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
lingering 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
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
it 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.
desire to "create some permanent apparatus to deal with the refugee problem,"
but they, "envisioned no plan of official assistance to refugees."5 Taylor
expressed 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 communiqué of