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On the Eve of the Holocaust, Americans Rejected Jewish Refugees

Daniel Bier

Every American (current and aspiring) knows the words inscribed within the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. 

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

But, all too often, in the years since the lady first lifted her torch, the golden door has been slammed shut. One dark period came on the eve of World War II, when the Roosevelt administration refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing fascism, war, and ultimately extermination.

The story of how the government rejected Jews fleeing Hitler is a horrible and tragic episode in American history. There are many chapters. In 1939, the steamer ship St. Louis, with its cargo of 908 Jewish refugees, was turned away from ports in Cuba, the United States, and Canada — eventually returning to Europe where more than a quarter of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust.

Three months before the St. Louis sailed, congressional leaders killed a plan to allow 20,000 more Jewish children to immigrate from Germany. Instead, in 1940, the State Department cut refugee migration by 75 percent.

In 1941, when the Virgin Islands invited Jewish refugees to settle there, the State Department got the Navy to declare the region off limits, as a pretext to "prevent the raising of the political questions involved in this refugee and undesirable citizens traffic which is going on."

As Hitler rose to power, the United States ratcheted down the number of migrants it would admit. Rafael Medoff explains in the LA Times,

The U.S. immigration system severely limited the number of German Jews admitted during the Nazi years to about 26,000 annually — but even that quota was less than 25% filled during most of the Hitler era, because the Roosevelt administration piled on so many extra requirements for would-be immigrants.

For example, starting in 1941, merely leaving behind a close relative in Europe would be enough to disqualify an applicant — on the absurd assumption that the Nazis could threaten the relative and thereby force the immigrant into spying for Hitler.

... To fill the quotas for Germany and Axis-occupied countries to the legal limit [...] alone could have saved 190,000 lives.

How could this have happened? One explanation is personal. Medoff notes that FDR had a troubling history of antisemitic statements and policies

Roosevelt's personal views might have had something to do with it, but this explains too little, and it allows us to duck the troubling implications too easily.

The president was not alone in ignoring the plight of Europe's Jews. Congress rejected numerous attempts to increase the quotas and caps for refugees. Britain denied entry to half a million German Jews. France, Canada, Australia, and South Africa also blocked Jewish migration or admitted only token numbers.

The truth is that keeping the Jews out was what the vast majority of the American people wanted. In the late 1930s, the public overwhelmingly opposed admitting more Jewish migrants — even children and orphans.

A number of national polls conducted in 1938-1939 that show the American public opposed admitting more Jewish migrants by at least 2 to 1. (Hat tip to history professor Peter A. Shulman, who curates the excellent Historical Opinion Twitter feed, for creating these charts.)

In July 1938, a poll by Fortune magazine showed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans supported raising the quotas for political refugees. 67 percent said "we should try to keep them out."

In December 1938 — a month after the deadly Kristallnacht pogrom — a national survey asked American college students, "Should the United States offer a haven in this country for Jewish refugees from Central Europe?" 31 percent said yes; 68 percent said no.

In January 1939, mere months before the German army blasted through Poland, the public rejected a plan to accept 10,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany.

Asked "Should the government permit these children to come in?" 61 percent of Americans said no; just 30 percent said yes.

Concerns about spies and saboteurs were not unfounded. Germany was a powerful and hostile military force. Sabotage was a real threat, and dozens of Nazi spies were caught during the war.

Yet it is utterly, heartrendingly clear that fear should not have trumped reason, liberty, and compassion. No choice is without risk. By slamming their doors in the faces of the homeless and huddled masses, the free nations of the world locked the victims of fascism in the great charnel house that Europe was to become. 

What do we mean when we say "never again"? Do we mean merely that we hope that others will not commit such atrocities? Or is it a promise that we will not be complicit in them? A promise that — next time and always — we will do what we can to save the victims of tyranny, terror, and violence?

If we are to deliver on that promise, we must acknowledge what exactly was done that must not be repeated, and reaffirm our commitment to the open society.

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