National Origins Act

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National Origins Act

United States 1924


The National Origins Act, sometimes referred to as the Johnson-Reed Act, represented the culmination of early twentieth-century anti-immigration sentiment. The act sharply restricted the total number of immigrants who could come to the United States and established quotas for various nationality groups. The chief purpose of the act was to limit the number of "less desirable" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and from Japan, many of whom had played a vital role in the nation's industrial development.


  • 1909: Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson reach the North Pole.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Josef Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and becomes an international hero.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.

Event and Its Context

"Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses"

Prior to 1890, most U.S. immigrants came from such northern European countries as England, Ireland, Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries, although on the West Coast a significant number were Chinese. Around 1890, however, the face of America began to change as many Slavs, southern Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, Rumanians, Lithuanians, Lebanese, and eastern European Jews began coming to the United States, many of them intending to work in the mines and mills. For many, their goal was to save enough money to return to their native lands and buy a farm or business. Between 1892 and 1914, 17 million immigrants—as many as a million a year—passed through Ellis Island, most from eastern and southern Europe. By 1910 the foreign-born represented 13 percent of the U.S. population, and they and their American-born children made up 40 to 50 percent of the population.

During these years the popular press was filled with pictures of exotic-looking immigrants. It was not long before many "old immigrants"—those of northern European stock—began to decry the influx of these new immigrants, who conjured images of dirt, disease, and crime. Leading the assault on immigration were many Boston Brahmins, including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. They gathered in 1894 to form the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), based on eugenic views of the superiority of the "Nordic races" and the corresponding inferiority of Slavs, Italians, and Jews. The IRL repeatedly urged Congress to restrict immigration by requiring a literacy test for admission to the United States, in the mistaken belief that most of the new immigrants would not be able to pass it. Grover Cleveland was the first of three presidents to veto such bills, and many Americans believed that the United States should remain a haven for the poor and oppressed.

Organized labor joined in the public debate. Skilled workers expressed contempt for their unskilled brethren from foreign countries. Many workers believed that industrialists were actually bringing in foreign labor to drive down wages. The American Federation of Labor and its leader, Samuel Gompers, were growing increasingly convinced that cheap foreign labor threatened the interests of the labor movement. Labor also believed that the shallow roots of the new immigrants made them resistant to unionization, although the success of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, many of whose members were Jewish, in part refuted this notion.

The gathering storm clouds of World War I intensified the effort to restrict immigration as a wave of patriotism and "Americanism" swept the nation. In the context of war, virtually any foreigner was regarded as suspect, leading Tennessee senator Kenneth McKellar to declare in April 1917, "From now on there can be but two classes of people in the country—Americans and traitors." In 1917 the anti-immigrationists finally got their literacy test, which Congress approved over Woodrow Wilson's veto.

Fueling the animosity toward immigrants was the Russian Revolution. In the minds of many Americans, Slavs and Jews were nothing more than "dirty Bolsheviks" who threatened American security. This view was strengthened by the violent steel strike of 1919, during which many Slavs, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and other immigrant nationalities enthusiastically supported the position of the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers and walked off their jobs. On the heels of this strike, the infamous case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists who were convicted of murder and robbery in 1920, confirmed negative stereotypes about southern Europeans and further polarized the critics and defenders of immigration.

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921

Calls for immigration restriction peaked in 1920 and 1921 as the economy softened and the labor unions and others argued that immigrants were no longer providing much-needed labor. Instead, they argued, the United States was becoming a "dumping ground" for Europe's "refuse" and the nation needed to act immediately to prevent its shores from being overrun with refugees from war-torn Europe. The anti-immigrationists had a strong ally in Congress in Representative Albert Johnson, a member of the Asiatic Exclusion League and chairman of the House Committee on Immigration.

The House adopted Johnson's call for a two-year suspension of immigration in 1921, but slightly cooler heads prevailed in the Senate, which called for limiting immigration to 5 percent of the number of foreign born of each nationality living in the United States in 1910. In conference the House and Senate agreed to a bill, the Emergency Immigration Act, which limited the number to 3 percent, with a maximum of 357,803 immigrants per year. These figures considerably favored those from the "old immigrant" countries and granted them 200,000 slots. The law was supposed to remain in effect for one year, but in 1922 it was extended until 1924.

Many business leaders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, opposed passage of the 1921 law, pointing to the contributions of immigrant labor in the coal, steel, meat-packing, textile, and other industries that were responsible for America's industrial might. After the act was passed, however, many reevaluated their attitudes and crept into the restrictionist camp, arguing that improvements in technology were reducing the need for unskilled labor, that the migration of African Americans from the South was alleviating labor shortages in the industrial North, and that Mexicans, who were exempt from the act, were filling labor shortages in the industrial Midwest. Adversity can make strange bedfellows, for the AFL agreed: closing America's gates would drive up wages in many industries. Labor found an advocate for its position in Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, a proponent of Nordic superiority who referred to the new immigrants as "rat people."

Closing the Gates

With the 1921 act due to expire in 1924, Congress felt a sense of urgency to pass a bill that would even further restrict immigration. Johnson and the Committee on Immigration devised a formula that would cut immigration to just over 161,000, with each nation's quota cut to 2 percent of its numbers according to the 1890 census; using the census of that year would ensure that the numbers of Slavic, eastern European, and Jewish immigrants would be drastically reduced, with those from such countries as Germany and the United Kingdom would be only modestly reduced. Thus, for example, Hungary's quota would be reduced from 5,638 (under the 1921 act) to 474, Poland's from 21,076 to 5,156, and Italy's from 42,057 to 3,912. In contrast, Germany's quota would be cut from 67,607 to 51,299 and the United Kingdom's from 77,342 to 62,458. The committee also attached a provision that excluded Japanese immigrants.

The committee bill passed easily in the House, but when it reached the Senate, David A. Reed of Pennsylvania was concerned that the use of the 1890 census would be perceived as too discriminatory. He thus proposed restricting immigration to 150,000 per year but using the 1920 census to establish quotas, a provision he believed would largely accomplish the goals of the House version; after 1927, quotas would be based on the results of a survey of the national origins of the American population. The Reed bill won handily in the Senate, and after the two bills went to a joint House-Senate committee, it was the Senate version that was approved. Thus, the Johnson-Reed Act went to President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the bill despite his misgivings over irritating Japan. Although hope persisted in some quarters that the act would in time be repealed, it would provide the basic framework for American immigration policy into the 1960s.

The Effects of the National Origins Act

The National Origins Act met with a storm of protest. Newspapers published by Italians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, and other ethnic groups denounced the law, which identified them as inferior races. Romania chastised the United States for assigning it a quota of 831. Even the fabric of Nordic unity frayed: Congressman Knud Wefald of Minnesota denounced the "breach of faith" that favored people from "British slums" over "farmer lads and skilled laborers" from Scandinavia.

The National Origins Act had far-reaching effects, many of which its proponents could not have anticipated. Denied entry between 1924 and 1929 were 300,000 Jews from eastern Europe, some of whom were aboard ship at the time the act was passed and many of whom might have been saved from the Nazi Holocaust. Japan took the act as "the culminating act of rejection by the United States." Ultimately the act soured relations between the two countries and added to the climate of tension that led to World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. Because Western Hemisphere countries were exempt from the act, during the 1920s a half a million Mexicans crossed the border, where they were welcomed as a source of cheap labor in agriculture, mining, the railroads, and the steel and auto industries. Ironically, the act indirectly aided the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during its organizing drives of the 1930s. First-generation immigrants had in fact generally not been receptive to unionization efforts; the ethnic groups tended to distrust one another, many workers did not speak English, and many intended to return to their home countries. Their sons and daughters, however, embraced the union movement and contributed enormously to the CIO's growth after 1930.

Key Players

Davis, James J. (1873-1947): Born in Wales, Davis immigrated to the United States at age eight. He worked as a "puddler" in the steel industry at age 11 and later became active in the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers. After serving as secretary of labor for three presidents, he was elected to the U.S. Senate (1930-1945).

Johnson, Albert (1869-1957): Johnson was born in Springfield, Illinois, and began his career as a newspaper reporter and, later, news editor at the Washington Post and editor of the Tacoma News. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Washington and served from 1913 to 1933.

Lodge, Henry Cabot (1850-1924): Lodge began his career as a faculty member at Harvard until he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1887-1893) and the Senate (1893-1824). He is best remembered for his staunch opposition to the treaty ending World War I and President Wilson's linking it to U.S. entry in the League of Nations.

Reed, David Aiken (1880-1953): Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Reed was an attorney and a veteran of World War I. He was originally appointed to the Senate, but he won reelection in his own right and served from 1922 to 1935. Although he was a conservative and an opponent of the New Deal, he was a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's defense policies.

See also: Congress of Industrial Organizations; International Ladies Garment Workers Union.



Archdeacon, Thomas. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America. New York:Harper Collins, 1990.

Goldberg, David J. Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Lane, Thomas. Solidarity or Survival? American Labor and European Immigrants, 1830-1924. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987.

—Michael J. O'Neal

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National Origins Act

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National Origins Act