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The Case of Xenophobic Hysteria Almost Nobody Remembers

Since the election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States on November 8, 2016, many Americans have been seeking a path forward through a racially charged political landscape. It will be easier to find a path forward the more the American people know about the trails of the past. While Trump will be a new type of president, Trumpism – particularly its exclusionary nationalism directed toward minority groups and immigrant communities – has historical precedents. Also located in the historical record is an example of a progressive coalition that attempted to stem the tide of one of the worst of the recent waves of exclusionary nationalism – one directed toward Iranians in the United States during the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 after a group of religious students in Tehran stormed the U.S. embassy and held its personnel captive for 444 days.

The nativism that reared its ugly head in the United States in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution toppled the Western-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced his secular government with an Islamic Republic is not the only example of such exclusionary sentient. Nativism is as old as the American republic itself. One year into George Washington’s presidency, Congress passed the 1790 Naturalization Act to reserve citizenship for “free white person[s].” In the mid-nineteenth century white, Protestant fears of Irish Catholic immigrants spawned the American, or Know-Nothing Party. Around the same time, racism and labor anxieties led Californians to decry Chinese immigration and claim “California for Americans.” By the 1880s, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 created immigration quotas that gave preference to those from northern and western Europe while barring most Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. Both world wars generated exclusionary definitions of Americanism, developments that affected German-Americans during the first and, more devastatingly, the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans who were interned during the second of the twentieth century’s global conflagrations. While these are now well-known episodes in U.S. history thanks to the work of Ronald Takaki and others, the anti-Iranian hysteria of the revolutionary years is not.

It should be, and there are many similarities between anti-Iranianism and earlier forms of nativism. Iranians, like the Irish more than a century earlier, were Othered along religious lines. By the late twentieth century, it was Muslims rather than Catholics who bore the brunt of religiously-based hate. Labor fears had little to do with anti-Iranianism, but Iranians in the United States found themselves as a racial Other, not unlike the Chinese and Japanese communities of decades past (or even the Irish, as Matthew Frye Jacobson and others have shown). Most important, and with striking parallels to the era of the world wars, American nativists marked Iranians and Iranian-Americans as political Others. The United States was not directly engaged in total war with the Islamic Republic. But the radicalization of Iran’s revolution severely damaged U.S. interests in the region, and the Hostage Crisis was a blow to an already wounded American psyche in an era of the Vietnam Syndrome, soaring oil prices, and stagflation.

The on-the-ground American reaction to the Hostage Crisis was swift. Iranian-American publications, along with scholars such as Yahya Kamalipour, Melani McAlister, and Hamid Naficy, have documented the frightening new reality that people of Iranian descent confronted in the United States. In communities across the country, stores began to stock shirts that derided Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, along with dartboards and toilet paper with his image. Musicians and comedians got in on the nativist hysteria, too, whether in the form of Roger Hallmark’s deeply offensive “Message to Khomeini,” or the jokes that appeared on evening comedy shows. The media did not fare any better. Anti-Iranianism was a national phenomenon with countless local manifestations: A business in Nevada hung a sign in its storefront that read, “No more Iranian students will be admitted to these premises until the hostages are released,” and a poster at a North Carolina university read, “Nuke 'em till they glow. It worked in Japan, it’ll work in Iran.” These words are not a far cry from the various hate crimes that organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center have documented during the week that followed Trump’s election.

The law was also stacked against the Iranian community in the United States, a reality that confronts racial minorities in the United States on a daily basis and will probably get worse before it gets better come 2017. When pro- and anti-shah demonstrators gathered in a Washington D.C. park, the police gave preferential treatment to the shah’s supporters, who applauded local law enforcement officials for arresting close to two hundred Iranian members of the Muslim Student Association. Iranian students also faced discrimination at the highest levels. Nine days after the onset of the Hostage Crisis, the Justice Department demanded that all of the more than 50,000 Iranian students in the United States report to the nearest immigration office or leave the country. In an act of outright discrimination, the Jimmy Carter administration modified the nation’s immigration code to single out a particular national group by adding new “requirements for maintenance of status for nonimmigrant students from Iran.”

Just as Trump and his supporters fail to acknowledge that most Muslim-Americans, naturalized citizens, and refugees from the Middle East today simply want to live a life free from war and repression and provide opportunities for their children, Americans during the Hostage Crisis failed to make the distinction between the majority of the Iranian people and a small group of Islamist revolutionaries in Tehran. The Iranian-American writer Firoozeh Dumas noted in her memoir, Funny in Farsi, that so “many Americans began to think that all Iranians … could at any given moment get angry and take prisoners” that she “started reminding people that they weren’t in our garage.” And just as many Hispanic-Americans and Muslim-Americans fear for their personal safety and their families’ futures in Trump’s America, Iranians during the Hostage Crisis did, too. Another Iranian-American writer, Gelareh Asayesh, recalls in her memoir, Saffron Sky, that her parents felt that there was “no place” for them in the country. So they moved to Canada “where immigrants were not the problem they had become in the United States.”

But just as many Americans reject the rhetoric of white supremacy that dominated the Trump campaign and appears to be informing his selection of high government officials, there were plenty of Americans who did what they could at a local level to help Iranian students and Iranian-Americans navigate complicated legal requirements and feel welcome in their local communities. It is here that Americans then and now have the most power to make a difference and elevate what the historian Gary Gerstle has labeled “civic nationalism” over the much uglier “racial nationalism” that has defined American nativists throughout the centuries.

During the Hostage Crisis, the coalition that combatted anti-Iranianism included civil libertarians, rights activists, the progressive Left, and university communities. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped Iranian students in the courts and challenged, albeit unsuccessfully, the legality of the new immigration law. Civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), denounced the racism that their members knew too well. In a December 1979 issue of the Afro-American the former NAACP director Roy Wilkins explicitly urged “believers in freedom” to “jealously guard it from unnecessary or unwise breach.” Japanese-American rights activists formed an organization specifically to fight the racism that they saw as being transferred from their community to Iranians. The American Left was also vocal in its criticism of anti-Iranianism. Columns in The Militant and demonstrations throughout the country underscored the Left’s belief that racism and Islamophobia fueled domestic support for overseas exploitation and foreign wars. Similar to what critics of Trumpism aspire for today, the historical archives unearth innumerable progressive efforts to mute calls for deportation along racial and religious lines and retrieve civil society from the claws of hatred and jingoism.

Perhaps the most powerful source of tolerance and support came from universities. To be sure, anti-Iranianism was found on campuses. But student organizations marched, held teach-ins, and supported their fellow classmates in myriad ways. At the University of Pennsylvania, the site of one of the spate of post-election hate crimes directed toward non-white Americans in 2016, the school’s International Programs Office helped students put together their paperwork and demanded that immigration officials come to campus so that interviews could take place in a less threatening environment and did not include some of the more politically-charged questions that were asked of students elsewhere. Penn professors with experience in Iran reached out to the broader public through the local media to remind readers that the whole world was watching American behavior. Anti-Iranianism, they argued, not only betrayed national values but made the United States less secure. The same is true today. In 1980, as spring turned to summer and the first round of hostage negotiations collapsed, the Carter administration considered a mass deportation of thousands of Iranian students. In a successful lobbying effort, the leaders of NAFSA, the American Council on Education, and the presidents of such schools as Harvard wrote to the White House and eloquently articulated civic nationalism, with a nod toward security considerations, which led the administration to moderate its policies.

The history of American nativism and its denunciation should be common knowledge to all of the Americans who are disenchanted with the 2016 U.S. presidential election results. This history serves as a reminder that exclusionary politics and policies have marked American history since the republic’s conception. Understanding the history of nativism – and the dynamics of its various manifestations in the twenty-first century – is a necessary precursor to dismantling it.

Nearly four decades ago, amid an unprecedented international crisis, some Americans acted as they could to uphold the principles of civic nationalism, protect their friends, classmates, and colleagues from discrimination, make their local communities safer, and lobby officials at the highest levels. Today, a majority of American voters cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, a much more powerful coalition than the tiny minority who fought nativism during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Against all the odds, however, that small group operationalized their moral cores in a way that made a difference to individuals facing discrimination and communities that wanted to buck the trends of hatred and intolerance. Theirs were actions that produced tangible results and illuminated the American ideal during dark times, a lesson from history that may help the many more concerned Americans today chart a peaceful path forward during a Trump presidency.