Franklin Roosevelt is the greatest American president of the past century. He led the country through and brought it out of the Depression. He led us through the Second World War. During his administration America’s infrastructure was rebuilt, Social Security was created, the banking industry was brought under control, and jobs were provided for everyone from construction workers to artists.
But there is a stain on FDR’s legacy. It’s about how he handled, or rather how he didn’t handle the German Jewish refugees hoping to come to America to save their lives.
The most well known, and notorious, incident involves a ship called the St. Louis, which was carrying 937 German Jewish passengers seeking to escape the Nazis when it sailed to Cuba. The refugees hoped to be admitted to Cuba from which they would later make their way to the U.S. When the Cuban government refused entry, the St. Louis sailed to Miami. But under the immigration quota system that had been put in place in 1925, no more German immigrants could be admitted, so the St. Louis passengers were not allowed to disembark.
A group of the passengers made a direct appeal to Roosevelt: “Cabling President Roosevelt, repeating urgent appeal for help for the passengers of the St. Louis. Help them. Mr. President, the 900 passengers of which more than 400 are women and children.”
Roosevelt’s response? There was none. Turning away, the St. Louis carried its passengers back to Europe. Fortunately several European countries stopped up: Belgium took 250 of the refugees, the Netherlands, 194 and France 200. The rest were accepted in Britain. As Hitler conquered some of the countries where the refugees were relocated, 254 of them are known to have died during the Holocaust.
What is less known, is how an effort to save Jewish German children failed due to lack of support. In 1939, Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) introduced legislation in both houses of Congress that would have allowed 20,000 German refugee children into the U.S over a two-year period. The Wagner-Rogers Bill was backed by the American Federation of Labor, the American Friends Service Committee and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureaus.
The Camden (N.J.) Morning Post (April 25, 1939) wrote: “Both those who believe that we should intervene in Europe and those who are against intervention can join in support of the Wagner-Rogers bill which will permit 20,000 refugee children from Germany to enter this country. Here is an opportunity to express, in a practical way that harms no one, the humanitarian instincts called forth by Nazi persecution.”
The St. Louis Star-Times (June 14, 1939) said: “The most logical proposal by which this country can meet the common obligation of mankind to the helpless and oppressed is embodied in the Wagner-Rogers bill, now pending in Congress…The Wagner-Rogers Bill should be passed. Until some such measure is adopted, American protests against Nazi savagery will remain in the category of empty rhetoric.”
But the bill never made it out of committee. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (April 28, 1939) explained where the opposition came from: “Opposition springs from a fear that a precedent will be established in opening the immigration gates now tightly controlled by the present quota laws; that the children, although none over 14, will eventually become seekers for jobs and thus further intensify the unemployment situation; that they will thus compete with American citizens; that they will constitute an unbalanced and unfair ratio to immigration from other countries whose quotas are very small; that they will become a ‘problem of assimilation;’ and that they will encourage the dictatorships to further persecutions because of the greater prospects of asylum for their victims elsewhere in the world.”
What the newspaper doesn’t mention in the anti-Semitism. You have to go back to Marie Antoinette to find a quote as insensitive as this one from Laura Delano Houghteling, FDR’s cousin and wife of Immigration Commissioner James Houghteling: “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
The Wagner-Rogers Bill never made it out of committee and never came to a vote in either house of Congress. It also never got any support from the president, despite the support of his wife Eleanor. Nor was it popular with the American public. A 1939 public opinion poll that posed the question of whether respondents would support admitting 10,000 German refugee children revealed that 67% were opposed.
It is hard to understand how a country that sent some 2 million soldiers to the European front during WWII, a country that lost 500,000+ lives fighting the Nazis in Europe, was not willing to save 20,000 German Jewish refugee children by simply opening its doors to them.
(Photos from New York Public Library public domain collection.)