By 1941, World War II was raging across Europe and the mood of the good people of the United States was pretty surly. The Defense Department was in need of a study supply of goods and services to supply the nation’s military that was engaged in a conflict of unprecedented scale in modern history. Every person in America was barely getting by after the lean years of the Great Depression. Big industry was raking in war profits hand over fist and the little guy wanted his share. President Roosevelt just wanted everyone to behave themselves, report to work and churn out the mechanical parts, machines, steel, coal, transportation and ships the country needed to keep our soldiers moving and the nation bankrolled. This created the conditions which resulted in legislation creating yet another change to the country’s immigration policies.
In 1941, labor unions were seriously flexing their muscles. Beginning in January and lasting until April, laborers at the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee dug in for a long strike over whether the company would be a “closed shop” or if workers could opt out of union membership. Bethlehem Steel Corporation of Pennsylvania, which had a long history of profiting from government defense contracts as well as a long history of organized workers, held a five day strike in March over the election of new collective bargaining representatives. In the following month of April, over four hundred thousand Appalachian coal miners organized a strike over a wage dispute. After a month of such shenanigans President Roosevelt got involved to assist in negotiating an agreement.
American citizens were quickly developing anti-labor sentiments. Strikes throughout the nation continued to keep the population embroiled in controversy no matter which side of the fence someone sat. Most Americans were simply happy to be employed after the jobless years of the Great Depression. The nation looked to its elected leaders to resolve these conflicts once and for all so everyone could focus on the American way of life, earning a paycheck then cashing and spending it. The U.S. government’s solution to all this industry mayhem was to pass the Smith-Connally Act on June 25, 1943 (also called War Labor Disputes Act) which gave the president authority to seize and operate private industries critical to manufacturing war products. This power was exercised by President Roosevelt twice within two months of its passage, and later, in October, when there was a strike at Air Associates, Inc.
In June President Roosevelt exercised emergency powers to commandeer North American Aviation in California as a result of a labor strike. August 20th, motor coach and street car operators affiliated with the AFL went on strike forcing over 400,000 Detroit workers who depended on public transportation to walk, hitch-hike or car pool. Also happening in August, workers at New Jersey’s Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company rejected an agreement put forth by the National Defense Mediation Board panel and a seventeen day strike commenced. Later that month President Roosevelt seized control of the plant.
Many Americans were not supportive of the disruptions created by organized labor and strikes. Typical cultural sentiment was to just get to work and not cause trouble. Do your part as an American and keep the country moving forward. Not only did the majority of the population support legislation that kept unions in check, they were also desiring policies that would prevent foreign rabble-rousers from importing their Socialist ideas and throwing a monkey wrench in all this progress. Although the economic tide was turning, people were still suffering privations because of how disastrous the Great Depression had been. Overall, at this time, the United States was seeing economic improvement but full-fledge prosperity was still some time away.
As a result of these concerns, the United States thought new immigration legislation was necessary for national security. The 1941 Wartime Measure of June 20th provided for refusal of entry for any immigrant if an American diplomat or consular thought their purpose was to cause trouble. It was rather vague in interpretation and application. It would eventually be exercised to its fullest extent after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Two months after the attack, by the power of Executive Order 9066, approximately 120,000 Japanese were forced into internment camps on American soil. Of those prisoners, sixty-two percent were U.S. citizens. This injustice, yet, only ten people were ever convicted of spying for Japan and they were Caucasian.
Two months after the passage of this Act, President Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Newfoundland to create their war effort plan known as the Atlantic Charter. Considering the amount of time and planning for two heads of state to meet at a neutral location, it is safe to assume that at the time legislators were working on this new immigration policy, they did so with full knowledge it was in preparation for the country moving toward entering the war. To get into America now, you had to pass muster of the personal opinion of an American diplomat or consular. Who were these diplomats? Were they even qualified to make such a determination of a person?
One American diplomat at this time was W. Averell Harriman. He was a U.S. diplomat who carried on dialogue with the Soviet Union during the conflict of World War II. During 1932-1946 he was chairman of the board with Union Pacific Railroad Company. An enviable position probably secured for him by his daddy, railroad bigwig E.H. Harriman. Hey, the gringa understands all about nepotism. It is regularly practiced here in the barrio with Junior heading out to work right beside Big Daddy on a regular basis. But, does working as a railroad wheeler-dealer qualify a person to decide if another person will make a good U.S. citizen?
Harriman also served as an officer of the National Recovery Administration from 1940-1941, which assisted in developing Roosevelt’s New Deal scheme. Specifically, he advised on the provisions that eliminated what would be considered “cut throat” competition and establishing “fair practices” in industry and trade. He also sat on the National Defense Advisory Commission as well as the Office of Production Management.
He made a career as an effective negotiator between the United States and Great Britain as well as the United States and the Soviet Union. Harriman’s profile was the typical resume for American diplomats. Boardroom negotiators have what it takes to navigate treaty talks with other nations.
American diplomats sound like great guys in stiff suits. The gringa’s just not so sure they would really be the go-to guys that would understand the heart of an immigrant, who probably didn’t even own a suit. In a nutshell, as a capitalist utopia run by the rich white guys, the gringa thinks the immigration changes of 1941 were appropriate for the times, but enacted and enforced by the wrong folks. But, that’s no surprise. War has always resulted in reactionary legislation that, in hindsight, causes the people to say, “What the hell were we thinking?”, from the Wartime Measure of 1941 to the Patriot Act of 2001. Say it ain’t so.
Addendum: I would like to thank Samir Chopra for his encouragement and his own contribution to the story of American immigration. For an interesting read, please visit his blog and read the following article “The Cruelest Cut Of All: Punjabis Are Not White“. This link will take you directly to it… http://samirchopra.com/2015/04/09/the-cruelest-cut-of-all-punjabis-are-not-white
Photo credit: wikipedia