America in the World

By Carl Guarneri
Illustrations by Mark Stamaty

United States History in Global Context

As the 1960s progressed, newcomers to the United States joined the protests by native-born “outsiders.” Calls by American blacks and women to end discrimination were followed by demands among Latinos and Asian immigrants for legal and cultural recognition. A stunning rise in immigration to the United States after World War II and a transformation of its sources prompted this new group assertiveness.

Renewed International Migration

Both were part of worldwide trends. Although birth rates declined in industrialized nations after the 1950s, they remained high in Third World countries while death rates dropped dramatically due to improved nutrition and medicine, causing a remarkable population explosion. Latin American, Asian, and African societies experienced the same demographic surge that had pushed Europeans overseas a century earlier. This population change shifted migration flows. In the nineteenth century, white settlers left the European core for colonial or postcolonial lands on the periphery of the West’s economy. After World War II, migrants flowed instead from peripheral developing nations to the core economies of Western capitalism. In both cases the United States was a prime destination, but not the only one.

Thriving “First World” economies exerted a magnetic pull on Third World peoples. Western Europe and the United States attracted immigrants to fill work needs left unmet by their own aging populations. After 1960 more than 13 million “guest workers” moved to Germany, France, Switzerland, and other western European nations from Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, and North Africa. About the same number of migrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean entered the United States. Somewhat smaller streams of Asian immigrants flowed from China, India, and Southeast Asia to Australia, Canada, and the United States. As in the nineteenth century, a revolution in transportation and communications quickened these movements. Televisions broadcast alluring pictures of the prosperous West, airplane travel made migration faster than ever, and telephones transmitted instant reports from newcomers to relatives back home.

Reopening the Door

Liberalized immigration laws reopened America’s doors after the harsh restrictions of the 1920s and the bleak job market of the Great Depression. Cold War policies played a part. Special legislation allowed thousands of refugees from communist Cuba and Eastern Europe to enter the United States in the 1950s and even more who fled the communist takeover in Vietnam in 1975. The 1980 Refugee Act removed refugees from competing for visas with other immigrants. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights movement directed lawmakers’ attention to persisting racial discrimination in immigration policies. In response, the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the national origins quota system that had been in place (with modifications) since 1924 and replaced it with an individual preference system favoring family reunification and work skills. Later laws steadily raised the 1965 Act’s numerical ceilings.

The New Global Migrants

The result was a dramatic transformation in the scale and sources of immigration to the United States. The annual flow of legal immigrants climbed from less than 100,000 in the 1940s to over a million in 2000, rivaling the peak years of the 1910s. Perhaps 300,000 migrants entered the U.S. illegally each year, the majority from Mexico. The new immigration reversed the earlier pattern of European predominance and replaced it with a global array of provider nations that were overwhelmingly non-European. Over 90 percent of newcomers in 1910 had come from Europe; in 2000, 90 percent came from outside Europe, about two-thirds from Latin America and one-third from Asia.

Global migration made the United States a more diverse nation in appearance, languages, and customs. For Mexican and Caribbean migrants the movement of peoples was not an overseas journey but a “border migration,” in which frequent back-and-forth travel enabled migrants to retain their language and cultural ways. For Asians, jet travel and telephone linkages promoted cultural continuities and ties with the homeland that mimicked the features of border migration and prompted scholars to extend the term “diaspora” to overseas Chinese and Koreans. Like earlier immigrants, these newcomers formed ethnic communities in cities, suburbs, and some rural areas, to which they transplanted their customs and languages. Regional concentration, foreign-language TV broadcasts, and multilingual election booklets made their differences more visible to Euro-Americans than the immigrant ghettoes of a century earlier.

American Responses

Partly for this reason, but also due to the newcomers’ non-European origins, their growing numbers, and the rising influx of illegal migrants, the new global immigration revived fears that newcomers would transform American society rather than assimilate into it and that their numbers would impose an economic burden on American citizens. Opposition to immigration surged when the national or regional economy sagged, then ebbed when it recovered, much like a century earlier. Yet the general prevalence of more tolerant attitudes, the enormous cost of border control, and the economic convenience of foreign low-wage labor prevented Americans of the early twenty-first century from enacting restrictive laws like those of the 1920s.

Global immigration challenged the earlier version of the Ameri-can “melting pot,” which was based on confidence in the ultimate fusion of European groups into a new (but still Anglo-dominated) American people. The new groups’ racial (Asian) or quasi-racial (Latino) status and their reluctance to sever their cultural roots challenged the host society to expand its inclusiveness. The response was mixed. Asian Americans experienced a dramatic turnaround from decades of exclusion and discrimination. Legislation during World War II had lifted the ban on Chinese American citizenship, while Japanese Americans’ wartime loyalty won acceptance from many whites. Postwar Asian migrants were more skilled and educated on average than other newcomers, and the removal of discriminatory barriers allowed their entry into colleges and professions, raising the median incomes of Asian American families higher than those of whites. Immigrants from Latin America were less fortunate. Escaping desperate poverty or political violence, many were unskilled manual laborers who found work in the United States as low-paid urban service workers or migrant agricultural laborers. In the 1970s and ‘80s and again in the early 2000s Latinos became the main targets of campaigns to close the border against cheap labor, to restrict immigrant access to welfare services, or to curtail bilingual education.


Seeking to extend recent civil rights gains to immigrant and ethnic minorities, liberal activists urged the government to recognize ethnic group identities, to help maintain traditional cultures, and to take “affirmative action” to foster group achievement. By the 1980s this position was called “multiculturalism,” a term imported from Canada, where government policies officially recognized group rights for indigenous peoples, British descendants, French Canadians, and later immigrants, guaranteeing their separation. In the United States, however, multiculturalism had limited legal sway. No territorial autonomy, legislative positions, or language rights were accorded ethnic minorities, and while the national government began monitoring the progress of racial and ethnic groups it largely maintained its historic course of treating citizens individually. The most prevalent form of multiculturalism was a widespread celebration of America’s “diversity.” It was premised on the confidence that ethnic pluralism would be balanced by the recognition of common American ideals and values.

A Global Melting Pot

Scholarly studies of the new global immigrants showed that they followed similar patterns of adjustment and assimilation to those of newcomers a century earlier. Gradually the majority of their children and grandchildren adopted the English language, furthered their education and moved up the occupational ladder. Immigrant families lowered their fertility rates and intermarried with other ethnic groups the longer they remained in the United States. As had happened with European newcomers, intermarriage, social mobility and the adoption of English made the melting pot possible.

Yet the melting pot itself was changing. As Asians, Africans and Latinos entered American society they diversified the melting pot’s ingredients. Popular culture provided an important example. For decades, America’s mass entertainment industry had drawn upon the theatrical traditions of white ethnic minorities and the jazz and blues of black musicians, the latter often filtered through white “Big Bands.” After World War II this process of cultural absorption broadened to include Asians, Latinos and increased numbers of African Americans. Latin dancing styles entered the nation’s nightclubs, and Latina singers and movie stars “crossed over” to attract national audiences. Japanese baseball players rose to stardom in the American major leagues. Black urban ghettoes incubated rhythm and blues, rap, and hip-hop music that were promoted nationwide and captivated white suburban teens. The terms of cultural absorption shifted to give greater influence to nonwhites. Whereas prewar entertainment diluted ethnic cultures to make them bland and broadly acceptable, new forms of mass culture achieved popularity because they were assertively ethnic.

The music industry’s crossing of racial and ethnic boundaries symbolized the changed terms of the American melting pot. Thanks to the new global immigration, new words, foods, and religions appeared and became available for other Americans to adopt. As ethnic intermarriage increased, group affiliations became more fluid and hybrid identities were asserted as a point of pride. In 2000, a “multiracial” category was added to existing categories in the U.S. Census, an historic departure from absolute terms of racial categorizing. Behind the rise of multiculturalism was the rejection of the old idea that ethnic groups should eventually disappear. Equally striking, however, was the growing evidence that the new “global melting pot” widened the spectrum of who Americans could be. The postwar global immigrants were changing America at the same time it changed them.

Professor Carl Guarneri has taught American history at Saint Mary’s since 1979. His current research interests involve placing U.S. history, including immigration, in a global context. This excerpt is from his new book America in the World published by McGraw-Hill in 2007.