Americanizing the West

Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930

Frank Van Nuys

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The arrival of immigrants on America's shores has always posed a singular problem: once they are here, how are these diverse peoples to be transformed into Americans? The Americanization movement of the 1910s and 1920s addressed this challenge by seeking to train immigrants for citizenship, representing a key element of the Progressives' "search for order" in a modernizing America. Frank Van Nuys examines for the first time how this movement, in an effort to help integrate an unruly West into the emerging national system, was forced to reconcile the myth of rugged individualism with the demands of a planned society.

“Provides a provocative description of how Westerners perceived their region as a racial frontier, an image that shaped their responses to immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . Sheds much new light on their attitudes and actions, particularly in the two decades between 1910 and 1930.”

—Elliott Robert Barkan, author of And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s

“A valuable contribution to the literature of Western history and the history of immigration and ethnicity in the United States.”

—Jon Gjerde, author of The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917

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In an era convulsed by world war and socialist revolution, the Americanization movement was especially concerned about the susceptibility of immigrants to un-American propaganda and union agitation. As Van Nuys convincingly demonstrates, this applied as much to immigrants in the urbanizing and industrializing West as it did to those occupying the ethnic enclaves of cities in the East.

In Americanizing the West he tells how hundreds of bureaucrats, educators, employers, and reformers participated in this movement by developing adult immigrant education programs-and how these attempts contributed more toward bureaucratizing the West than it did to turning immigrants into productive citizens. He deftly ties this history to broader national developments and shows how Westerners brought distinctive approaches to Americanization to accommodate and preserve their own sense of history and identity.

Van Nuys shows that, although racism and social control agendas permeated Americanization efforts in the West, Americanizers sustained their faith in education as a powerful force in transforming immigrants into productive citizens. He also shows how some westerners-especially in California-believed they faced a "racial frontier" unlike other parts of the country in light of the influx of Hispanics and Asians, so that westerners became major players in the crafting of not only American identity but also immigration policies.

The mystique of the white pioneer past still maintains a powerful hold on ideas of American identity, and we still deal with many of these issues through laws and propositions targeting immigrants and alien workers. Americanizing the West makes a clear case for regional distinctiveness in this citizenship program and puts current headlines in perspective by showing how it helped make the West what it is today.

About the Author

Frank Van Nuys is assistant professor of history at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota.