Pacific Relations? Immigration and Exclusion in American Foreign Relations

Dr. Cees Heere, Postdoctoral Researcher

The notion that the United States is a “nation of immigrants” (as the title of a 1958 book by then senator John F. Kennedy had it) remains a touchstone of American national identity. Kennedy argued that what made the United States unique, and what gave it an edge as a global power, was its universalism: its ability to bind its citizens together by a common adherence to political and civic ideas, rather than by appealing to ties of blood. In practice, however, the history of American immigration has been rarely so straightforward, as Kennedy himself acknowledged: his book was an appeal to revise the highly discriminatory immigration law that the United States had enacted since 1924.

Beginning in the 1880s, the United States became one of the first modern states to establish a comprehensive system of immigration restrictions and border controls, designed to filter prospective immigrants through an interlocking set of social, economic, and ethnic criteria. Yet the catalyst for this process did not lie in the Atlantic, which Kennedy’s own ancestors had crossed, but in the Pacific. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which categorically barred Chinese migrants from entering the United States, marked the first occasion on which the federal government had sought to regulate immigration of any kind. Exclusion was gradually extended across Asia. The 1917 Immigration Act explicitly designated most of Asia as a “barred zone” 1924 successor, finally, categorically prohibited Asian immigration, a provision that remained written into American immigration law until Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, repealed it in 1965.

Historians have generally viewed the making of immigration policy as a domestic political issue, made by internal political forces. Yet framing rules for the entry of foreign nationals by definition resonated internationally. Building on recent work that has analysed the global resonance of the African-American struggle for Civil Rights, this project makes the case that the evolution of American immigration policy needs to be read, similarly, in relation to U.S. foreign relations. Its focus is on the Pacific, Pacific, where the severity of Asian exclusion, and its transnational diffusion between (aspirationally) white settler societies (the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and much of Latin America all came to exclude East Asian migrants), gave immigration a particular international resonance. Contemporaries often referred to a ‘Pacific problem’: the apparent difficulty of establishing an regional order built on peaceful interaction, both between states and across racial boundaries. Immigration restrictions, however, consistently complicated such efforts. The persistence of racial discrimination at the American border scarred the legitimacy of the Wilsonian system in many Chinese and Japanese eyes. This corrosive effect also flowed in the other direction: in the United States, as well as in Australia and Canada, Japan’s revolt against the international order in the 1930s made Japanese immigrants (and their descendants) politically suspect, ultimately culminating in their forced internment during the Pacific War.

The project thus stands at the intersection of several historiographies: the fractious history of American-Japanese relations; the rise and fall of internationalism; and the history of migration restriction; and seeks to draw out the connections between them. In doing so, it makes an intervention in two major historiographical debates. The first is on the nature of the international system in the aftermath of the First World War, where historical still wrestles with the rise of multiple, apparently contradictory phenomena: the rise of a new ‘international society’ on the one hand, and on the other by economic deglobalisation and the rise of new, more aggressive manifestions of imperialism. The disputes over migration offer a distinct, and thus far unstudied, perspective on this issue. Second, the project investigates the changing international role of the United States, and the ways in which this development shaped (and was shaped by) its domestic political arrangements.

The project is based on original archival research, combining the archives of governments, international organisations, and individuals. It specifically seeks to incorporate those non-governmental actors, e.g. the missionaries, businessmen, local politicians and intellectuals, who intervened on both sides of the migration debate. In a wider sense, the research engages with several of the key themes that define (and challenge) the concept of a “Rooseveltian Century”: the expansion of the US’s international role, and the often erratic, contested construction of a more equitable, inclusive American democracy at home.