Home » U.S Foreign Policy Toward Jewish Refugees During 1933-1939

U.S Foreign Policy Toward Jewish Refugees During 1933-1939

In reviewing the events which gave rise to the U. S. ‘s foreign policy toward Jewish refugees, we must identify the relevant factors upon which such decisions were made. Factors including the U. S. government’s policy mechanisms, it’s bureaucracy and public opinion, coupled with the narrow domestic political mindedness of President Roosevelt, lead us to ask; Why was the American government apathetic to the point of culpability, and isolationist to the point of irresponsibility, with respect to the systematic persecution and annihilation of the Jewish people of Europe during the period between 1938-1945?

Throughout the years of 1933-1939, led by Neville Chamberlain and the British, the United States was pursuing a policy of appeasement toward Hitler. They had tolerated his military build-up and occupation of the Rhineland, both violations of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the annexing of Austria and the take-over of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Hitler realized early on in his expansionist campaign that Western leaders were too busy dealing with their own domestic problems to pose any real opposition. In the United States, Americans were wrestling with the ravages of the Great Depression.

With the ingering memory of the more than 300,000 U. S. troops either killed or injured in World War I, isolationism was the dominant sentiment in most political circles. Americans were not going to be “dragged” into another war by the British. The Depression had bred increased xenophobia and anti-Semitism, and with upward of 30% unemployment in some industrial areas1, many Americans wanted to see immigration halted completely. It was in this context that the democratic world, led by the United States, was faced with a refugee problem that it was morally bound to deal with.

The question then became; what would they do? Persecution of the Jews in Germany began officially on April 1st 1933. Hitler had come to power a few weeks earlier and he immediately began the plan, as outlined in his book Mein Kampf, to eliminate “the eternal mushroom of humanity – Jews”. 2 German Jews were stripped of their citizenship by the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 and had their businesses and stockholdings seized in 1938. Civil servants, newspaper editors, soldiers and members of the judiciary were dismissed from their positions, while lawyers and physicians were forbidden to practice.

Anti-Jewish violence peaked on 9 November 1938, known as the Night of the Broken Glass” or Kristallnacht, when over 1000 synagogues were burned. Jewish schools, hospitals, books, cemeteries and homes were also destroyed3. The mistreatment of non-Aryans in Germany was common knowledge in the U. S. in 1938. After the anschluss, the flow of refugees exceeded the capabilities of both the Nansen Office and the Autonomous Office of High Commissioner for Refugees. The commission had been formed in response to the anti-Jewish persecution and had but the “tacit endorsement of the United States”.

In light of the League’s incapability, President Roosevelt and then Secretary of State Cordell Hull, invited the representatives of more than 30 nations and 39 private organizations to an international conference at Evian, to discuss the refugee problem. Myron C. Taylor, past chairman of U. S. Steel Corporation, was named the chairman of the American delegation. In the weeks before the conference, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, in London, felt the growing concern in the British Foreign Office as to the American position on the conference and the refugee question in general.

He cabled the U. S. State Department expressing his concern, and received an evasive reply from Secretary Hull. Hull explained that t was the French, that had assumed control of the planning of the conference and that he would be advised of their position “in the near future”. No reply ever came and on the eve of the conference the British were unaware of U. S. refugee policy4, a practice that would recur throughout the refugee crisis. Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith, in briefing the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees (PACPR) before Evian, expressed the U. S. esire to “create some permanent apparatus to deal with the refugee problem,” but they, “envisioned no plan of official assistance to refugees. “5

Taylor xpressed this policy in his opening speech at Evian in saying that the U. S. would accept 27,000 refugees as outlined in the German and Austrian quotas, no more. The only concrete achievement of the conference was the creation of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR), which was to be a voluntary organization, totally dependent on private funding. Furthermore, no member of the IGCR would be expected to change immigration policies and quotas.

The obvious lack of intended action was summed up in the final communiqu of the conference, “The governments of the countries of refuge and settlement should ot assume any obligations for the financing of involuntary emigration. “6 The conference concluded and Taylor, weary of the fact that nothing had been accomplished in the week at Evian, cabled the State Department warning that if the United States does not move to act, “other countries of settlement will claim that they are not obligated to commit themselves. 7 Secretary Hull cabled back reminding Taylor of the rigid immigration laws and the restrictionist sentiment in Congress.

The unwillingness of the U. S. to set the example, allowed for the attending nations to keep their borders closed, hiding behind omestic unemployment, anti-Semitism and, American apathy. So, before war broke out in September 1939, during that same summer, President Roosevelt called for the deactivation of the IGCR, the now 600,000 refugees in need of aid were nowhere closer to asylum than they were at its creation.

The U. S. overnment had successfully maintained a policy of restrictionism and isolationism. But the refugee problem would take a nasty turn, presenting them with a more serious moral headache. Three months after the conference at Evian the worst purging of German Jewry yet took place in what came to be known as Kristallnacht. Thirty thousand Jews were arrested and anti-Jewish violence peaked. In protest, President Roosevelt ordered the American ambassador, Hugh Wilson, to return to Washington, but refused to impose diplomatic or economic sanctions on the Nazi government8.

Roosevelt publicly denounced Nazi brutality, saying that he could scarcely believe the Nazi barbarism. But when asked about getting masses of Jews out of Germany, he replied, “The time is not ripe for that,” and when questioned further about the possibility of relaxing immigration restrictions, he responded, “That is not in contemplation, we have the quota system. 9 This policy of rhetoric had been predominant in the U. S. approach to the refugees and would continue well into the war.

Even Hitler commented with bitter sarcasm regarding Western hypocrisy, “It is a shameful example to observe today how the entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity, but then in spite of its obvious duty to help, closes its heart to the poor, tortured people. “10 Prompted by the U. S. , the international committee refused to even acknowledge publicly that the main refugee problem, was a Jewish one. The organized mass slaughter began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, this was accomplished through the use of mobile extermination units that followed behind the advancing Nazi army11.

Scholars on the subject have questioned when exactly, the Western world knew about the atrocities occurring in Europe. From July 1941 until the end of 1942, U. S. intelligence operations in Europe were only beginning to get underway. However British intelligence was the focal point of all news coming out of Occupied Europe. Early reports from aerial reconnaissance, returning soldiers, escaping citizens, prisoners of war, neutrals, as well as reports from Polish, Dutch, French and Czech intelligent services, all reported ‘unofficial stories’ – the State Department viewed them as rumors – about Nazi plans of extermination12.

In May 1942, a report was transmitted to London from the Jewish Socialist Party in Poland warning that the Germans had “embarked on the physical extermination of the Jewish population on Polish soil. 13” European news, such as the Swedish Socialdemokraten, published a report in the Fall of 1941 about the killing of Jews, “There was no doubt that this was a case of premeditated mass murder. “14 Newspapers in Western Europe and the United States picked up on the reports ater.

The London Daily Telegraph published an article on June 30 headlined, “More Than 1 Million Jews Killed in Europe. 15 The New York Times covered the story that same day, skeptically putting it in the middle of the paper. 16 Reports, although filing into the United States at an accelerated rate, were still considered unconfirmed. In November 1943, the Gillette-Rogers resolution was introduced in the Senate and in the House.

The resolution called for “the creation by the President of a commission of diplomatic, economic, and military experts to formulate and effectuate a plan of action to save the surviving Jewish people rom extinction… “17 SRes. 203 was supported unanimously, but in the House H. R. 52 faced the opposition of Breckinridge Long. In his testimony, he pointed out that with “every legitimate thing” already being done, any more action by Congress would “be construed as a repudiation of the acts of the Executive branch. “18

Very impressed by his words, the Committee on Foreign Affairs voted down the Gillette-Rogers Bill on 26 December 1943. During the months leading up to the Bermuda Conference of April 1943, the State Department vetoed the idea of temporary harboring of refugees in the U. S. based on security reasons and the critical food shortage.

They ruled out rescue operations because that would require diversion from the war effort. In addition they refused to use their abundant political influence to pressure Britain into loosening immigration to Palestine. At Bermuda, the U. S. and Britain reiterated the fact that they were not willing to change quotas or immigration and stressed that no diversion from the war effort should be employed for the refugees. The only positive outcome of the conference was the revival of the IGC, whose mandate gave relief to those already rescued but did not participate in rescuing.

The New York Times writing on the conference noted, “Not only were ways and means to save the remaining Jews in Europe not devised, but their problem was not even touched upon, put on the agenda or discussed. “19 Three million people had already perished. It was already quite obvious that the American government didn’t want to help, and it was beginning to appear as if there were certain people in key places who didn’t want other nations to help either. However, in 1944, the tide of American foreign policy was going to shift.

The changes were precipitated by a report submitted to the President by the Secretary of Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr. , dated January 16th 1994, entitled “A Personal Report to the President”. The report outlined the State Department’s repression of news of the Final Solution in cable No. 354, its policy of apathy, and recommended that all rescue operations be removed from its hands. The report and the recommendations formulated had the desired effect both because it was ‘political dynamite’ and because 1944 was an election year20. The report consequently spurred a chain of events in favor of cooperation toward rescue, no matter how limited. On January 22nd 1944, Executive Order 9417 established the War Refugee Board.

Morgenthau, Hull and Henry Stimson were to head the WRB, and John Pehle, a member of Morgenthau’s Treasury staff, was named Director. Agents were installed in Ankara, Istanbul, Lisbon and North Africa, funding, negotiating and coordinating relief programs. The WRB sent threats of punishment to Axis nations in an effort to deter them from collaborating with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews. 21 The State Department, a major actor in the policy making process, although removed from the issue, continued to subtly obstruct the workings of the WRB.

The board requested that a message be transmitted via Switzerland to Latin America countries, requesting them to validate fraudulent visas for Jews interned in a German camp at Vittel, France. Internal confusion caused the transmission to be delayed and in the interim 250 people were sent to Auschwitz. 22 After eyewitness accounts and drawings of Auschwitz were made available to the WRB in June 1944, they suggested the bombing of the gas chambers or the rail lines leading to it. Assistant Secretary of the Army, John J. McCloy said that the bombing would be of “doubtful efficiency”23 and would require a “diversion of considerable air support”. 4

With respect to the iversion of air support between July and November 1944, the American 15th AF division, stationed in Italy, carried out over 2,800 bomber attacks on Blechhammer, the synthetic oil and rubber works factory not 5 miles from the gas chambers. The chambers were never bombed. Later, parts of Auschwitz as well as pursuant documents to the camps atrocities would be destroyed – but by the Nazi’s, in an attempt to hide the evidence from the world. The U. S. could not have rescued people from German occupied countries, but they could have redefined the status of those being held in camps to prisoners of war.

This ould have made them subjects of international law, legally binding the International Red Cross to protect them. This wasn’t done either. 25 It is fairly easy to look back on history and comment on what could have been done, but the reality in this particular case is that while many options were of “doubtful efficiency”, many others were quite viable. Up to 1944, with the creation of the WRB, and to a lesser degree afterward, the U. S. rejected proposals of rescue attempts through neutrals, Axis allies, North African ports, diplomatic means, threats, incentives and the use of physical force.

The question is why were these decisions made? Scholars and politicians have attributed U. S. policy to discrepancies between early reports, the incredibility of the horror stories, the desire not to antagonize the Germans into escalating the level of terror to one the allies couldn’t match and the U. S. goal to end the war achieving “rescue through victory. “26 This paper contends that although all of these did influence American immigration policy, domestic factors, such as public opinion, the U. S. bureaucratic process and the position and influence of certain key actors had the most profound effects on why these decisions were made.

A more realistic explanation of U. S. olicy then would be the process of bureaucratic decision making itself, and not the morality of the individual decision makers. From this notion stems two very important influences. Within the bureaucracy, deviation from the accepted norms was viewed with disdain. Bureaucrats who questioned the morality of a given policy also had their loyalty questioned. So a bureaucrat wanting to look good in the eyes of his superior, was better off going with the flow. Secondly, one could argue a most influential factor was the sheer size of the foreign policy making machine.

Responsibility, as it is today, was diffused throughout dozens of gencies and thousands of individuals so that blame is very difficult to pin on any one individual. When everyone is responsible, no one is. The bureaucrat will refer back to the phrase that was carried all the way to the Nuremberg Trials and echoed in Adolf Eichmann’s trial: ‘I was doing my job’ or ‘I was following orders’. Thus passing the buck onto his superior and on up through the hierarchy of power. Eventually, though, whether willingly or unwillingly, somebody must bear the brunt for those who covered their faces and blindly followed orders.

Restrictionism was a sentiment widely embraced in American olitics and flowed from many sources. Jobs were scarce and the unemployed feared immigrants who would be willing to work for lower wages. This unrealistic fear would carry into the following decades. Somewhat ironically, it was this fear which motivated many Germans into scapegoating not only immigrants, but actual German citizens, taking the blame for everything from unemployment to inflation. Far right neo-Nazi groups were gaining momentum as the depression had bred intergroup racial tension.

A January 3rd 1939 report, from the House Committee on Un-American activities reported the existence of 135 rganization that were regarded as fascist. The German-American Bund was receiving program direction and funding directly from the Nazi ministry of propaganda and was trying to frustrate legislation which it deemed prejudicial to the Fatherland (i. e. the harboring of German refugees).

The political climate was restrictionist to the point that decision makers, both Jewish and not, favoring rescue felt that others would question their patriotism and loyalty to the U. S.. Charges of dual loyalty would surface wherever efforts were made to utilize American resources, to aid the refugees. 27 All of the above mentioned factors allowed the U. S. o adopt the easier refugee policy rather than the morally correct one. The man who individually had the most power to change and direct U. S. policy was President Roosevelt. The American Jewish population adored F. D. R. and even after several years of rhetoric without action, Jewish support for the president had not wavered.

It might partly have been because of this admiration that while nothing was being done, American Jews believed that the President wanted to help them. It is quite probable that Roosevelt, being the humanitarian that he was, did want to see Nazi ‘barbarism’ stopped, but siding with the Jews bore a political price he as not willing to pay. With critics having labeled his New Deal a “Jew Deal”, with Congress and more than two-thirds of the population against the admission of refugees, and with his popular support at an all-time low, to have pushed for the refuge issue would have meant political suicide.

His perception of the refugees in a narrow domestic political context made self-justification of his policies much easier. When weighing the pros and cons in light of domestic factors, apathy was the only logical answer. In this context, even Roosevelt’s Jewish advisors advised against the creation of a “Jewish Problem”. He roceeded to pursue a policy which earned him points at home while risking very little, and substituted symbolic reassurance for commitment. 28 Role theory predicts that the actor, when given the choice between two camps, will chose the side which promises the least threats.

Roosevelt wanted to avoid confrontation with the WASP elite who were making a lot of isolationist and restrictionist noise. The American Jewish community, which wanted to avoid stirring up anti- Semitism and allegations of dual-loyalty, while doing what it could, tried hard not to ‘rock the boat’. 29 Again, Roosevelt acted quite predictably. In order to avoid taking the criticism for his own inaction, he passed the responsibility onto Breckinridge Long and the State Department. Some researchers have claimed that Roosevelt didn’t think that the war was really about the Jewish Question, and it was therefore very low on his list of priorities.

But others contend that U. S. hesitance to accept the Nazi priority on the Jewish question stemmed form the desire to avoid turning the war into one to save the Jews. The acceptance of such a fact, could have interfered with the full mobilization of U. S. forces. 30 It was no secret, though, that the Nazis viewed the Jewish Question as central in their ideological quest toward world domination. As early as February 1939, this was brought to the President’s attention by George Rublee at the White House. This occurred during negotiations by Rublee for the emigration of 150,000 Jews from Germany.

The President asked why only Jews, so Rublee explained to him that “Berlin only recognized a Jewish problem and refused to negotiate on anything else. “31 Further proof that Roosevelt knew was the fact that in August of 1942, in a White House press conference, he said, “The communication which I have just received… ives rise to the fear that… the barbaric and unrelenting character of the [Nazis]… may lead to the extermination of a certain population. “32  Another theory defends Roosevelt, claiming that he didn’t understand the meaning of Auschwitz.

Oliver Wendell Holmes described Roosevelt as “possessing a third-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament. “33 Although it did not require an analytical genius to put together the rumors, or the fact that the railways headed to Auschwitz, from directions all over Europe. The kilometers of enclosed land and the disappearing Jews, is what Lacquer calls, “the lindness of perception: the horrific paradox of ‘knowing’ and still not being ‘aware’. “34 He claims that to a certain extent rejection of such information is a normal psychological mechanism.

Images of factories producing soap, glue, lubricants and artificial fertilizers from corpses, gas chambers packed with naked, emaciated people forced to hold their children above their heads as to maximize space, and sadistic medical experiments using humans as guinea pigs, are notions which the human mind cannot immediately perceive or process, even when actually confronted with it. W. A. Wisser’t Hooft, a Protestant theologian nd First Secretary of the World Council of Churches, said “People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror… hey did not have the imagination together with the courage to face it.

It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing. “35 Furthermore, the events were taking place in towns and cities which F. D. R. , let alone the average American, had never heard of before, confounding the reality of the situation making it more difficult to comprehend. Another factor supporting this view is that the casualty numbers reported in the newspapers were in the order of hundreds of housands or millions, numbers extremely difficult for people to relate to.

Joseph Stalin said that, “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic”, and truth of his words lies in the fact that greater than a certain magnitude, numbers lose all meaning. The shortcoming of this theory lies in the fact that had there been a will, collectively, after extensively reviewing the reports, even with a minimal understanding, there could have been a way. Since, for the most part, no ‘way’ was devised, one can infer that the ‘will’ was nonexistent.

Breckinridge Long, in the higher echelons of power, stated U. S. migration policy when he said, “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the granting of visas. “36 In this sense, U. S. policy toward refugees and immigrants did succeed, at least in theory. That is to say, they succeeded in not allowing more immigrants and effectively stalling any rescue attempts even before they could be implemented.

However, the decisions taken by he actors involved would prove rather unsuccessful, within the realm of public opinion. In fact, as early as 1943, the U. S. would divert it’s power and attention away from rescue attempts vis a vis their immigration policy, toward damage control. On December 17th 1942, for the first time since the beginning of the war, 11 allied governments and DeGaulle’s Free France published a common declaration announcing Hitler’s intention to exterminate the Jews.

U. S. minister to Switzerland, Leland Harrison, had met with Dr. Reigner and had been sending reports to the State Department, which was trying to formulate a picture of what he situation was in occupied Europe. On February 10th 1943, Harrision forwarded another message on The Final Solution and received cable no. 35437 from Breckenridge Long, then head of the War Special Problems Division, instructing him to stop forwarding reports of mass murder, as they could have “embarrassing” repercussions in the United States. 38 Without the proper facts, any type of action would be greatly impeded; The State Department was cutting of it’s information at the source.

Thus, damage control had already begun, via the State Departments blissful ignorance, in efforts to halt negative publicity and World condemnation. Patriotic organizations such as the Crusaders, Sentinels of the Republic and the American Liberty League preached 100% Americanism. While the more conservative Allied Patriotic Societies, Junior Order of American Merchants, American Medical Association, BPOE and Chamber of Commerce, with a combined membership of 5 million, bombarded Congress with resolutions and recommendations to halt immigration completely.

Nativism, patriotism, xenophobia and anti- Semitism all affected U. S. attitudes toward refugees. An Elmo Roper poll of 1938-39 showed that although 95% of Americans polled disapproved of the existing Nazi regime, only 8. 7% favored the immigration of more European refugees, while 83% were adamantly against. 39 The political climate was restrictionist to the point that decision makers, both Jewish and not, favoring rescue felt that others would question their patriotism and loyalty to the U. S.. Charges of dual loyalty would surface wherever efforts were made to utilize American resources to aid the refugees.

In 1943, after one-third of European Jews had already been killed, less than half of the Americans polled believed that mass murder was occurring. In December 1944, 75% believed that the Nazis were killing in the oncentration camps but estimated the severity at 100,000 deaths or less. Only by May 1945 could 85% acknowledge that mass murder had occurred. 40 Furthermore, American Jewish leaders were unable to unify themselves, limiting them in their ability to maximize pressure on the government and to create adequate political incentive.

In retrospect it is evident that the decisions made, carried the “word” of the American people. They issued the orders, whether that person was the President, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the State Department, interest groups or an individual citizen, the American people had spoke. It is unfortunate but not surprising, that the only year during which immigration of the entire German and Austrian quotas was permitted was 1939. From 1939-1944, of a potential 900,000 immigrants outlined in the already resrictionist quotas, less than 125,000 Jews were accepted, while more than two thirds of the positions went unfilled. 1

However, the voice of pressure groups, important bureaucrats, political leaders, the decision making machine and the American people was heard and mirrored by the presidents actions. He can be held responsible for not having the political courage or the moral convictions to isk his political career to aid the Jews of Europe, but he can not be blamed for acting on the will of his own nation. This is in effect his job: Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

It’s ironic that politicians often choose a policy based on gains and losses of support, and while they do this for selfish reasons, they end up representing the majority view. The above mentioned domestic factors Roosevelt had to contend with, played a major and even laid the foundation for the decisions made. There were those who advocated rescue, but they could not penetrate the wall of science. Had the majority of the population wanted to open the doors to Jews fleeing persecution, the Congressmen would have wanted to, as would have the President.

Inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are the words, ” Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door,”. It is for history to judge why a country, made up entirely of immigrants and promising freedom and opportunity to the home less of the world, closed “the golden door” in this momentous time of need. Paradoxically, the events in Germany which lead to the closing of the gates, are also for history to judge.

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