THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Remembering the McCarran-Walter Act


This week’s column commemorates the 60th birthday of the opening of naturalization to Japanese immigrants, as a result of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act). Enacted in the summer of 1952, at the height of the McCarthy era, with Congress overriding President Harry Truman’s veto, the act was a product of Cold War xenophobia and exaggerated concerns over “security.” It gave the federal government new powers to strip naturalized U.S. citizens of their citizenship if they belonged to “proscribed organizations,” and to exclude or deport aliens suspected of subversive tendencies. It also continued the racist “national origins” system of immigration quotas. At the same time, the act overturned the exclusion of Japanese immigrants, providing Japan a token immigration quota, and granted naturalization rights to Issei, allowing them for the first time to claim American citizenship. Because these were the Japanese American Citizens League’s two primary postwar goals, the organization’s leaders supported the larger bill. The JACL’s position provoked a rare moment of large-scale debate within the Nikkei community over civil rights versus group advancement. This column explores some of the debates that took place, and draws some conclusions about the larger importance of the events for the future of Japanese communities and political action
In January of 1950, Minnesota Republican Walter Judd (who had sponsored a series of unsuccessful measures to liberalize immigration) teamed with conservative Pennsylvania Democrat Francis Walter to introduce a resolution abolishing race and ethnicity as factors in naturalization. After passage by the House, and in modified form in the Senate, it was ultimately twinned with a bill, sponsored by conservative Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran that placed numerous restrictions on civil liberties. Soon after, the New York Nisei weekly Hokubei Shimpo printed an article by Abner Green of the left-leaning American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born that opposed the bill. Green noted that the measure enabled the Justice Department to hold non-citizens without bail for an unlimited period, and excluded all immigrants who belonged to organizations on the attorney general’s list of “subversive organizations” (itself created under the auspices of the newly enacted McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950).

Mike Masaoka, chair of the JACL’s Anti-Discrimination Committee, which was responsible for civil rights legislation, stated that the committee would wait to take a position on the bill until its legal counsel had had a chance to study it. In May of 1950, JACL counsel Edward Ennis delivered his analysis. Ennis pointed to several other objectionable features of the bill. One of the worst provisions was that it changed immigration policy to incorporate preferences for entry by skilled immigrants and for family reunification (preferences that have ruled immigration law ever since). However, not more than 10 percent of a country’s overall quota could be used for any immigrant outside these preferred classes. Despite the critical report, the JACL failed to take an official position. The Walter resolution passed, but in September of 1950, Truman vetoed the measure, charging that the security provisions added in conference (i.e. the McCarran bill) were so “vague and ill-defined” as to weaken the nation’s immigration laws and endanger the right of naturalized citizens. Truman explained that he supported removal of discrimination against Asian immigrants, but proposed that Congress reconsider the resolution stripped of the objectionable security provisions. The Hokubei Shimpo reported that Washington JACL counsel I.H. Gordon immediately wired the organization’s support for the president’s proposal. The House voted to override the president’s veto, but the Senate failed to act before Congress adjourned, and the resolution was killed.

In January of 1951, the new 82nd Congress convened. The former Walter-Judd resolution was folded along with parts of the McCarran bill into a larger omnibus bill on Immigration and Naturalization, HR 5678 (for partisan reasons, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn insisted that the bill carry only Walter’s name rather than Judd’s). In addition to opening up naturalization for the first time to aliens of Asian ancestry, the act provided a tiny quota allowed legal entry to Asian immigrants (135 from Japan, 100 from other nations). However, the bill reinscribed the outmoded and racist “national quota” system, devised in the 1920s, by which nationals of foreign countries were assigned differing immigration quotas in what amounted to a racist hierarchy of desirability, with Great Britain and other “white” Western European nations having the highest quotas and Asian and African nations the smallest. Indeed, to further restrict entry by nonwhites, the bill imposed quotas on immigration by West Indian blacks who had formerly been completely unrestricted, and counted all immigrants of Asian ancestry by race rather than citizenship (so that Hong Kong Chinese and other British nationals of Asian ancestry could not take advantage of the UK’s spacious and largely unused national quota). Worst of all, the bill denied entry to present and former Communist Party members and allowed the U.S. government to deport and/or bar from re-entry those identified as subversives. The bill authorized the government to strip aliens of their citizenship if within five years of naturalization they were found to be a member of “or affiliated with” any proscribed organizations.

In April of 1952, the Hokubei Shimpo criticized the McCarran-Walter bill in a stinging editorial (presumably written by then-editor Dyke Miyagawa, a former union activist and organizer of the Nisei for Wallace). Miyagawa recommended that his readers study Alex Brooks’ article in The Nation, “McCarran’s Iron Curtain,” an extended analysis of its provisions. In considering the relegating of all people of Asian ancestry to “racial” quotas, the editorial remarked. “The hand of racial prejudice shows here.” It concluded, “A bill that has aroused so much opposition and controversy remains suspect.”

The bill proceeded through a long set of hearings. Liberal opponents of the restrictive clauses, led by Hubert Humphrey and Herbert Lehman, proposed an amendment to strip the bill of the denaturalization provisions. The Humphrey-Lehman amendment, while not doing away with discriminatory national quotas, would have at least eliminated express race-based and sex-based quotas, and allowed for pooling of unused visa slots, as a step toward progress. (McCarran rejected any liberalized version of the measure, though as a sop he agreed that mixed-race children could be charged against the national quota of either parent, not just the Asian one). On April 26, 1952, the House voted 206 to 68 to approve the bill. It was then sent to the Senate, which passed the McCarran version in mid-May of that year. The two bills were then once more merged, and sent to the White House.

The JACL responded positively to the bill’s passage. Mike Masaoka hailed the measure in the Pacific Citizen as a major step toward eliminating Japanese exclusion, and insisted that the ADC’s chief interest was in securing passage “without further delay.” Five days later, the PC reported that JACL National President Randolph Sakada had wired McCarran to pledge the unqualified support of the JACL and other Asian American organizations.

The JACL’s action gave rise to a growing wave of criticism. One week after Sakada’s message, the New York Nisei Progressives published a statement in the Hokubei Shimpo opposing the bill: “Senator McCarran, Chairman Walter et al would sell us racism in the name of progress. If these gentlemen were truly dedicated to liberalizing our present immigration laws, why do they not sponsor a simple measure granting immigration and naturalization rights to the peoples now denied them?” The Nisei Progressives initiated a telegram and letter campaign asking President Truman to veto the bill, which the group’s press release described as “racist and reactionary.” National JACL Vice President Thomas Hayashi responded immediately to the Hokubei Shimpo. Hayashi expressed the predominant JACL attitude when he claimed, “Half a loaf is better than none,” and urged the bill’s passage. The Nisei Progressives retorted that half a loaf was not better than none when (as they put it) that loaf was obtained by Japanese and other Oriental groups at a heavy cost to other minority groups.

On June 25, Truman vetoed the new Omnibus immigration bill, since it discriminated against people of Asian ancestry and interfered with freedom of religion. Truman called on Congress to abolish the national origins system and abolish all racial restrictions, as he supported ending racial barriers to immigration. Truman likewise stated that the deportation provisions were so vague as to amount to “thought control.” Both major party presidential candidates, Democrat Adlai Stevenson and Republican Dwight Eisenhower, likewise publicly opposed the bill.

Chicago Shimpo editor Ryoichi Fujii immediately published an editorial congratulating the president on his “courageous” action. However, JACL fixer Mike Masaoka issued a public statement: “We are bitterly disappointed. The president’s action shows that he has been misguided about the measure.” In the days that followed, the JACL, which was holding its biennial convention in San Francisco, sent messages lobbying Congress to override the president’s veto. The American Legion and other conservative groups (even some with openly anti-Semitic platforms, critics charged) joined them. In contrast, several liberal and civil rights groups with which the JACL had long been associated — the AFL, the CIO, ACLU, The National Council of the Churches of Christ, the Quaker Friends Committee on National Legislation, and others — strongly opposed the bill.

On June 27, 1952 Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act, overriding Truman’s veto. That day, according to an account by NYC JACL chair Aki Hayashi, the group’s National Council was meeting when word came that Congress had overridden the president’s veto and enacted the law. Hayashi recounted how the men and women of the council unashamedly shed tears of joy. Masaoka received a hero’s welcome by the convention. After stating that the job he had set out to do was complete, he announced that he was resigning from the JACL’s Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The JACL’s support for the bill, it must be said, was a rather negligible factor in its final passage. Still, once it was enacted, Masaoka admitted his own inner conflict over it: “We had to wrestle with our conscience.” Masaoka’s legislative assistant Richard Akagi, in contrast, remained more sanguine about the action. In a speech to the Institute of Human Relations in Washington, D.C., he announced, “We are faced with two alternatives. Either we accept the remedial change offered by the omnibus bill or get no improvements at all in the immediate future, since the Congress of the United States has clearly indicated that the reforms advocated by those opposed to the Walter-McCarran bill are unacceptable.”

The JACL’s action was controversial. The social democratic magazine New Leader remarked, “The JACL can dispense with future support from those liberals who would be aghast to learn they have been supporting new racist bars and breaking down old constitutional rights.” In the Nisei press, there was immediate dissent. In the August 1952 issue of Scene, The Pictorial Magazine (the Nisei knockoff of LIFE), editor Togo Tanaka accused the JACL of taking an expedient action. Tanaka gladly acknowledged that its strategy was brilliant for short-term gain, but he said that it might have been too high a price if it meant the Nisei damaged their relations with the groups that had helped them emerge from “mass evacuation.” Tanaka’s editorial unleashed a storm of letters to the editor

in the October 1952 issue, with about half congratulating him on his stand, though questioning (with good reason!) whether liberal groups would actually remain estranged. The other half attacked him. His critics did not distinguish themselves by the grandeur of their arguments. One insisted, “To say the anti-Semites were lined up with the JACL in support of the …bill deserves a rebuttal. The communists were lined up against it. So what…?” Another writer accused Tanaka of being biased against the ADC and minimizing its achievements. One Nisei from Florida (perhaps facetiously) stated, “We shore is mighty proud that we, red-blooded Nisei, now stand with all other red-blooded organizations …” Tanaka continued his attacks on the law and the JACL’s support in his regular column in Colorado Times.

Meanwhile, no doubt inspired by Tanaka, whom he knew in Chicago, in September of 1952 gadfly semanticist (and former newspaper columnist) S.I. Hayakawa released to the Nisei journal Chicago Shimpo a copy of a letter to the JACL publicly denouncing its support for the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. Hayakawa accused the JACL of supporting a “heartless,” repressive bill and putting their own group interest ahead of all those who would be damaged by the law. “To secure the rights to naturalization of Issei at the cost of all the questionable and illiberal features of the McCarren-Walter bill appears to be an act of unpardonable shortsightedness or cynical opportunism.” Hayakawa therefore announced that he would no longer contribute to the Chicago JACL’s Anti-Discrimination Committee. “I am afraid the Anti-Discrimination Committee has not lived up to its name. It has purchased the removal of one small discrimination at the cost of legalizing the continuance of many other forms of discrimination, and the creation of a number of and second generation citizens of all ancestries.” Though Hayakawa was a Canadian citizen, he was barred from U.S. naturalization because of his Japanese ancestry. His stand therefore represented an impressive statement of principle, especially since Hayakawa himself stood to gain from the legislation. (After passage of McCarran-Walter, it must be said, that Hayakawa rapidly applied to become an American citizen himself.)

In October of 1952, The President’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization held hearings in D.C. The Pacific Citizen reported on Richard Akagi’s testimony. Akagi praised the law and termed all criticism of its provisions “premature.” He grandly suggested that if subsequently any injustice appeared, the JACL would join the protest. He did not, however, target either the cutoff of West Indian immigration or the larger racial aspects of the system. In response to a question about the National Origins clauses, Akagi testified, “The national origin principle is clearly racist in conception and the JACL certainly does not approve of it, but it is also obvious that no one has been able to suggest a counter-system which would be workable and equitable at this time.” Hayakawa again criticized the law in Chicago Shimpo, with its expanded provisions for denaturalization, and deplored Akagi’s failure to call for correction even of the undesirable features the JACL had swallowed in order to attain passage. “If he felt that the act was not perfect, he had then the opportunity to point out its imperfections and to suggest improvements. Instead he spoke in favor of the act, while 12 or 13 other witnesses appearing that day representing important scientific, religious, and nationality groups testified against it.” Akagi rather lamely responded that he did not speak in FAVOR of the act, but simply said that he had supported it, and would look in the future to alter it. In the end, all of the McCarthy-era provisions remained in the act. (I witnessed myself the long-lasting nature of these provisions. In 1989-1990, I helped my blind roommate fill out the questionnaire to apply for U.S. citizenship. Among the questions asked were “are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party. By contrast, a separate question asked: Were you a member of the Nazi party between 1933 and 1945?)

The McCarran-Walter Act proved wildly popular among Japanese Americans. One Nisei couple was so delighted that they named their newborn son McCarran Walter Ono. Six months after passage, in accordance with the act, the first Japanese aliens began naturalizing. In the next years, Issei came in droves to acquire American nationality, and citizenship courses became a familiar feature of Japanese community life. Togo Tanaka thus soon began to regret his quixotic opposition to the law. S.I. Hayakawa remained steadfast, and publicly asked how the JACL could ever thereafter consider itself a civil rights organization. He withdrew from involvement with the organization until he needed support 15 years later — at a time when he was charged with violating the civil rights of students considered subversive! For the Japanese Americans it was the end of an era, not only in extinguishing the central basis of legal discrimination (though laws against intermarriage, the JACL’s next target, were not struck down until the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision 15 years later) but also in marking the inclusion of Japanese in Cold War American pluralism. For the JACL itself, support for McCarran-Walter represented a break with the organization’s liberal allies in the ACLU and pro-immigrant groups, and especially with the NAACP, which was bitterly disappointed by the closing of the nation’s doors to immigrants of African descent. The break marked an important stage in the transformation of the organization toward an essentially conservative and accommodationist stance during the 1950s, based on patriotic values and cultivation of moderate and even conservative allies. 

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at


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