One of the greatest injustices in American history involved people of Chinese descent. In 1882, motivated by fear of loss of jobs for whites and by anti-Chinese racism, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law that singled out a specific ethic group, prohibiting the entry of Chinese laborers for 10 years, but it was extended several times until it was finally repealed after 61 years on Dec. 17, 1943 by President Roosevelt. In signing the bill, Roosevelt proclaimed in a letter to Congress that the Chinese Exclusion Act had been "an historic mistake" and that repeal was "important in the cause of winning the war and establishing a secure peace." However, there was no explanation provided about why after 61 years, the mistake was finally recognized and corrected.
What factors led to the long overdue repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act? In the 1940s, negative public attitudes toward Chinese still existed. Chinese were still seen in terms of outdated negative stereotypes and treated as second class residents. Why would the U. S.government after 61 years choose to repeal this law? Did it finally recognize its gross unfairness? That reason seems unlikely as other injustices by the U. S. government continued such as the February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that authorized the relocation and internment of U. S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry to areas remote from the West coast and major cities on unfounded fears that Japanese Americans would sympathize with Japan and be a security risk.
Was it a response to active campaigns by Chinese Americans for repeal? Although Chinese American organizations fought for repeal, and in 1905 helped fund the efforts in China to boycott American goods and products in protest against how Chinese were mistreated in the United States, they failed to overturn the exclusion law. They lacked a powerful leader such as a Martin Luther King who led the fight for civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s, Chinese Americans had insufficient influence and political power, given the small size of the Chinese population and failure of the general public to oppose Chinese exclusion, to demand its repeal.
It seems more plausible that the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was motivated primarily by the World War II conflict between Japan and the United States. Japan wanted to dissuade China from joining the United States against it. Japan continually reminded China that the U. S. had unfairly excluded Chinese from entering the U. S. since 1882 in the hope that China would not join the U. S. against Japan in WWII. Recognition of this situation gave the U. S. Congress a strong incentive to repeal Chinese Exclusion to eliminate this powerful argument of Japan.
Arguments in the House of Representatives deliberations on H. R. 3070 in 1943 show this pragmatic reason was a major justification for repeal. It was recognized that China was a needed ally against Japan and that it was embarrassing to continue the exclusion law against Chinese. Some Congressmen who reluctantly voted for repeal still defended the original 1882 basis for exclusion, namely to prevent 'hordes of Chinese' coming and taking jobs from whites, but recognized that this threat no longer existed in the 1940s so that exclusion was no longer needed. One of the opponents of repeal, Compton White (Dem-IA), defended the 1882 law and argued against repeal because Chinese "coolies" would spread the opium habit among American boys and girls.
Congress set a quota of Chinese allowed to enter using formulas created by the 1924 Immigration Act based on country of origin. The result was that the total annual quota for Chinese immigrants to the United States (calculated as a percentage of the total population of people of Chinese origin living in the United States in 1920) would be only 105. Not only was this number pitifully small, Congress counted Chinese coming from any country, not just China, in the 105 due to fear that much larger numbers of Chinese could enter the U. S. because immigration within the Western Hemisphere was not regulated by the quota system. Thus, if Chinese in Hong Kong, for example, were to apply under the huge, largely unused British quota, thousands more Chinese than 105 could be eligible to enter each year.
Repeal of exclusion had a positive impact on Chinese in America that can not be overestimated. It enabled family reunification, the formation of new families, and gave them the right to become citizens and obtain the right to vote.
But for non-Chinese, repeal of exclusion must have been a relatively insignificant event judging by the low interest shown by newspaper coverage in the days immediately following the repeal on Dec. 17, 1943. Newspaper coverage in the days just after passage of repeal was brief, and usually buried among want ads, movie ads, and comic strips rather than on the front page as shown below.