McCarran-Walter Act of 1952

The McCarran-Walter Act, Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

Kristen Sleight, December 2016

The McCarran-Walter Act, Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, was a change to the original Immigration Act developed in 1921 and enhanced in 1924. It was the first time that immigrants were excluded from immigrating to the United States after World War II and during the Cold War. “It focused upon denying immigrants who were unlawful, immoral, diseased in any way, politically radical etc. and accepting those who were willing and able to assimilate into the US economic, social, and political structures.” [1] No longer were immigrants looked at based on their country of origin in regards to the quotas set by the 1924 National Origins Quota System.

One of the biggest exclusions was anyone who directly or indirectly had anything to do with communism. This was early in the Cold War when communism was one of the biggest perceived threats to the United States. In 1950, President Truman recommended the use of military force to “contain” communist expansionism and Americans encouraged the development of more atomic weapons, like the ones that helped to end World War II, as they felt it would keep them safe in the event of an attack from the Soviet Union. This was in direct response to the news in which the Soviet Union had tested their own atomic bomb and were successful. This began the back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union to see who could build a bigger, more powerful bomb. The stakes of the Cold War increased traumatically and after the first test of the hydrogen bomb in the Eniwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands, which resulted in unprecedented fear of just how scary the nuclear age really was. “It created a 25-square-mile fireball that vaporized an island and blew a huge hole in the ocean floor and had the power to destroy half of Manhattan.”[2] Once the American people learned about the effects this new technology posed, along with the threat of nuclear annihilation, fear and worry were a part of every-day life. People built bomb shelters in their backyards, they practiced attack drills in schools and in other public places. [3]

Fear is what drove the creation of the McCarran-Walter Act. It was intended to stop the spread of communism into the United States after World War II. It was also designed to prohibit all of the enemies of the United States who were a part of World War II from entering the country as well. The act’s supporters and authors believed it would protect and preserve national security during a very unsettled time in the world. President Truman did not favor this change in immigration law and felt that it discriminated against a lot of Americans who were born and living in the United States, but were of foreign descent, like Japanese, and he vetoed the law but there was sufficient support in Congress for the law to pass.

The McCarran-Walter Act, Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 did not change the quota system that had been in place since 1924 under the Johnson-Reed Act, and in fact reinforced the controversy of immigrant selection. It did however end the exclusions of Asians from immigrating to the United States and changed its focus to people who would be good for the US and based immigration on skill sets and family reunification. [4] There was a heated debate over this legislature. The Democratic Congressman from New York, Emanuel Cellar wanted to liberalize the immigration laws and he expressed his concerns about how the quota system was very restrictive and favored Europeans and created resentment in other countries. He made it seem that Eastern Europeans were thought of as “less” than Northern or Western Europeans because the quota set for the Northern and Western Europeans was higher than the quota number set for Eastern Europeans. Cellar also felt the people from Asia must be “inferior” because they were not allowed to immigrate at all. This was a prelude to the Hart-Cellar Act, noted in further detail on this website, which details Emmanuel Cellar and the major role he played in legislation, which would bring radical changes to immigration in the future.

It was the Democratic Senator from Nevada, Patrick McCarran and the Democratic Congressman from Pennsylvania, Francis Walter, who expressed their concerns that any communist could enter the country under the current immigration laws and that this posed a threat to the foundations of American life. These new provisions proposed by McCarran and Walter did not look at economics, which were always argued in the past in favor of restrictionism, where they were focused on the needs of the American economy and labor force. However, in 1952 the Cold War was more important and was at the forefront of the discussion of immigration reform. [5]

This act was a continuation of the National Origins Quota System of 1924 that only “allowed for a national quota of one-sixth of one percent of each nationality’s population in the United States in 1920.”[6] This is what allowed all of the immigrants of Northern and Western Europe the ability to immigrate in huge numbers, where all others were allotted a much smaller number and therefore had much longer waits. The McCarran-Walter Act did still allow for non-quota entry into the United States but introduced a new factor of a residency length requirement in order to qualify for “quota-free” entry.

Asians were very happy to see the end of the absolute exclusions of immigrants from Asia, but they were still subject to the restrictiveness of the quota system and the number of arrivals each year. This opened the door to later legislature and an overhaul of the immigration system with the restructuring of the quota systems in 1965. [7]

There were also other positive changes that came along with the legislation and revisions to the immigration laws at this time in 1952. It allowed for the creation of “preferences” that assisted the American consulates located in these other countries to put together a system which prioritizes the way visas are assigned and issued to applicants in countries that had many requests and a low quota number. With this new system of preference, applicants that had special skills or already have family members that lived in the United States, were given favor in the selection process. This policy is still in use today in most consulates around the globe to help with the selection process. It also gave alien husbands of American citizen’s non-quota status to match that of the policy of alien wives of American citizens who had been under the non-quota system for several years prior to 1952. [8]

Another positive outcome from the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, was the creation of a labor certification system which helped to limit the number of immigrants into the United States that had no job skills and also to limit the competition for American laborers. This allowed for the United States to keep out people who they felt would become a drain on society and eventually end up on some type of government assistance. [9]

Despite all of the strengths and positives of the act, President Truman vetoed it because he felt the law was discriminatory and “un-American”. His veto message said: “Today we are “protecting” ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic … We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries – on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again … These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration. [10]

President Truman’s veto was overridden in the House by a vote of 278 to 113 and in the Senate by a vote of 57 to 26. “In defending the act, Senator McCarran declared, “If this oasis of the world should be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.”[11]

It was McCarran’s speech to the Senate that turned the tide and changed the vote in favor of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 because of the widespread fear of communism and nuclear war that he argued would have been brought about by the Cold War. His powerful speech changed the minds of many in the House and Senate to believe how easy it would be to infiltrate the United States, which showed how fragile the emotional state of the country was in 1952. [12]

In conclusion, The McCarran-Walter Act, Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, was created and adopted during a time of fear in the United States, with the end of World War II and the early days of the Cold War, where nuclear war and advances in technology were so new, along with the threat of annihilation, that many people feared them. These changes to the immigration and nationality law were brought about as a measure of protection to our country which also ended up becoming a relief for those in Asian countries that had been barred from even applying for a visa. It was a time of change with many more changes on the way. The American people may not have known it then, but the McCarran-Walter Act paved the way for immigration reform and major changes that came about under the Hart-Cellar Act signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, which established the basic structure of the immigration laws that are still in place today.


[1] Wade Johnson, 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, a.k.a. the McCarran-Walter Act, Bothel, Washington, (September 2007)

[2], Cold War History,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] U.S. Department of the Historian, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
(The McCarran-Walter Act)

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9], 1952 McCarran-Walter Act goes into effect,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] C.N. Le,, The 1965 Immigration Act, (2001)

Further Reading

Edwards, James R. “Keeping Extremists Out: The History of Ideological Exclusion and the Need for Its Revival“, Center for Immigration Studies, September 2005. Accessed November 9, 2016.

Hull, Elizabeth. Without Justice for All. The Constitutional Rights of Aliens. Westport CT: Greenwood, 1985. Print. Accessed November 9, 2016.

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