Immigration law usually moves in lock step with a country’s foreign policy goals. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States and China both declared war on Japan, which prompted a two-year diplomatic effort to classify China as a long-term ally of the United States. In response, Japan began a propaganda campaign that recast the war as a fight against Anglo-Saxon imperialism in the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
In dozens of pamphlets, articles and radio programs broadcast throughout Asia, Japanese propagandists derided any Asians who believed Americans would treat them as citizens with the same rights as white immigrants. They also set forth a vision of a unified East Asian continent that could usher in an era of unparalleled harmony and economic might. Much of the critique centered on a simple, compelling question: How could the Chinese ally themselves with a country whose racist immigration laws specifically targeted their people?
The provocation worked, although not exactly in the way the Japanese might have envisioned. Between 1941 and 1943, scholars, politicians and members of the media in the United States argued for an end to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The author Pearl Buck, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Good Earth,” drew upon her childhood in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, became a tireless advocate of the end of racist laws against the Chinese.
At a lunch gathering at the Hotel Astor in 1942, Buck noted that Japanese propaganda was starting to show signs of success and concluded that the United States could not win the war unless it convinced its Asian allies that they would be seen as equals in the eyes of American law. Later, Buck would write that as long as the United States continued to discriminate against Chinese people, “we are fighting on the wrong side in this war. We belong with Hitler.”
In May 1943, Buck, her husband and a group of intellectuals and publishers formed the Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion and Place Immigration on a Quota Basis. They used their influence in the media to blast out their message. That same month, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization held public hearings on the possible repeal of the act. The opposition came mostly from labor organizations, veterans’ groups and “patriotic societies,” who dredged up much of the original logic for Chinese exclusion: an Asian influx would bring a wave of morally depraved men who would quickly displace native workers.
But the Citizens Committee had some powerful allies: Top military officials argued that China’s allegiance was crucial not only to winning in the Pacific theater but also to stabilizing the region after the fighting ended. And in October, as the Exclusion Act was being debated in Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt came out in favor of repeal. In an address, he said: “Nations, like individuals, make mistakes. We must be big enough to acknowledge our mistakes of the past and to correct them. By the repeal of the Chinese exclusion laws, we can correct a historic mistake and silence the distorted Japanese propaganda.” Just over two years after the Pearl Harbor attack, the law was repealed with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which allowed for some immigration from China.