Why FDR Decided to Rescue Jews from the Holocaust in 1944

As mentioned in my last blog post, President Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews until January 16, 1944. On that date he had a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and a man in his thirties named John Pehle. These men presented to FDR a report which detailed the State Department’s attempts to “stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish people of Europe.” The report revealed that State Department officials blocked cables about Nazi atrocities that reliable informants tried to send to the U.S.

 

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Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 1944

Fortunately for Morgenthau and Pehle, FDR was receptive to a report of State Department wrongdoing. A major reason for this was the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. The House of Representatives was debating whether to ask FDR for a refugee rescue agency that would be separate from the State Department. Congress held private hearings with witnesses testifying for and against the new agency.

Breckinridge Long testified that another agency was not needed because “we have taken into this country, since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Most members of the House initially believed Long’s story. Then Long made a mistake by allowing his testimony to be published. A few news outlets and Jewish organizations pointed out the inconsistencies in Long’s statement. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of Jews who came in under national quotas between January 1, 1933 and June 30, 1943 totaled only 166,843–far from Long’s claim of 580,000.

The press made Long a laughingstock, and members of Congress who supported the new agency were more determined than ever. The Senate planned to put the rescue agency to a vote, and polls showed it would pass.

FDR hated the idea of a scandal, especially in an election year like 1944. Long’s false testimony and the Treasury Department’s report on State Department duplicity were enough to convince FDR to create the War Refugee Board. He made his decision in his twenty minute meeting with Henry Morgenthau and John Pehle.

Why FDR Showed Indifference to Jews during the Holocaust

Before President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board in January 1944, he showed little interest in the plight of Europe’s Jews. His indifference wasn’t caused by a lack of information. FDR had read reports that revealed the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. He also met with Jan Karski, a Polish underground leader, who witnessed the gassing of Jews in a concentration camp. Since he knew what was going on, why did FDR fail to act on proposals to rescue the Jews until 1944?

One problem was FDR’s personal opinion of European immigrants. In his April 23, 1925 column for the Macon Daily Telegraph, FDR wrote that immigration to the U.S. should be restricted to those who had “blood of the right sort.” FDR happily upheld the strict immigration quotas he inherited from previous presidents and even left quota slots unfilled. More than 190,000 additional immigrants from Germany and other Axis countries could have entered the U.S. between 1933 and 1945, without the quotas being exceeded.

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Official Presidential Portrait of FDR

The president’s callous attitude toward immigrants influenced his choice for Assistant Secretary of State, the chief government official in charge of refugee matters. FDR appointed his friend Breckinridge Long to the job. Long had no intention of relaxing the strict immigration laws. On October 3, 1940, Long wrote in his diary “I left him [FDR] with the satisfactory thought that he was wholeheartedly in support of the policy which would resolve in favor of the United States any doubts about the admissibility of any individual.” FDR generally left State department officials in charge of refugee and immigration issues. He knew his desire to limit immigration would be taken care of by Long.

Anti-Semitic feeling among American voters influenced politicians including FDR. Public opinion polls taken during World War II showed one-third of the American public was anti-Semitic. When voters show little sympathy for a group of people, elected officials have little incentive to act.

Yet not all politicians were as insensitive as FDR to the European Jews. For example, some members of Congress drafted the Wagner-Rogers bill. If passed, the bill would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to enter the U.S. outside the immigration quota. Even though the children were supposed to return to Europe after the war, many members of Congress and the public opposed the bill. The president’s cousin, Laura Delano, commented that “twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” When the bill crossed his desk, FDR wrote “no action” on it.

In my next post, I’ll discuss why FDR changed his mind and created the War Refugee Board in January 1944.

Source: Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II by Heather Voight

Limited Time Book Sale for Holocaust and U.S. History Buffs!

My book Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II is ON SALE until Christmas here: http://amzn.to/2gBVVD8

It’s the story of a few good men who tried to save Jews and others from the Holocaust at the last minute. These ordinary people had hope in the face of impossible odds, and isn’t that what we could all use this holiday season?

Available for $0.99 on Kindle and $8.99 paperback. Happy holidays to my readers.

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American Politicians and Immigration Policy: A Troubled History

Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are these words: “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-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The poet should have put an asterisk after these lines that read “unless politicians find it inconvenient to admit certain refugees; in that case the door is closed.”

U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY DURING WORLD WAR II

In the 1930s and 1940s, the door to the United States was closed to Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis. With the exception of the work done by the War Refugee Board in 1944 (by which time most of Europe’s Jews were dead), President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration stood by while 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

U.S. State Department excuses for not loosening immigration quotas included the possibility that Jews might be acting as spies for the Nazi government. Despite this theory, the record indicates that only one enemy agent entered the country as a refugee, and that refugee was not Jewish.

In order to enter the U.S., Jewish refugees had to endure so much government red tape that by the time the State Department approved a visa, the applicant had often been deported to a concentration camp. Even a congressional bill to accept 20,000 Jewish children was rejected because, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin Laura Delano stated, “twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Women_and_children_among_Syrian_refugees_striking_at_the_platform_of_Budapest_Keleti_railway_station._Refugee_crisis._Budapest,_Hungary,_Central_Europe,_4_September_2015._(3)

Syrian Refugees at Budapest Railway Station, 4 Sept. 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

CURRENT U.S. POLICY ON IMMIGRATION

At the moment, Syrian refugees are the most unpopular group in the United States. A few months ago, Mexican immigrants, all of whom politicians like Donald Trump seem to think are rapists or drug dealers, were enemy Number One, but opinions change quickly. The terror attacks in France gave U.S. politicians who did not want immigrants entering the country the perfect excuse to say, “We do not want Syrian immigrants in America. They are coming to attack us.”

Yet out of 784,000 refugees that have entered the U.S. since September 11, 2001, only three were arrested for planning terrorist activities. Only one of the three spoke of targeting the U.S., and even he had no specific plan. People risking their lives to get out of their country (and plenty, including young children, have died in the attempt) are unlikely to target a country that provides them with food and shelter.

Despite the fact that the U.S has pledged to admit only 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, even this number is too large for some politicians. Last week in the House of Representatives, 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans voted to put new security limits on those immigrants. Apparently these representatives are unaware that the security screening process is already so complicated that it takes 18-24 months (more than a year) before a refugee from Syria can ever enter the U.S.

In contrast to the reluctance of the U.S. to admit Syrian refugees, Germany is projected to take in 800,000 refugees by the end of this year. Germany–a country Jewish refugees tried to flee from in the 1930s and 1940s–is now taking in hundreds of thousands more refugees than the U.S. ever planned to welcome.

France, the country with the most recent terror attacks and the country that gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, has promised to continue accepting immigrants from Syria. America, the nation of immigrants, is becoming the nation of exclusion.

A Short History of American Opposition to Immigration

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus' poem at base of Statue of Liberty

New Colossus: Emma Lazarus’ poem at base of Statue of Liberty

“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The words of Emma Lazarus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty must have sounded ironic to many hopeful American immigrants. Even Lazarus’ poem hinted that immigrants would not be completely welcome, however. The poem’s next verse refers to them as “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Refuse is another word for garbage. Immigrants throughout America’s history have been treated like garbage—often turned away from the country they saw as their only hope for a better life.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asian and European immigrants trying to enter the U.S. faced strict immigration laws. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for example, suspended all Chinese immigration for ten years.

During the 1930s, Jews fleeing the Nazis received little aid from the U.S. government. In 1939, the St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees, was not allowed to land in Cuba. For weeks, the ship hovered near the U.S. coast, but President Franklin Roosevelt refused to give the passengers even temporary sanctuary. The ship returned to Europe, and many passengers later died in Nazi concentration camps.

Any immigrants who managed to come to America still experienced discrimination. Ironically, other immigrants who arrived in  America somewhat earlier often mistreated newcomers. In 1890, Jacob Riis wrote in How the Other Half Lives, “the once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman, and has himself taken a hand at opposition…against these latter hordes.”

Anti-Semitism was prevalent in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s. A poll from 1938 showed that Americans not only opposed Jewish immigration, but they disliked Jews more than any other minority. Even Jewish children were unwelcome. In response to a Congressional bill that would allow Jewish children to enter the country under the immigration quota, FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano, stated, “twenty-thousand charming children would all to soon turn into twenty-thousand ugly adults.”

Today many people still object to the immigration of people who are fleeing from poverty and violence in their home countries. Immigration reform is a hot-button issue in political campaigns across the U.S. Even with the background checks, fines, the requirement to learn English and having to wait in line for years behind legal immigrants under the comprehensive immigration reform bill, some Americans want to deport the eleven million immigrants who are living in the United States illegally. That number includes children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents.

The mindset of Americans toward immigration hasn’t changed much since the nineteenth century. The immigrants that some are seeking to keep out or deport may look different, but the desire to turn them away remains the same.