Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Previous: Chapter 6: The watering of the West
Next: Chapter 8: The view from Hollywood

The 1965 Immigration Reform Act, predicted the Wall Street Journal, ensured “that the new immigration pattern would not stray radically from the old one.” Few forecasts proved so wrong so quickly. In the decades after the law came into effect, the pattern of immigration into the United States and particularly into the western states that bordered the Pacific or Mexico changed dramatically. These post-1965 flows significantly altered the national origins of the region’s population. Along with the twentieth-century transformations wrought by global wars and globalized commerce, the new immigration amplified the connections between the West and the world.

What emerged as “the West” in the latter half of the nineteenth century had numerous claimants prior to its incorporation into the United States; by the twentieth century, those rivals had retreated, and at least some westerners fought hard to protect the West from foreign influences. Like the growing import of the national government in the affairs of the West, the international presence generated resentments and efforts at restriction, most directly in the realm of immigration. Yet, in the second and third quarters of the twentieth century, the region’s fate was increasingly defined by federal interventions and entwined with international developments.

Washington, the world, and the West between the wars

In the first decades of the twentieth century, federally directed conservation and reclamation projects did not stop the unstable swings and unsustainable practices that had long shaped (or misshaped) the development of the West. The backlash that gathered against the intrusiveness and failings of the federal government and other “foreign” interests only partially concealed the reality of how dependent westerners were on the largesse that flowed from the nation’s capital and on the capital that came from Wall Street and other outside investors. Washington and Wall Street offered ready targets for the wrath of westerners. Immigrants presented an even more convenient, and more vulnerable, scapegoat.

The rhetorical salvos against Washington and Wall Street and the exclusionary impulses toward “non-Americans” were not new. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, American settlers in the First West railed against the national government for its inability to chase out Indians and clear away Spanish and British interference and for the favoritism it showed to absentee speculators at the expense of actual settlers. A century later, as a protracted economic downturn gripped the region, the portrayal of the West as a “plundered province” held in colonial subjugation by federal authorities and their capitalist confederates rallied millions of westerners to the Populist banner. Hard times also heightened the intensity of attacks against nonwhites and catalyzed the anti-Chinese movement that claimed the Exclusion Act of 1882 as the first victory in the battle to close the West to Asians.

The return of better times diminished but did not end the resentments. The onset of World War I raised demand for a variety of western goods. Farmers on the Great Plains planted more wheat to feed armies and civilians in Europe. Loggers in the Pacific Northwest harvested more trees. Across the region, farms, factories, and mines stepped up production, and residents, both urban and rural, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Labor shortages elevated wages and encouraged employers to look south of the U.S. border for new workers. Already in the decades before the war, the pull of wages that were many times those paid in Mexico lured an increasing flow of immigrants from Mexico into the American Southwest. Higher wartime wages, together with the violence that accompanied the Mexican Revolution, made the move across the border even more attractive.

Still, labor unrest and ethnic animosities continued to flare and combined most ferociously in Bisbee, a copper mining town in the southeastern corner of Arizona. There, in late June 1917, the International Workers of the World (IWW) launched a strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation. Corporate officials and local authorities claimed that the “Wobblies,” as members of the IWW were called, were radicals (which they were) and that the strike was “pro-German” (which it was not, though the strikers included a large proportion of immigrants). Early on the morning of July 12, a posse of more than two thousand men arrested approximately the same number of strikers. Those who refused to renounce the IWW and return to work were herded at gunpoint into manure-laden railroad cars. Nearly thirteen hundred men, mostly foreign-born and including many of Mexican ancestry, were forcibly expelled from Bisbee and stranded almost two hundred miles away in Hermana, New Mexico.

After World War I ended in November 1918, the economy again slumped, and crackdowns against labor unions, radicals, and immigrants swelled. During the “Red Scare” that erupted in 1919, government agents particularly targeted Wobblies, most violently at Centralia, Washington. A clash on the first anniversary of the Armistice left five dead. Across the nation, immigrant radicals were rounded up and deported thousands of miles to their countries of origin. Although the economy soon recovered, the prosperity of the 1920s bypassed much of the rural West, with the prices of many western commodities remaining depressed. For immigrants, the 1920s brought no return to normalcy. Insisting that many of the foreign-born who had come into the United States over the last half century were either un-American or not capable of being Americanized, “nativists” campaigned for reductions in the number of immigrants allowed into the country and restrictions on the places whence they came. The nativists’ crusade won passage of the 1924 National Origins Act. This law reached back to the 1890 census to set annual quotas on immigration based on the national origins of the American population thirty years earlier. That severely curtailed future entrants from the southern and eastern European countries—Italians, Jews, Slavs—who had dominated more recent immigration. The law also almost entirely barred further immigration from Asia. In the same year, the United States finally granted citizenship to American Indians and also formalized the Border Patrol, whose primary charge grew to stopping Mexican as well as Chinese people moving north from Mexico.

For Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, the force of the new immigration regime hit home when the stock market collapsed in 1929 and the Great Depression ensued. Unlike the 1920s, when hard times were largely confined to the countryside, the Great Depression of the 1930s distressed urban as well as rural Americans. Westerners took particularly hard blows. Of the ten states registering the greatest decline in income during the Depression, seven were in the West. In California, where booming oil production and the rise of Hollywood had made the twenties a roaring time, the Great Depression quickly reduced large numbers to poverty and put one in five residents on government relief by 1934. Hispanic families, many of whom eked out precarious livings as transient agricultural laborers during good times, found the going even tougher during the 1930s. But rather than extend relief to some of the hardest hit, the administration of President Herbert Hoover opted for deportations. Because government agents had trouble determining the status of many Mexicans, the roundups conducted by the Immigration Service netted both those who had entered the United States illegally and American citizens of Mexican ancestry. The latter faced the burden of proving their right to remain in the United States. Altogether, the federal government deported over eighty thousand people. An additional five hundred thousand Mexicans, fearful of being caught in raids and unable to obtain employment or relief, retreated south of the border.

The plight of agricultural laborers—their flight from devastated homelands, their hopes for a better life in the American West, the discriminations, disappointments, and often desperate poverty they instead encountered as migrant workers—gained greater public attention during the 1930s. In many ways, these had been the experiences of generations of immigrants from Mexico, China, Japan, and the Philippines. What was new in the 1930s and what became the subject of songs by Woody Guthrie, photographs by Dorothea Lange, and the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was that these workers were white Americans. Lumped together as “Okies,” though Oklahoma was one of several adjacent states from which they hailed, the heroes and heroines of Guthrie, Lange, and Steinbeck were plain folk from the Plains. They had fled the ecological catastrophe of the Dust Bowl and the economic calamity of the Depression in search, like so many before them, of a fresh start in California. But they met hostility from locals and found only sporadic work and meager wages from growers.

Like other westerners, these victims of the Depression were assisted by a splurge of federal spending during the New Deal. While western states were disproportionately represented on the list of declining incomes, they also topped the charts when it came to calculating per capita benefits from federal expenditures between 1933 and 1939. Indeed, the top fourteen states on this list were in the West. The construction of roads, bridges, and government buildings created jobs for the unemployed and raised incomes throughout the region. Even more important for the West and its infrastructure were the reclamation and conservation projects the federal government undertook, with enormous hydroelectric dams on the Colorado and Columbia Rivers serving as potent symbols of what a good deal the New Deal was for westerners.

Most westerners acknowledged this largesse with their votes, which swung the region solidly behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the elections of 1932 and 1936. This did not mean westerners ceased to carp about the contradictions in federal policies that expended vast sums on water projects to increase harvests while simultaneously paying farmers to take lands out of production so as to raise crop prices. More bothersome were new rules and regulations that interfered with westerners’ freedom to conduct their private enterprises as they had on public lands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which ended homesteading and brought stock-raising on federal lands under government management, was a particular sore point for ranchers. Infringing on the customary practices of livestock raisers, the Taylor Act underscored the growing presence of the federal government, as well as the dependence of even the most individualistic of westerners on it.

The West as arsenal

The impact of the federal and the foreign on the West surged during World War II and the Cold War. Although restrictions on immigration, patrols of borders, and deportations of Mexicans were supposed to cordon off the West from the world, the barriers remained permeable. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes along the West Coast signaled the latest in a long line of efforts to shut those deemed un-American out of the West. Yet the West continued to grow more connected to the world, its economy increasingly dependent on the region’s role in defending the nation against its foreign enemies. That meant the West was also more reliant on Washington. The federal dollars that funded the development of the military infrastructure and the research and production of weapons were key to the West’s prosperity during the middle decades of the twentieth century.

The American military and American Wests had matured together. In the republic’s first decades, American troops explored western territories, checked European rivals, battled Indians, ushered removals, safeguarded pioneer settlements, and conquered Mexico. Through the nineteenth century, except during the Civil War, the United States Army was by and large a western army. Its posts secured American claims across the continent, and its payments to soldiers and suppliers pumped money into frontier economies.

During World War II and the Cold War, what set apart the military’s presence from that of earlier times was scale; the number of people directly engaged in these war efforts and the amount of dollars dwarfed nineteenth-century figures. In addition, unlike in the nineteenth century, the mid-twentieth-century West was home not only to military bases but also to the plants that manufactured many of the most advanced weapons of war. During the four years when the United States was directly involved in World War II, Washington provided 90 percent of the investment capital that allowed private corporations in the West to expand exponentially their production of ships, planes, and other weapons. The infusion of federal funds did much the same during the decades of Cold War, enabling the continuing growth of defense-related industries and the development of new ones.

In the global conflicts of this era, first against fascism and then against communism, the United States faced foes with designs for territorial and economic aggrandizement that bore at least some resemblance to the history of American westward expansion. Indeed, some in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan saw the United States as a model for how to conquer hinterlands, cleanse them of ethnically “savage” inhabitants, and colonize them with settlers. In the Soviet Union the United States found an ally during World War II and an enemy in the Cold War whose history of territorial spread, dating back to the Russian Empire, eclipsed its own.

Another troubling parallel, at least on the semantic level, emerged with the issuing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942. The order authorized the relocation of West Coast Japanese to what were termed concentration camps. A response to the hysteria that gripped the United States in the wake of Pearl Harbor, it led to the uprooting of more than one hundred thousand Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans from their homes in California, Oregon, and Washington. The internment camps, as they were renamed to erase the link with Nazi concentration camps, did not starve, work, or gas inhabitants to death. The order did, however, compel people whose only crime was their national ancestry to leave their homes in haste, often with no time to secure the value of their property. Sent to generally inhospitable and inaccessible parts of the interior West, the internees spent much of the war living in barracks behind barbed wire fences.

The homes and neighborhoods the interned left behind quickly filled and overfilled with a flood of newcomers attracted by the opportunities that the war had opened on the West Coast. Pacific ports served as the principal staging ground for soldiers, sailors, and pilots heading out to fight Japan. Many of those harbors also became shipbuilding centers. The number of jobs in San Francisco Bay Area shipyards leapt from 4,000 just before the war to 260,000 at the height of production. Still greater were the openings in Los Angeles–area aircraft manufacturing plants. The demand for labor in these operations was so immense that the private corporations that ran them initiated extensive and expensive efforts to recruit and retain workers. That entailed raising wages and introducing new benefits such as medical insurance and paid child care. It also meant employing workers previously shut out from these industries. Women entered the paid workforce in large numbers, occupying approximately 25 percent of the jobs in shipyards and 40 percent in aircraft plants. Encouraged by corporate recruiters, Native Americans left reservations and African Americans fled the South to work in war industries in West Coast cities. In Seattle, where there were opportunities in both shipbuilding and aircraft industries, the black population increased from four thousand before the war to forty thousand at its conclusion.


7. The noted documentarian Dorothea Lange took this photograph in Oakland, California, in March 1942. The store’s owner, a Japanese American, had put the sign up on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, but the store closed when its owner was sent to an internment camp.

Although West Coast cities did not import all of the legal and extralegal mechanisms that buttressed the Jim Crow regime in the South, the convention of restrictive covenants in housing deeds (that prohibited owners from selling or renting homes to people of particular races or religions) and the power of customary prejudices severely constrained the places where nonwhite newcomers could live. A fraction moved into the residences that Japanese had left behind, but most struggled to find adequate and affordable housing, given the limited choices of neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods that did allow nonwhites soon experienced the strains that came when too many people lived in too little space.

The squeeze was greatest in California, whose population jumped 75 percent between 1940 and 1943. Neighboring states witnessed population booms of their own, as wartime industries were decentralized across the Pacific Coast, Southwest and Mountain West states. Only the Plains states lagged in enjoying the fruits of federal investment and the enduring frictions that came with populations galloping upward.

Even with extraordinary recruitment campaigns and a new rush of people moving west, demand for labor still outran supply in various sectors of the western economy. In agriculture in particular, employers turned again to Mexico. A 1942 deal between the governments of the United States and Mexico set the terms for laborers to cross the border on a temporary basis. Although the agreement promised guest workers prevailing wages, most received much lower pay than that. They also had no way to challenge the system, for braceros (manual laborers) had no right to negotiate their own wages and faced deportation if they left the jobs for which they had been contracted.

The bracero program outlived its wartime origins, as did a number of the economic and demographic changes World War II instigated. Unlike the past, when the cessation of hostilities had halted the economic stimulus that warfare generated, the end of World War II brought only a brief cooling. With the Cold War commencing soon after Japan’s surrender, the national government’s defense budget quickly returned to a war footing. Once again, the West received far more than its share of armament contracts and armed forces installations. The manufacture of military aircraft and the emergence of aerospace and missile technologies spurred the expansion of those industries and of the places in which they were located. First and foremost, that continued the astonishing growth of Los Angeles, but it also stimulated the economies and augmented the populations of San Diego, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Wichita. Although the shipbuilding industry that underwrote the San Francisco Bay Area’s boom during World War II did not regain its previous heights of production, the technologies needed for advanced airplanes and missiles spawned the electronics and computer industries that grew up around Stanford University. In addition to the Silicon Valley, the partnership between research universities, private enterprises, and federal funds for military projects fostered the emergence of other “high-tech” centers across the West. That combination, along with the availability of vast amounts of public land, made the West the center for nuclear weapons. That began with the basing of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II. It continued with the mining of uranium in the Southwest, the manufacturing of plutonium at Hanford, Washington, the testing of atomic weapons in Nevada, and the basing of intercontinental ballistic missiles underneath the Plains.

All of this contributed to the post–World War II westward tilt in the American census. At the end of the war, around 10 percent of Americans lived in the West. That proportion nearly doubled during the decades of the Cold War. California saw the largest increases, and in 1962 it surpassed New York to become the nation’s most populous state. Texas also experienced a postwar rush, which allowed its population to overtake New York’s in 1994.

In California, Texas, and across the West (and the nation), people on the move headed to suburbs, drawn to these burgeoning communities by their own dreams and by inducements from the national government. Boosted by federal policies that subsidized mortgages and guaranteed loans, private homeownership came within reach for millions. Suburbanization gained additional encouragement with the passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. More than connecting states together, the new roads, 90 percent of whose costs the federal government paid, provided the means by which suburban dwellers could commute to downtown workplaces. As subdivisions supplanted farms, ranch houses, rather than ranches, became the symbol of the good life in the postwar American West.

The world returns to the West

After 1965, California and the West continued to gain people and grow in proportion to the rest of the nation, but the sources of those additions shifted. As in earlier decades, most of the newcomers during World War II and over the next twenty years had come west to become westerners. Following the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, however, the westward current was overtaken by northward and eastward flows. In these same years, the economy of the West was also reoriented, with Asia becoming ever more important to the region’s (and the nation’s) enterprise.

Abolishing the discriminatory quotas that had severely constricted immigration from all but northwestern Europe since the 1920s, the 1965 Act allocated 170,000 places to people from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 to those from the Western Hemisphere. More important, the legislation exempted persons with close relatives who were citizens of the United States from these restrictions. Thus, immigrants who had become American citizens were now able to reunite their families.

This system of giving preference to family members resulted in a surge of immigration from Asia and Latin America. The quota for immigrants from Mexico was set at twenty thousand per year, but more than four times that number annually gained entry because of the family preference rule. Tens of thousands of Central Americans also took advantage of this provision. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of other Latin Americans moved across the southern border of the United States without legal permission, swelling the Latino population of the West and the nation. Asians’ numbers rose even more dramatically. Whereas they had accounted for only about 6 percent of immigrants in the decade before 1965, they represented nearly 30 percent in the following years. Within these ranks, places of origin shifted as well. Chinese and Japanese had dominated the Asian-American population since the nineteenth century, but after 1965 Koreans, Filipinos, and South and Southeast Asians became more prominent.

By the mid-1980s, this new immigration had transformed the demographic profile of the West. The Latino population in the nineteen most western states jumped to 15 million. In the same period, immigration tripled the Asian-American population, which reached 5 million by 1985.

The demographic changes were most dramatically registered in California, nowhere more than in Los Angeles. At the end of the nineteenth century, approximately three-quarters of the population of Los Angeles had been born in the United States. Unlike other fast-growing American cities that received millions of immigrants during the last decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth, the percentage of foreign-born in Los Angeles remained stable, even as the population of the city increased twelvefold between 1900 and 1930. Despite a sizeable movement of Mexicans into Los Angeles during and after the Mexican Revolution, the census of 1930 recorded the Latino population as only 8 percent of the city’s inhabitants. Asians composed only about 2 percent.

Contrast this with the situation after 1965, when approximately one in four legal immigrants to the United States settled in California. The rush led Time to dub the Los Angeles airport the “new Ellis Island.” By the late 1980s, the foreign-born population of Los Angeles had surpassed that of New York City.

Economic shifts accompanied these demographic ones. Most apparent was the growing importance of the Pacific Rim to western business. In one regard, this was not new. After all, the West began as a search for a better route to the East. Still, the last decades of the twentieth century saw a rapid rise in the value of trade between the United States and countries on the other side of the Pacific. For American consumers, it seemed as if the long-sought passage to Asia had been attained as they reaped the benefits of cheaper goods made across the Pacific and imported to the United States.

These changes came at a cost, and they generated a backlash. Across the West, anti-immigrant sentiments flared up. English-only movements gathered momentum, renewing old ideas about how to “Americanize” immigrants. More punitive were campaigns against illegal immigrants. These movements sought to stem the flow of unauthorized immigrants by enhancing the enforcement abilities of the Border Patrol. They also targeted those already here by pushing for deportations and passing legislation to deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants. Still, the demand for cheap labor overwhelmed efforts to stem the continuing movement of people across the Mexican-U.S. border.

The same was true of the flow of goods across the Pacific. During the last decades of the twentieth century, a pronounced imbalance between imports and exports emerged, with the former eclipsing the latter. This surge of manufactured goods from Asia contributed to the deindustrialization of the American economy in the 1970s and 1980s. As factory jobs disappeared and unemployment rates rose, calls for restrictions on imports joined calls for restrictions on immigration. But the lure of cheaper products proved more politically powerful than the protectionist sentiments that underlay the fight to limit foreign items.

By no means were these trends unique to the West. Immigration and globalization reshaped the whole of the United States. The West, though, because of its proximity to the Pacific and to Mexico, felt these pressures more acutely. Try as some did to wall the West off from the world, these protections against foreign people and goods, like the projections of borders on earlier maps, did not hold.

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Next: Chapter 8: The view from Hollywood