What accounted for the Nativism of the 1920s?
Nativism is the name given to anti-immigrant feeling which derives from the idea that native-born Americans have "superior rights" to those living in America but born abroad. Nativism became commonplace in the 1920s for a number of reasons:
- The Ku Klux Klan: this white supremacist organization experienced a resurgence in the 1920s. Unlike in previous decades, the KKK directly targeted immigrants, especially Catholics and Jews, by arguing that these religious denominations did not fit with the American way of life. The KKK also argued that the "New Woman" of the 1920s was morally corrupt and advocated a return to more traditional forms of femininity. This prompted a huge wave in the KKK's popularity: historians estimate that three million Americans joined the organization during this decade, and the KKK established chapter across the whole country, not just the South.
- The Red Scare of 1919-1921: after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, there was widespread fear that the Communists (the Reds) would come to America and try to make the same changes by overthrowing the government. A number of bombings during this two-year period intensified the existing hatred against Communists and, thus, caused an increase in Nativist feelings.
There were at least two main causes of nativism in the 1920s.
First, there was the fact that there had been a huge influx of “new immigrants” in the decades leading up to the 1920s. These new immigrants were from Eastern and Southern Europe and were therefore ethnically different from previous immigrants. Many were Catholic or Jewish at a time when the US was overwhelmingly Protestant. The “newness” of these immigrants, coupled with bad economic times right after the war, helped to cause nativism.
Second, there was a general cultural change in the 1920s. Old values were being relaxed and new values taking over. This was the time of the “flapper” and other major social changes. These changes were concentrated in cities, away from the rural areas where most nativism occurred. The nativists saw the cultural change as being somehow connected to the immigrants. They saw both as threats to their way of life. Therefore, some of the nativism was a reaction to a general change in values.