In Ellis Island Nation, Robert L. Fleegler makes an important contribution to the field of American immigration and ethnic history in his examination of both the evolution of American immigration laws and the changing ways in which Americans viewed European immigrants and their children in the twentieth century. Fleegler argues that after a sustained period of discrimination and immigration restriction in the early twentieth century, Ellis Island–era immigrants (largely Catholics and Jews of southern and eastern European origins) were gradually accepted into the American mainstream, and by 1965, American immigration laws had been amended to reflect changing American attitudes toward them.
Fleegler’s work is part of a cohort of recent scholarship (including [End Page 698] work by Wendy Wall and Kevin Schultz) which gives serious consideration to the many social and cultural factors that led to changes in American attitudes about race and ethnicity, and by extension, American immigration policies in the twentieth century. Historians have long considered how Cold War foreign policy concerns weakened the National Origins System in the postwar period, but, until recently, less attention has been paid to the domestic climate, which also contributed to changes to American immigration laws. Fleegler addresses this gap in scholarship by studying social and cultural changes in the United States that created a more inclusive climate for Ellis Island immigrants and their children (while demonstrating how and why non-whites largely remained beyond the pale), and which prompted changes in American immigration laws to reflect new attitudes. Perhaps most significantly, World War II and the Cold War accelerated the embrace of cultural pluralism by the public, instead of the previously accepted paradigm of cultural assimilation. Both wartime practicalities, such as the need to foster political and social unity at home, and the ideological imperatives of the war prompted Americans to redefine the meaning of democracy and liberalism in the United States. The result was the official endorsement of tolerance and unity for all racial, ethnic, and religious groups, with white ethnics reaping most of the actual benefits. According to Fleegler, the Cold War was perhaps even more influential than World War II in fostering such changes; it prompted Americans to support the idea that American democracy fostered, and indeed flourished from, the ethnic and religious diversity of the United States.
Fleegler’s most important addition to the current literature on immigration, ethnicity, and Americanism is his introduction of the concept of “ethnic contributism.” Fleegler argues that a new ideology, which he labels “contributism,” emerged at mid-century and “emphasized that the United States was enhanced by the ideas and skills brought by eastern and southern European immigrants and [it] expanded the definition of American identity to include this generation of former undesirables” (p. 2). As lawmakers, cultural elites, [End Page 699] educators, and the general public embraced the idea of “contributism” (for European immigrants at least), American immigration laws were liberalized to reflect the new position of white ethnics in American society. However, although Fleegler’s concept of “contributism” is significant (particularly the material in chapters five and seven), and he certainly shows how various individuals and groups used the rhetoric and ideology of contributism from the 1930s through the 1960s, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish how “contributism” differs from the “cultural gifts” movement (see Diana Selig, Americans All), which began in the interwar period.
Ellis Island Nation is worthy of attention by all scholars of immigration and ethnic history. It continues the Euro-American immigrant, or ethnic, narrative well into the twentieth century, paying particular attention to critical changes that occurred in American society between 1924 and 1965. Although immigration rates for European immigrants fell well below their turn-of-the-century highs after the enactment of restrictive legislation in 1924, the dominant presence of Euro-American immigrants and their American-born children in the United States influenced both the changing nature of American immigration laws and American views about immigration and American identity more broadly. Fleegler expertly shows how the...