Foreign Talent Has Always Been Instrumental in US Military and Technological Superiority
President Trump has been eager to deliver on his campaign promise to build the wall, deport illegal immigrants as well as cap legal immigration.
Strident comments by the president and his supporters have created a perception that immigrants, legal or illegal, are not only unwelcome and unwanted, but potentially dangerous, especially if they are from non-European nations.
The history of America is a history of immigration, of a nation built on inspirational ideas consistently attracting the best and brightest — and their families — who want contribute to their new nation advancing science, technology, medicine, innovation, art, music and every other field.
As Washington considers immigration policy changes it’s worth remembering the vital role immigrants have played in the nation’s security, in war and peace, contributing with new ideas, technologies, weapons and leadership.
During the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Baron von Steuben infused the Continental Army and Navy with much-needed skills and experience. Thousands of others, including Marquis de Lafayette, left their countries to fight for the American cause as well.
In 1841, Swedish immigrant John Ericsson supervised the construction of the first US Navy ship equipped with a propeller. Two decades later, during the height of the Civil War, Ericsson mated steam power with the revolutionary rotating turret to create the ironclad USS Monitor, revolutionizing naval warfare.
But it was during World War II — and the decades after — that immigrants played their most prominent security role.
The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazification of Germany sparked an exodus of scientists fleeing for their lives. Restrictive immigration laws that included strict quotas combined with fears of allowing communists into the country nearly prevented history’s greatest physicist, Albert Einstein, from reaching the United States.
It was this incredible assortment of talent — Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilárd, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe and many more — that combined with British and American scientists and raw US industrial horsepower make the atom bomb a reality in three short years.
Without these predominantly Jewish physicists, America wouldn’t have been able to develop the bomb. Nazi Germany’s rejection of “Jewish physics” was a key factor that ensured their failure in the atomic race. Indeed, until 1933, Germany led the world in Nobel Prizes, an honor that shifted to the United States with the rise of fascism.
Bill Knudsen, a Danish immigrant who arrived in New York in 1900, worked in shipyard and bicycle jobs before building Ford auto plants worldwide, becoming a industrial and logistics expert. He was General Motors’ president in 1940 when President Roosevelt tapped him to oversee the nation’s unprecedented wartime industrial mobilization, rewarded for his efforts by becoming the first and only civilian ever to be commissioned directly as a lieutenant general.
After the war, giants like Theodore von Kármán, Werner and Magnus von Braun, Walter Dornberger and many countless others developed the US missile arsenal and put men on the moon.
The father of the nuclear US Navy, Adm. Hyman Rickover, was an immigrant from Russian Poland who arrived in New York at the age of six.
Henry Kissinger, a refugee from Germany, settled in New York’s Washington Heights, was drafted into the Army and because of his smarts and language skilled, selected for military intelligence, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, then — as a private — administering a captured German town. After the war, he attended Harvard, becoming one of the most powerful, respected and influential figures in American history. To this day, he is as well known for his accomplishments as he is for his distinctive German accent.
Zbignew Brzezinski, a Polish emigre, never served in uniform, but nonetheless was a towering figure throughout the Cold War and beyond, serving Jimmy Carter and presidents before and since until his passing last year.
Immigrants from across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific contribute daily to the nation’s economic, technological and military well being.
Immigrants from Britain have advanced US aeronautics as Germans, Swedes and Vietnamese have shared policy and strategy. A Pakistani immigrant who settled in Texas, Amir Husain, is one of the nation’s leading experts on artificial intelligence.
But the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric is already taking its toll.
First, it is undermining the nation’s reputation as a destination for the best and brightest. America is unique in that anyone can become an American by buying into the nation’s powerful ideals of equality and democracy. Throughout its history, it is has been a refuge for those fleeing religious, ethnic or social persecution.
Second, it has prompted immigrants who arrived legally on American shores decades ago to consider the extraordinary step of leaving their adopted home.
Third, many smart, skilled and ambitious potential immigrants are deciding against coming to the United States. In my travels, I’ve heard first hand from those who have made clear they will go where they are welcome rather than a nation where they are not only unwelcome but may face hostility or outright violence.
That raises troubling prospects — that those who may otherwise come to America to apply their skills to advance the nation’s security won’t and those who are already here will decide to take their skills elsewhere. Wherever they go will end up benefiting from their expertise.
The steady stream of talent from around the world has allowed the United States to dodge dangerous demographic bulges than confront other, less attractive destinations.
In a dangerous world where the United States is in a technological and economic contest with great power competitors laser focused on garnering an edge, now is the time to attract the best talent, not drive it away.