It Was FDR Who Blocked the Refugees

Rafael Medoff responds to Jack Schwartz in the latest installment of their debate on the book 'FDR and the Jews' and legacy of the WWII-era U.S. president.

Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff
Rafael Medoff

Was President Franklin D. Roosevelt helpless to determine his own immigration policy, a prisoner of "Republicans and Southern Democrats" who "blocked any efforts by [him] to allow even a token number of Jewish refugees on our shores" …? That's what Jack Schwartz claims, in his July 5 response to my review of “FDR and the Jews” (“Misreading history”). The historical record suggests otherwise.

America's immigration quotas were tight -- the annual quota for German immigrants was about 26,000 (28,000 as of 1938) -- but the Roosevelt administration made the situation much worse by piling on extra requirements to discourage and disqualify applicants. Only 5 percent of the German quota places were used in 1933; the number rose modestly later on, but by 1943 it was back down to less than 5 percent. During most of FDR's 12 years in office, the German quota was less than 25 percent filled. There were a total of 190,000 unused quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries during those years. That wasn't because of Republicans or Southern Democrats; it was because of the Roosevelt administration's suppression of immigration below what the existing laws permitted. When refugee advocate James McDonald complained about the extra regulations, FDR dismissed his plea as "sob stuff."

FDR himself repeatedly blocked or undermined initiatives to help Jewish refugees.

The Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939 would have admitted 20,000 refugee children outside the quotas. When a member of Congress inquired as to the president's position on the measure, Roosevelt wrote on her letter: "File No Action FDR." Without the president's support, the bill had no chance, and indeed it was squashed.

The governor and legislative assembly of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory, offered to admit Jewish refugees. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes urged FDR to embrace the proposal. The president responded with a harsh memo that, as Ickes put it, "rather slapped my ears back." According to Roosevelt, allowing Jewish refugees to enter the islands "could conceivably hurt" the local residents. (Odd that their own governor and legislators didn't think so.)

Secretary Ickes also urged Roosevelt to let Jewish refugees settle in Alaska as foreign laborers. FDR said he would agree to admit some foreign workers, but only if no more than 10 percent were Jews, in order (as Roosevelt put it) "to avoid the undoubted criticism to which we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews."

It was the Roosevelt administration - not "Republicans and Southern Democrats"- who initiated the infamous 1941 "close relatives" edict. Prof. Richard Breitman has described how the administration "hurried to bolt the door" even tighter that year, with its new policy of rejecting applicants who had "children, parents, spouse, brothers or sisters" in Hitler’s Europe, on the fanciful theory that the Nazis would blackmail the immigrant to become their spy, by threatening the relatives. (No such cases were ever discovered.)

Schwartz's most remarkable claim is that "the Roosevelt administration lowered quotas [he means tariffs] on Cuban sugar as part of an understanding that allowed 5,000-6,000 Jewish refugees to enter Cuba prior to the St. Louis and 2,000 subsequently."

If true, this would represent a major new discovery. After all, the sugar-for-refugees theory is not found in the many books and articles written on this subject from 1968 until 2012. The theory first appears in “FDR and the Jews,” by Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman (the book under discussion here), but even they state only that Cuba's president visited Washington in 1938 to discuss the sugar issue, and that one newspaper columnist speculated Cuba might accept some refugees. Breitman and Lichtman do not cite any documents mentioning any "understanding" on sugar and refugees. They note only that some Jewish refugees were admitted to Cuba both before and after the tariffs were lowered, "whether as a quid pro quo or not" (pp. 134-135).

It is not clear what evidence led Mr. Schwartz to make his startling claim, nor which archives he visited to find it. If he has indeed located some previously unpublished documents proving his claim, then hopefully he will share them with the rest of us. And perhaps those documents will address the gaping holes in Schwartz's theory: If it was the alleged sugar agreement that caused Cuba to admit thousands of refugees prior to the St. Louis episode, why would the Cuban government suddenly bar the 937 St. Louis passengers? Wouldn't Cuba's leaders have feared rebuffing the St. Louis would endanger the much sought-after lowering of the sugar tariffs? And how is it that none of the internal State Department correspondence during the St. Louis crisis makes any mention of an agreement with the Cubans?

From left, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sit on the patio of Livadia Palace, Yalta, Crimea, on Feb. 4, 1945.Credit: AP

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