A fear of foreignness shaped the immigration foreign policies of the United States up to the end of World War II. US leaders perceived nonwhite peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Europe as racially inferior, and feared that contact with them, even annexation of their territories, would invite their foreign mores, customs, and ideologies into US society. This belief in nonwhite peoples’ foreignness also influenced US immigration policy, as Washington codified laws that prohibited the immigration of nonwhite peoples to the United States, even as immigration was deemed a net gain for a US economy that was rapidly industrializing from the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century.
Ironically, this fear of foreignness fostered an aggressive US foreign policy for many of the years under study, as US leaders feared that European intervention into Latin America, for example, would undermine the United States’ regional hegemony. The fear of foreignness that seemed to oblige the United States to shore up its national security interests vis-à-vis European empires also demanded US intervention into the internal affairs of nonwhite nations. For US leaders, fear of foreignness was a two-sided coin: European aggression was encouraged by the internal instability of nonwhite nations, and nonwhite nations were unstable—and hence ripe pickings for Europe’s empires—because their citizens were racially inferior. To forestall both of these simultaneous foreign threats, the United States increasingly embedded itself into the political and economic affairs of foreign nations.
The irony of opportunity, of territorial acquisitions as well as immigrants who fed US labor markets, and fear, of European encroachment and the racial inferiority of nonwhite peoples, lay at the root of the immigration and foreign policies of the United States up to 1945.