World War I and immigration

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was seen by most Americans and many Canadians as a distinctly European problem. Canada was tied to Britain, both in governance and in broad sentiment, but the United States attempted to shield itself from the influences that had helped create the war. Most important, it hoped to keep out dangerous radicals and communists who might poison the minds of millions of Europeans already in North America who had come from lands now at war. World War I ushered in an age of xenophobia and of tighter restrictions on immigration that would last, in some measure, into the 1960s.

The Great War, as it came to be called before World War II, developed from a seemingly localized struggle between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia, both bent on expansion in the Balkan Peninsula of Europe. The assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in June 1914 was the culmination of a long period of international tension that began with France’s defeat at the hands of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. From that event developed a growing militarization of Europe and the formation of alliance systems that made it difficult to solve problems such as Francis Ferdinand’s assassination by diplomatic means. Just as important in the coming of war was the intense nationalistic impulse that had motivated much of European politics since the revolutions of 1848. By the second decade of the 20th century, it was impossible for autocratic rulers of multiethnic states to quietly quell nationalistic movements.

Throughout eastern and southern Europe after 1880, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Jews, and dozens of other ethnic groups were fleeing repressive regimes in Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire, seeking both economic opportunities and personal freedoms in North America. Millions of others came from Britain, Scandinavia, Italy, and other parts of Europe. With very few restrictions on European immigration to the United States and a booming economy, immigration reached all-time highs in the decade prior to the Great War. Whereas immigration had averaged about 340,000 per year during the 1890s, between 1905 and 1914, it jumped to more than 1 million per year. Although Canadian policy was more restrictive, the trend was the same. During the 1890s, immigration to Canada averaged about 37,000 per year; between 1905 and 1914, the figure rocketed to almost 250,000 per year. Thus, when war broke out, there were millions of people in both the United States and Canada who had close personal ties with countries on both sides of the conflict. This provided a powerful impulse for politicians to stay out of the war. 

Following the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, Germany backed without reservation Austria-Hungary’s extreme threats against Serbia—the so-called blank check. Russia mobilized troops in support of Serbia, leading to an Austrian declaration of war. Germany, fearing a two-front war, invaded France by way of Belgium, violating neutrality agreements signed with Britain and France in the 1830s. By the end of August, Britain, France, and Russia—the Allied Powers—were arrayed against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire—the Central Powers. Italy, long an ally of Germany and Austria, joined the Allied Powers in 1915. The war that many predicted would be over by Christmas soon ground to a standstill, as defensive technologies kept millions of men on both sides in hundreds of miles of trenches throughout the war.

Although U.S. president Woodrow Wilson deeply admired the British and their parliamentary system of government, he publicly urged Americans to remain "impartial in thought as well as in action.” Most Americans agreed. The United States generally had remained neutral in international diplomacy. In addition, many progressives believed that war would detract from pursuit of domestic reforms that were greatly needed. Finally, most Americans, despite their sympathies, realized that there were simply too many divided loyalties for the country to take sides over issues that seemed so remote from the country’s interests. Although the clear majority of Americans were of British, Scandinavian, or Italian stock, more than 2.3 million Germans and 1.5 million Irish had immigrated since 1880, and most generally opposed siding with the Allied powers. However, when the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives, including 139 Americans, Wilson and the public generally turned against the Central Powers For the duration of the war, the American public was bombarded with anti-German propaganda, produced both by the British government and the U.S. government’s Committee on Public Information. "One hundred percent Americanism” was promoted, German language courses were discontinued, and German Americans were frequently harassed and sometimes forced to publicly express their patriotism. Immigrants from Austria-Hungary were suspect as sympathizers or as radicals or labor activists, despite the fact that many had emigrated to flee the Austrian Crown, and most supported the right of self-determination. People were unsure of Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian loyalties and feared the importation of radical communist doctrines. There was even a heightened effort to discourage the customs and traditions of Mexican laborers in the American Southwest.

The resumption of German submarine warfare in February 1917 finally brought the United States into the war, with Woodrow Wilson promoting his Fourteen Points, emphasizing the establishment of an international peacekeeping body (the League of Nations) and a major role for the United States in reshaping the Old World. Although war was declared in April 1917, American troops did not play a large part in the fighting until January 1918. The war ended on November 11, 1918; nevertheless 115,000 U.S. soldiers died, and almost twice that many were wounded. Though these figures paled in comparison to European losses, Americans tended to blame a corrupt and outdated European system that had little in common with the democratic values of America. This view was only heightened by the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in October 1917 and Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the war in March 1918. The small Socialist Party in the United States was dominated by immigrants, who were increasingly suspected of internal subversion. Finally, the widespread labor unrest of 1919 was inextricably linked to immigrant influence, consolidating the Red Scare in America. Although the move to round up and deport suspected radicals quickly ran its course by 1920, Americans were in no mood for international ventures of any kind. Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles (1919), which would have required joining the new League of Nations.

Even as the United States was entering World War I in 1917, there had been substantial concern about the "dumping” of dangerous and poor immigrant refugees from Europe. When the Immigration Act of 1917, which had instituted an immigrant literacy test, failed to keep hundreds of thousands of Europeans from immigrating after the war, support for an ethnic quota grew. For the first time, many within the business community supported such restrictive legislation, convinced that immigrants from Canada, Mexico, and the West Indies had significantly lessened the need for potentially radicalized European labor. In order to ensure that Bolsheviks, anarchists, Jews, and other "undesirables” were kept to a minimum, the Emergency Quota Act set the number of immigrants from each national origin group at 3 percent of the foreign-born population of that country in 1910, a period when immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia had been particularly high. The measure limited immigration to 357,800 annually from the Eastern Hemisphere, with more than half the number reserved for immigrants from northern and western Europe. The even more restrictive Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 made the quotas permanent, though at reduced levels. The measure established an overall annual quota of 153,700, allotted according to a formula based on 2 percent of the population of each nation of origin according to the census of 1890. Countries most favored according to this formula were Great Britain (43 percent), Germany (17 percent), and Ireland (12 percent). Countries whose immigration had increased dramatically after 1890—including Italy, Poland, Russia, and Greece—had their quotas drastically slashed.

English-speaking Canadians were initially more enthusiastic for the war, though the francophone population and large Irish and German populations were not. The outbreak of World War I forced Canada to devise a policy for dealing with resident enemy aliens. Among the Canadian population, more than 500,000 people were in some way linked to the Central Powers, including about 400,000 of German origin, 129,103 from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, almost 4,000 from the Ottoman Empire, and several thousand from Bulgaria. Despite the fact that only about 20,000 Germans and 60,000 Ukrainians were yet to be naturalized, most fell under suspicion. The resulting War Measures Act of August 1914 enabled the governor in council to authorize any orders or regulations deemed "necessary or advisable for the security, defence, order and welfare of Canada.” Enemy aliens were prohibited from possessing weapons and were eventually required to register with the police and military. Of more than 80,000 who were registered, 8,579 were interned in 24 camps across Canada. As in the case of the United States, most East Europeans were suspect, especially Ukrainians, who were viewed as the main supporters of bolshevism in Canada. Further stressing the patriotic requirement, in 1917, the Wartime Elections Act enfranchised women whose husbands, sons, or brothers were in active service, while disenfranchising everyone from enemy countries who had becomes citizens since 1902.

As Canada slipped into depression between 1919 and 1922, it too developed more restrictive immigration legislation. Under Section 3 of the Immigration Act of 1919, an order-in-council excluded immigrants from countries that had fought against Canada during the war. The list of inadmissible immigrants was expanded to include alcoholics, those of "psychopathic inferiority,” mental defectives, illiterates, those guilty of espionage, and those who believed in the forcible overthrow of the government or who "disbelieved” in government at all. At the same time, revisions made it easier to deport immigrants. Immigrants who could be shown to have fallen into an inadmissible class when they arrived in Canada were no longer safe from deportation after five years. The cabinet was also authorized to prohibit entry to any race, class, or nationality because of contemporary economic conditions or because they were not likely to be assimilable because of "peculiar habits, modes of life and methods of holding property,” a provision invoked against entry of Hutterites (see Hutterite immigration), Mennonites (see Mennonite immigration), and Doukhobors. Additionally, in 1921, adult immigrants were required to have $250 upon landing, and children, $125. Farm laborers and domestic workers with previous job arrangements were exempted from the landing fees. In 1923, immigration was restricted to agriculturalists, farm laborers, and domestic servants. The revisions were also supported by the business community, which had previously supported a more liberal policy. According to the president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, while it was true that Canada had millions of "vacant acres” that needed population, "it is wiser to go slowly and secure the right sort of citizens.”

The Canadian government rewarded returning soldiers with grants of land, but there was a high rate of failure. As a result, by the mid-1920s, the Canadian government was again seeking agriculturalists from Europe to develop Canada’s agricultural lands. The first choice was to grant land to British families. Under the Empire Settlement Act, British farmers with 25 pounds of capital upon arrival could get loans and other forms of assistance. The program eventually brought more than 100,000 British immigrants, though many of them went into other lines of work. At the same time, almost half a million Canadians immigrated to the United States between 1925 and 1932.

With the end of depression by 1923, Canada turned its attention to refugee groups still languishing in Europe, especially if they were considered helpful to Canada’s economic recovery. Mennonites, who had been excluded by the ordersin- council in 1919, were once again invited in 1923. Under the provisions of the Railway Agreement of 1924, which authorized the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway to recruit agriculturalists for the development of the prairies, about 185,000 central Europeans came to Canada, about half of them German speakers. Among the earliest to arrive were German-speaking Russian Mennonites, who had been doubly branded during the war as enemy sympathizers and pacifists unwilling to share the nation’s burden. Between 1923 and 1930, about 20,000 settled in Canada. About 3,100 Jews were admitted by 1924, though thousands more were excluded for fear that they were tainted by communism. About 1,300 Armenians were admitted in the early 1920s, but the government practiced an essentially exclusionary policy that refused entry to most Armenians.

A–Z index