for Okrent’s contempt for our nation seeking to preserve itself.
The Guarded Gate still provides instructive insight into our nation’s past and how the Right can fight our country in the present. We unfortunately lack the WASP patricians of the 1920s and it’s unlikely that the presidents of preeminent universities will endorse our ideas. Moreover, white America now includes many of the descendants of those immigrants the restrictionists wanted to keep out. It’s unwise to attempt a revival of early 20th-century WASP nativism when you’re more likely to find Italian Catholics within our ranks than old-stock Episcopalians.
Madison Grant and his compatriots prove that our ideas are not “un-American” or totally alien to our country. They are as American as apple pie. We need a new elite to articulate a vision that upholds our ancestral heritage and honors the legacy of those brave settlers who disembarked from the Mayflower.
A nation that doesn’t remember its roots is bound to die. We will know we live in a real country again when the Mayflower’s anniversary is more important than Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth.
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