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The Refugee Ban and the Holocaust
Refugees arrive in Antwerp on the MS St. Louis after over a month at sea, during which they were denied entry to Cuba, the U.S. and Canada, June 17, 1939. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Refugee Ban and the Holocaust

Walter Russell Mead & Nicholas M. Gallagher

Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt has an American President done anything so cruel and bigoted. And only Barack Obama has exhibited this degree of callous indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people. President Trump signed an executive order on Friday suspending the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, suspending the U.S. refugee program for 120 days, and restricting immigration from parts of the Muslim world. Implementation failures—chaos and screw-ups at various airports as low-level officials wrestled with what the new order meant—compounded the callousness.

The timing was far from auspicious. Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day, and the symbolism was too great to ignore. On Twitter, the account @Stl_Manifest, which tweeted one at a time the stories of the European Jewish refugees whose ship was turned away from the United States in 1939, and most of whose passengers later perished in the Holocaust, gained over 40,000 followers in a day and sparked commentary in outlets from Vox to USA Today. This history—that at the time of greatest need America’s “golden door” was slammed firmly shut—must haunt anyone who cares about basic human decency. Unfortunately, at a time when urgent problems around the world demand serious and searching thought, many people seem more interested in hand-wringing and virtue-signaling than in taking the time to think through refugee and migration policy.

The real story of immigration and restriction, as opposed to the dumbed-down and sentimentalized hazy myths that pass for history in our impoverished national discourse, could not be more relevant to our times. The restrictions that kept out the St. Louis‘s passengers back in 1939 were written into law in 1924, when the Reed-Johnson Act almost totally cut off immigration to the United States, refugee or otherwise. The Act was passed in response both to the so-called “Great Wave” of nearly unrestricted immigration from 1880 to 1924 and the more immediate emergency created by the end of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Throughout the 1910s and early 1920s, immigration advocates did their best to ignore rising concerns from various quarters about the social, economic, and cultural consequences of the Great Wave. When a course correction came, the overreaction in the other direction was stark—far beyond anything we’re seeing (yet) today: The Johnson-Reed Act cut immigration by over 90 percent, and an almost total ban was imposed on immigrants from central, eastern, and southern Europe that would endure for two generations. Not even the Holocaust could pry the doors open more than a crack; large-scale immigration was not allowed to resume until 1965.

The immigration restrictionism of the 1920s was part and parcel of a larger story. The excesses and overreach of Wilsonian internationalism—the war to end war, the naïveté of the League of Nations—led to a broader backlash that also threw the baby out with the bathwater: the retreat from free trade, the embrace of isolationism, the adamant hostility to large scale immigration. All this would exacerbate and then be compounded by the Depression. At that time, mass unemployment and the fears of foreign paupers put any hopes for immigration liberalization out of reach.

FDR was much too good a politician to think he could fight this; he was advised by congressional leaders that any move to bring quota legislation before Congress was more likely to lead to cuts than to increases in quotas. Throughout the 1930s, Roosevelt in turn repeatedly advised Jewish leaders that any attempts to broach the refugee question would attract public hostility and would fail. And while histories of these conversations are chilling to read, there is no reason to suppose that FDR’s underlying analysis on what was politically possible was wrong. Instead, the very crisis that was driving refugees from Europe made it harder for them to get out. As more people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, sought to flee the darkening shadows falling across central and eastern Europe, a vicious cycle set in. The greater the wave of migrants heading for safety, the more countries closed their doors against the tide. The more countries that closed their doors, the greater the pressure on the shrinking number of countries still open to migrants. One by one, the doors slammed shut. New world countries that had provided homes for millions in the early 20th century shut their doors: not only the United States but Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and many others shut down previously open immigration systems during this era, much as we see Europe doing now.

The refugee question is not the only uncomfortable parallel between the 1930s and our own time. The real problem in the 1930s wasn’t the lack of compassion for Jewish and other refugees; it was the feckless appeasement of Adolf Hitler and the unwillingness to confront him that empowered the Nazi persecution of the Jews and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. So today the true villain of the Syria story—aside from Syria, Russia, and Iran—is the feckless Obama foreign policy that allowed a cyst to metastasize into a cancer, just as Britain, France, and America once allowed Hitler to grow into the master of Europe.

The Obama officials and cheerleaders now guilt-tripping the country over “heartlessness” toward Syria refugees are giving hypocrisy a bad name. Bad foreign policy is the cause of the heartbreak in Syria today, not bad immigration policy. The world does not need lectures from Susan Rice and Samantha Power on what we should do about Syrian refugees; the best way to deal with refugee flows is to prevent them from happening. The Holocaust was not caused by the Reed-Johnson Act; it was caused by Nazi hatred, enabled by naive liberal illusions about the “arc of history” that prevented the West from mobilizing against Hitler when he was weak and easily defeated.

What the progressives want to do now is to turn the immigration debate into a morality play with Trump cast not as FDR (who on this point he closely and even eerily resembles) but as Satan. Obama’s role (and the role of non-interventionist Democrats) in making the Syrian mess so intractable can be airbrushed out of the picture. The national conversation shall be only and always about courageous, compassionate, and deeply humane progressives resisting the forces of Republican and especially Trumpian darkness.

The desire to walk away from messy and complicated history with its unwelcome demands and painful choices into a beautiful but imaginary landscape—a theme park for unicorn hunts—haunted the 1930s as it haunts us now. In this land of make-believe, the great issue of our time is whether we show compassion and morality in immigration policy—not whether we have a sober foreign policy aimed at averting the geopolitical breakdown of which refugee flows are an early and ominous sign.

The mix of real-world fecklessness and pretend-world outraged morality that marked the 1930s is descending on American progressives, even as the equal and opposite error—pretend-world aggressive, chest-thumping nationalism and real-world retreat—threatens to sweep up many on the American right.

This country needs a serious and humane immigration and refugee policy that is both enlightened and sustainable. We didn’t have it under Obama; we are unlikely to have it under Trump. Despite deporting hundreds of thousands of illegals, Obama never embraced the cause of defending America’s borders or regulating immigration in ways that clearly reassured marginalized American communities that the U.S. government was first and foremost committed to their welfare and to the defense of their way of life. And he never took responsibility for the ways in which his own repeated errors of judgment about the Middle East contributed to the mass refugee flows that he then tried to guilt-trip Americans into accommodating. Dumb cosmopolitanism leads to dumb nationalist reaction. The Obama years led to the Trump win—even as W’s years led to Obama.

Bad foreign policy, not bad immigration policy, was the primary American contribution to the global disasters of the 1940s, the Holocaust very much included. This is also true today, and the need for an enlightened but grounded nationalism, as opposed to unicorn-hunting cosmopolitanism and braggadocious jingoism, is as strong and as urgent as it has ever been—but appears as much out of reach as it was in the 1930s.

And so here we are: steering erratically into stormy waters, haunted by the cries of the refugees and the dispossessed, squabbling among ourselves as the clouds grow darker overhead. Not since the 1930s has the world, or American foreign policy, been in this much trouble. We are growing more angry and more bitter even as the need for clear thought and wise action grows.

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