During the 1930s and early 1940s, the United States resisted accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazi terror sweeping Europe, in large part because of fearmongering by a small but vocal crowd.
They claimed that the refugees were communist or anarchist infiltrators intent on spreading revolution; that refugees were part of a global Jewish-capitalist conspiracy to take control of the United States from the inside; that the refugees were either Nazis in disguise or under the influence of Nazi agents sent to commit acts of sabotage; and that Jewish refugees were out to steal American jobs.
Many rejected Jews simply because they weren’t Christian.
In recent days, similar arguments are being resurrected to reject Syrian refugees fleeing sectarian terrorists and civil war.
From talk radio to the blogosphere to leading American politicians, anti-Syrian rhetoric claims that refugees are simply ISIS infiltrators; that migrants are Muslim invaders seeking to establish a “global caliphate” and impose Sharia law on America; and that Syrian refugees are lying about escaping violence and are focused instead on abusing the American welfare system.
“I have heard on good authority that an Executive order has given immigration authorities permission to let down the usual bars in favor of the so-called Jewish refugees from Germany,” declared Julia Cantacuzene, a Republican activist in New York, according to a front page New York Times article that ran on May 18, 1938. Cantacuzene, the granddaughter of President Ulysses Grant and an ardent opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt, claimed that the Soviet revolution occurred only because Communist agents had snuck into Russia to “instill their insidious poison onto the Russian people.” She claimed that the same would happen here: “Under these lax regulations, many Communists are coming to this country to join the ranks of those who hate our institutions and want to over throw them.”
During congressional debate in 1940, John B. Trevor, a prominent Capitol Hill lobbyist, argued against a proposal to settle Jewish refugees in Alaska, claiming they would be potential enemies — and charging that Nazi persecution of the Jews had occurred “in very many cases … because of their beliefs in the Marxian philosophy.” Trevor had notably helped author the Immigration Act of 1924, a law designed to curb Jewish migration from Eastern Europe, in part because of anarchist Jewish Americans of Russian descent including Emma Goldman.
Rep. Jacob Thorkelson, a Republican from Montana, warned at the time that Jewish migrants were part of an “invisible government,” an organization he said was tied to the “communistic Jew” and to “Jewish international financiers.”
William Dudley Pelley, a leading anti-Semite and organizer of the “Silver Shirts” nationalist group, claimed that Jewish migration was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to seize control of the United States. Pelley, whose organization routinely used anti-Semitic smears such as “Yidisher Refugees” and “Refugees Kikes,” attracted up to 50,000 to his organization by 1934. James B. True, an anti-communist activist affiliated with the Silver Shirt movement, coined the term “refu-Jew” to mock refugees, according to researcher David S. Wyman, the author of Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941.
George Van Horn Moseley, a retired general active in Christian nationalist groups, traveled the country warning that Jews were financing a communist revolution, and that citizens should arm themselves for a coming confrontation. He also protested the resettlement of Jewish refugees and called for forced sterilization of refugees that had arrived in the country.
Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state who was responsible for a series of actions in 1940 and 1941 that tightly restricted Jewish refugee migration into America, was influenced heavily by the idea that Jews were communist infiltrators. According to Wyman, Long’s diary referred to his opponents as “the communists, extreme radicals, Jewish professional agitators, refugee enthusiasts.” After reading Adolf Hilter’s Mein Kampf, Long wrote that it was “eloquent in opposition to Jewry and to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos.”
American voices just as prominent call for Syrian refugees to be settled elsewhere — anywhere but here — anti-Semites used a similar strategy to reject Jewish refugees.
Charles Coughlin, a right-wing Catholic priest who was one of the most popular radio voices during the 1930s, regularly smeared Jewish refugees as foreign agents. Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, argued that there is “no well-founded reason for transporting [Jewish refugees] to America. … Soviet Russia, which now claims to be the most prosperous nation in the world, would be an ideal haven for them.”
Sen. Robert Reynolds, a Democrat from North Carolina and an outspoken opponent of Jewish migration, claimed Jews were “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country,” and often argued that Jews were alien to American culture. “Let Europe take care of its own people,” Reynolds argued, “we cannot care for our own, to say nothing of importing more to care for.”
Reynolds disseminated his nativist views through a publication he founded called the Vindicator. The publication carried headlines about the “alien menace” such as “Jewish Refugees Find Work,” “Rabbi Seeks Admission of One Million War Refugees,” and “New U.S. Rules Hit Immigration of German Jews.” Defending himself against critics, Reynolds told Life magazine that he simply wanted “our own fine boys and lovely girls to have all the jobs in this wonderful country.”
Rep. J. Will Taylor, a Tennessee Republican, argued that the New Deal showed more concern for European refugees than for the 10 million American refugees that walked city streets in desperation, according to researcher Wesley Greear of East Tennessee State University. Similar arguments were advanced by Sen. Rufus Holman, an Oregon Republican, and Rep. Martin Dies, a Texas Democrat.
President Roosevelt, who was slow to respond to the need to accept more Jewish refugees during much of World War II, fueled the political opposition’s “fifth column” conspiracies by repeatedly warning that Nazi agents might pose as refugees to gain entry into the country.
The State Department played a key role in fanning fears. Julian Harrington, the head of the visa division, argued that Germany had coerced refugees to spy for the Nazis. Both the Washington Post and New York Times promoted the accusation.
Roosevelt himself publicly imagined how Jewish refugees might be pressured into acting as Nazi agents. “We are frightfully sorry, but your old father and mother will be taken out and shot,” Roosevelt said during a press conference.
As Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker reported on Tuesday, the press also fanned these fears. The Saturday Evening Post told its readers that Nazis “disguised as refugees” were working around the world as “spies, fifth columnists, propagandists or secret commercial agents.”
As paranoia about a fifth column of Nazi infiltrators spread, legislators reacted with a series of anti-immigrant and anti-refugee legislation. The 76th Congress, from January 1939 to January 1941, fielded 60 anti-alien proposals, according to Henry L. Feingold, author of Politics of Rescue. One such proposal, from Rep. Stephen Pace, a Georgia Democrat, demanded that “every Alien in the United States shall be forthwith deported.”
The bills were supported by the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and a number of Christian and nationalist organizations.
The editors of The Nation and the New Republic challenged the State Department to prove a single instance of coerced espionage involving Jewish refugees, according to researcher Wesley Greear. The State Department supplied no such evidence.
As Walker also noted in his article, historian Francis MacDonnell concluded that “Axis operations in the United States never amounted to much, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation easily countered the ‘Trojan Horse’ activity that did exist. … Though the Germans practiced espionage, sabotage, and subversion in United States, their efforts were modest and almost uniformly unsuccessful.”
But fearmongering against Jewish refugees certainly influenced public opinion. As the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor reported this week, a poll published by Fortune magazine in July 1938 found that fewer than 5 percent of Americans believed that the United States should encourage refugees fleeing fascism. A poll taken in January 1939 found that 61 percent of Americans opposed the settlement of 10,000 refugee children, “most of them Jewish,” in the United States.
By 1941, the United States severely restricted refugee resettlement, in part through the Smith Act, which gave individual American consuls power to deny refugee visas, and gave Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state who opposed Jewish migration, greater control of refugee policy.
As nativist voices were triumphing over refugee policy, over 6 million Jews were exterminated during the Nazi reign of terror.
Top photo: Jewish deportees, with yellow stars sewn on their coats, arrive at Auschwitz concentration camp, May 1944.