Message from President of United States Favoring Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Law
Message from President of United States Favoring Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Law
Date: October 11, 1943
Source: Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. "Message to Congress Favoring Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Law." Washington, D.C., October 11, 1943.
About the Author: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945) was the thirty-second President of the United States, serving from 1933 until his death in April 1945. Roosevelt presided over two of the most difficult periods in American history, the Great Depression and World War II.
The prohibitions against the immigration of Chinese persons to the United States had been a part of American law for over sixty years when President Roosevelt urged the repeal of this legislation in October 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first of a series of laws directed at Asian immigration to the United States.
The historical focus of the Exclusion Act and its successors was economic. In response to reports of the discovery of gold in California, the first Chinese immigrants arrived in that state in 1849. Chinese laborers also formed a significant part of the workforce necessary to build the American transcontinental railroad, an engineering work completed in 1869. Following the completion of the railroad, Chinese workers were increasingly seen as a threat to the ability of the white labor force to secure jobs at a living wage.
The initial Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect for a period often years. This law was later extended in its scope to include most persons of Asian ancestry—Indians, Koreans, and the Japanese. In addition to the economic impetus underlying the desire to stem Asian immigration, particularly along the West Coast of the United States, racial profiling of Asians played a role in the exclusion efforts. The Chinese and Japanese, in particular, were seen by some as a general threat to the white population of America.
In 1913, California passed the Alien Land Law to prohibit any person ineligible for American citizenship from owning property in the state. As in most areas of the United States, there was little distinction drawn between Asian groups in either legislation or public opinion. At the time, many Americans held negative attitudes towards all Asians.
American attitudes towards the Japanese and Chinese diverged as political and military events unfolded in the 1930s. Japan began a significant military build-up that culminated in the invasion of Manchuria, a region adjacent to China, in 1931. By 1937, Japan and China were engaged in a war, known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that ultimately merged into World War II. China, a country that was also involved in a civil war between its Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai Shek and Communist rebels led by Mao Zedong, was now an American ally against Japanese expansionism in the Pacific region.
Proof of the new divergence in the status of the Chinese and the Japanese in the eyes of the American government was Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt in March 1942. This order mandated the construction of internment camps that would ultimately accommodate over 120,000 Japanese. Over sixty percent of those interned in the camps were American citizens.
To the Congress of the United States:
There is now pending before the Congress legislation to permit the immigration of Chinese people into this country and to allow Chinese residents here to become American citizens. I regard this legislation as important in the cause of winning the war and of establishing a secure peace.
China is our ally. For many long years she stood alone in the fight against aggression. Today we fight at her side. She has continued her gallant struggle against very great odds.
China has understood that the strategy of victory in this World War first required the concentration of the greater part of our strength upon the European front. She has understood that the amount of supplies we could make available to her has been limited by difficulties of transportation. She knows that substantial aid will be forthcoming as soon as possible—aid not only in the form of weapons and supplies, but also in carrying out plans already made for offensive, effective action. We and our allies will aim our forces at the heart of Japan—in ever-increasing strength until the common enemy is driven from China's soil.
But China's resistance does not depend alone on guns and planes and on attacks on land, on the sea, and from the air. It is based as much in the spirit of her people and her faith in her allies. We owe it to the Chinese to strengthen that faith. One step in this direction is to wipe from the statute books those anachronisms in our law which forbid the immigration of Chinese people into this country and which bar Chinese residents from American citizenship.
Nations like individuals make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes of the past and to correct them.
By the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws, we can correct a historic mistake and silence the distorted Japanese propaganda. The enactment of legislation now pending before the Congress would put Chinese immigrants on a parity with those from other countries. The Chinese quota would, therefore, be only about 100 immigrants a year. There can be no reasonable apprehension that any such number of immigrants will cause unemployment or provide competition in the search for jobs.
The extension of the privileges of citizenship to the relatively few Chinese residents in our country would operate as another meaningful display of friendship. It would be additional proof that we regard China not only as a partner in waging war but that we shall regard her as a partner in days of peace. While it would give the Chinese a preferred status over certain other oriental people, their great contribution to the cause of decency and freedom entitles them to such preference.
I feel confident that the Congress is in full agreement that these measures long overdue should be taken to correct an injustice to our friends. Action by the Congress now will be an earnest of our purpose to apply the policy of the good neighbor to our relations with other peoples.
Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The White House, October 1, 1943.
The original Chinese Exclusion laws were a form of American economic protectionism. In 1943, the basis for the repeal of these laws was the removal of an embarrassing symbol from the relations between two military and political allies.
Roosevelt hints at this fact in the course of his speech. He specifically calls the exclusion laws a mistake, one that had to be admitted for the military alliance and support the United States was extending to China to properly function. Roosevelt also obliquely acknowledges concerns regarding the economic impact of greater Chinese immigration and notes that the proposed quotas in the pending legislation will properly address this concern.
Soon after Roosevelt's address to Congress, he, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965), and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek (1887–1975) participated in the Cairo Conference of November 1943. In Cairo, the leaders discussed the possible post-war political alignments in the Pacific region, where all three leaders agreed that the ultimate goal in a successful war against Japan was the restoration of lands conquered by the Japanese to their former nations. The positions of China, Great Britain, and the United States in Cairo were confirmed in the publication of an official communique on December 1, 1943.
The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress on December 17, 1943, in legislation that was also known as the Magnuson Act. While the repeal would create future immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of Chinese, the first consequence of the new law was a military one. As a result of the repeal, approximately 14,000 men of Chinese descent became immediately eligible for the American military draft.
The speed with which Roosevelt was able to initiate the desired legislative change to American immigration law was significant. Less than ten weeks passed from the time of Roosevelt's address to Congress urging the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws to the passage of the Magnuson Act.
The American legislative action also sent a message to other nations that had constructed legislative barriers against Chinese immigration. Canada had passed its first exclusionary law against the Chinese in 1885, and like the United States, Canada had maintained its immigration restrictions with a series of amendments through the 1920s. Canada also ordered the internment of the Japanese male population on its West Coast in 1942. Canada followed the American repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws with similar legislation in 1947.
When viewed from a historical perspective, the 1943 repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws is a stepping stone in the United States to the fuller form of immigration permitted in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, where specific racial quotas were eliminated and replaced by a framework of rules based upon the applicant's country of origin. The U.S. government further modified its immigration laws with the Immigration Act of 1965.
The great irony of the 1943 legislation and the motivation of Roosevelt to ensure strong relations with his Chinese military ally came after World War II ended in 1945. In 1946, a full scale civil war erupted in China; by 1949, the Communists of Mao Zedong had taken control of the country, driving the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-Shek onto the island of Taiwan. By 1950, the new Chinese government and its army were a de facto enemy of the United States in the Korean War (1950–1953), since China was allied with North Korea against South Korea, the United States, and various allied nations. Since 1949, the United States has continued to support the Nationalist government in Taiwan in the face of significant Chinese governmental pressure to renounce this tie.
Dower, John W. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1987.
Ma, Xiaohua. "A Democracy at War: The American Campaign to Repeal Chinese Exclusion in 1943." Japanese Journal of American Studies 9 (1998): 121-142.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "This Month in Immigration History: December 1943." 〈http://www.uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/history/dec43.htm〉 (accessed June 12, 2006).