The story has a familiar ring to it. Thousands of refugee children seeking asylum in the United States sparks a heated debate over immigration and human rights.
Today the children are illegal entrants from impoverished regions of Central America. In 1939, they were Jewish children whose parents had been shipped off to Hitler’s concentration camps.
That year, U.S. legislators introduced a bill into Congress to allow 20,000 of these children to enter America. The bill’s sponsors believed that, unless these children were allowed to emigrate, they would suffer the same fate as their parents.
The bill was defeated when Congress voted in accord with American opinion; at the time 60 percent of voters didn’t want to raise immigration quotas for Jews fleeing the Nazis.
We might wonder how Americans could turn their backs on children facing almost certain death. But Americans weren’t heartless in those days, they were afraid. Many feared the children’s parents would eventually petition to join their children and would arrive in the U.S. to take jobs away from Americans. After all, unemployment in 1939 was still lingering near 17 percent.
Some feared that allowing these young refugees into the U.S. would damage its status as a neutral nation, particularly in the eyes of Germany. Others feared the children would introduce non-traditional culture into American society.
Some were hoping to keep all traces of Europe’s troubles out of America.
And many, alas, just disliked Jews. If anti-Semitism hasn’t declined in America in the past 75 years, it has certainly become less outspoken. But in 1939, many anti-Semites weren’t shy about expressing their dislike of Jews.
Many Americans, though, were simply indifferent, reluctant to intervene in Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population. They regarded Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews with cold detachment as Demaree Bess did in the Post on March 18, 1939.
“There are two manners of approach to this important question. One is emotional, coming from the heart. The other is intellectual, coming from the head. In America, we have thus far stuck largely the emotional approach. Our hearts have been profoundly moved and our sense of decency outraged by the barbarous persecution of thousands of helpless men, women, and children. Many of us have become so indignant that we are in a mood to do something — anything — to retaliate against bullies and brutes.” (Read the entire article “Jewish Pawns in Power Politics” from the Post.)
Bess was worried that “anything” could mean going to war with Germany. So he encouraged readers to think about anti-Semitism as something other than the systematic abuse of a religious minority. It was also, he said, a political tool. In Germany, it had helped the Nazis distinguish themselves from other socialist groups and gather a following among bigots and bullies. Anti-Semitism had also enabled the Nazi Party to enrich itself from the penalties they inflicted on Jews as well as the theft of imprisoned or executed Jews.
In a surprising move, Bess, reported Italy had also adopted racial laws against Jews, despite the fact that Mussolini long maintained that anti-Semitism was senseless. Japan, which had virtually no Jews to hate, had also made anti-Semitism part of its national policy.
Italy and Japan only adopted the Nazi policy to attract anti-Semitic allies in other countries. In the Middle East, for instance, Italy was hoping to stir up opposition against Britain and its colonies, but it had agreed not to engage in any anti-British propaganda. With an anti-Jewish campaign, it could still rally support among Arabs. Italy’s new anti-Jewish laws, Bess wrote, “served as the most effective kind of propaganda among all those countries and groups which dislike the British because they are pictured as defenders of the Jews.”
Japan’s big worry in 1939 was the Soviet Union. Russian troops continued to threaten Japanese forces in Manchuria. At the time, the communist government in Russia was widely considered to be friendly to Jews.
Japan hoped to reduce Russian troop concentration in Manchuria by forcing the Soviet Union to shift armies west against opponents in Europe. “Japanese agents,” Bess reported, “working among anti-Semitic groups in Eastern Europe [that engaged in] various anti-Soviet movements, finally realized, like Mussolini, that they could make better progress if their government were definitely committed to a policy of Jew-baiting.”
While this is informative, it hardly seems to address American outrage over Nazi atrocities. And it raises the question of whether it is appropriate to consider some issues “intellectually.” A truly detached inquiry would involve accepting nothing and questioning everything, so that you might raise the question, as Bess did, “Are the Jews themselves responsible for arousing the hostility of other groups? Are they guilty of all those sins with which they are charged by anti-Semitic groups in all parts of the world?”
Precisely the sort of questions Hitler would want you to ask.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: