Lon Kurashige: What Would Teddy Roosevelt Do?

Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States, by Lon KurashigeWe welcome a guest post today from Lon Kurashige, author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1924 to Japanese American internment during World War II, the United States has a long history of anti-Asian policies. But Kurashige demonstrates that despite widespread racism, Asian exclusion was not the product of an ongoing national consensus; it was a subject of fierce debate. This book complicates the exclusion story by examining the organized and well-funded opposition to discrimination that involved some of the most powerful public figures in American politics, business, religion, and academia.

In his post today, Kurashige explores the immigration agenda of Teddy Roosevelt and considers how his approach might be applied to immigration debates today.


A little over one hundred years ago, much like today, immigration fears fueled heated political debates in the United States as the nation confronted the effects of (at the time) its largest wave of newcomers. These debates were part and parcel to widespread concerns that the United States had lost its way, derailed by a combination of greedy capitalists, corrupt politicians, radical labor movements, violent anarchists, and, of course, the damaging influence of largely southern and eastern European immigrants whose foreign tongues, customs, religions, and ideologies seemed to undermine the nation’s democratic tradition rooted in a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant foundation. In September 1901 an American-born anarchist of Polish descent assassinated President William McKinley. This act thrust Theodore Roosevelt into the White House, where he served until 1909.

What did Teddy Roosevelt do about immigration?

It is important to recall Roosevelt’s positions on immigration because of the similarities between his day and our own. Immigration fears are a regular feature in today’s headlines as the United States (not mention the U.K. and European countries) wrestles with how much and in what ways to close its borders to newcomers. The same was true when Roosevelt became president. Three months after McKinley’s murder, Roosevelt urged Congress to “take into consideration the coming to this country of anarchists or persons professing principles hostile to all government. . . . They and those like them should be kept out of this country, and if found here they should be promptly deported to the country whence they came.”

Roosevelt also recommended the creation of a literacy test for immigrants. While admitting that this would not keep out intelligent criminals bent on harming the United States, he asserted that it would “decrease the sum of ignorance, so potent in producing the envy, suspicion, malignant passion, and hatred of order, out of which anarchistic sentiment inevitably springs.” Added to the list of excluded classes were prostitutes and other “persons who are of low moral tendency and unsavory reputation.” Finally, Roosevelt sought to strengthen barriers against immigrants who were likely to compete as unfair “cheap labor” against American workers. Thus the overarching themes guiding the new president’s immigration priorities were homeland security, selective screening based on education and morality, and protections for American labor.

Congress enacted most of Roosevelt’s agenda via the Immigration Act of 1903. The great exception here was the screening for education, the pet project of the president’s good friend and political ally Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who eventually prevailed in 1918 with the enactment of a literacy test for immigrant admission.

Roosevelt’s other immigration priorities focused on Asian immigrants. The president continued the policy of Chinese restriction that since 1882 had hardened into near exclusion. He sided with U.S. labor unions that cast Chinese laborers as a pernicious and unlimited source of “cheap labor” injurious to American workers. With the president’s support, Congress in 1904 removed Chinese exclusion from its trial basis (subject to renewal every ten years), an action that further insulted a Chinese public already humiliated by America’s long-standing discrimination against Chinese immigrants. A series of boycotts of U.S. goods broke out in China to protest the latest indignity. Worried about U.S.-China trade and for the safety of U.S. missionaries and businesspersons in China, Roosevelt made gestures that showed uncharacteristic sympathy for protecting the treaty and civil rights of Chinese immigrants. But these proved temporary and ended when the boycotts ceased in 1906.

Roosevelt responded differently to Japanese immigrants, who U.S. labor unions saw as no less a threat than the Chinese. Here the president opposed labor in coming to the defense of the Japanese in San Francisco who were discriminated against by city officials and harassed by gangs of disgruntled workers. In an address to Congress in December 1906, he emphasized the importance Asia-Pacific trade for the United States and warned that such trade, if it was to continue and expand, required mutual respect and fair treatment among trading partners. Japan, in particular, merited respect as “one of the greatest civilized nations; great in the arts of war and in the arts of peace; great in military, in industrial, and in artistic development and achievement.” In response to the conflicts in San Francisco, Roosevelt proposed revoking the naturalization law that banned Japanese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens (an action that would guarantee their civil rights). He also called for federal power to prevent the “mob of a single city” from “performing acts of lawless violence against some class of foreigners which would plunge us into war.”

This last statement about a feared U.S.-Japan war revealed the president’s motivation for standing up for Japanese immigrants. He did not want Californians to insult Japan, a world power fresh off victory in the Russo-Japanese War. So it was that national security was another theme guiding Roosevelt’s immigration agenda. Given federalist constraints, there was only so much he could do as president to discourage anti-Japanese racism in San Francisco. He managed to calm the Californians by negotiating a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japan to exclude Japanese laborers, and he blocked the migration of Japanese immigrants from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. But he wasn’t able to get Congress to act on naturalizing the Japanese (this had to wait until 1952).

When Roosevelt died in 1919 there was hope on both sides of the Pacific that the United States and Japan could manage the conflict over Japanese immigrants. But this was soon dashed as Californians renewed the push for Japanese exclusion by approving a state ballot measure against Japanese land owning. The exclusionist also benefitted from a Supreme Court decision confirming that Japanese immigrants could not become U.S. citizens. Ironically, it was Roosevelt’s friend Henry Cabot Lodge, in the last act of his Senate career, who joined with Californians in 1924 to enact Japanese exclusion. This was accomplished against strong opposition by President Calvin Coolidge and the State Department, who shared the same national security concerns that had motivated Roosevelt’s defense of Japanese immigrants. Had Roosevelt still been alive, it’s not hard to imagine that he too would have opposed Lodge in the name of preventing a U.S.-Japan war.

After World War II, two former U.S. ambassadors to Japan who served before the war testified to Congress regarding the connection between Japanese exclusion and the Pearl Harbor attack. They maintained that the humiliation of exclusion contributed significantly to an anti-American political climate that enabled the rise to power of militarists who steered the nation toward war. This point has been backed up by scholars, although both they and the former ambassadors caution against simplistic notions that exclusion caused the war. But if immigration policy did indeed contribute to the outbreak of one of the world’s most deadly and destructive wars—which saw the only use of atomic weapons to date—then it is not simply an academic exercise to consider what Roosevelt would do regarding immigration politics today. Based on his record as president, it is my sense that he would support and perhaps call to tighten already existing screening of immigrants to the United States for reasons of homeland security, education, and morality, and injurious competition with American workers. More important, however, is that Roosevelt would remind us to make sure that whatever is done does not offend foreign countries and peoples who have the capacity to make war against the United States or harm Americans anywhere in the world.

Lon Kurashige is associate professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States