Sol Messinger was just 7 when he stood with his father at the rail of the ocean liner St. Louis and stared into the gathering darkness. But nearly eight decades later, Messinger still recalls the lights of Miami glittering off the bow, so near to him and more than 900 fellow Jewish refugees aboard, yet beyond their reach.
“I look out into the ocean and I get this queasy feeling,” says Messinger, whose family escaped Europe for the United States three years after American officials turned away the vessel in 1939. Now 83, he is a pathologist in Buffalo, New York. “The Jews did not pose any threat to the U.S. It’s really unforgivable.”
Now, fresh angst about whether to admit refugees or turn them away has put the spotlight back on the shunning of the St. Louis and other decisions, now widely regretted, by U.S. officials before and during World War II.
In the wake of Islamic State terrorists killing 130 people in Paris, a backlash against the United States admitting Syrian refugees — many of them Muslims — has fueled a bitter debate, with politicians, pundits and others drawing lines between present and past.
Similarities between the rhetoric of today and the attitudes of the U.S. public and officials during World War II make that history worth recalling, scholars say, as the country confronts new fears of terrorism.
“No historical parallel is perfect, obviously,” says Allan Lichtman, co-author of FDR and the Jews and a professor of history at American University.
But U.S. limits on refugees during World War II, influenced by anti-Semitism, were fed by fears the Nazis “would plant agents, spies and saboteurs among the Jewish refugees and that they would pressure the Jews, particularly those whose families were still in Germany, to act as agents on behalf of the Third Reich,” Lichtman said. “Those arguments are chillingly similar to the arguments being made against the admission of the Syrian refugees.”
The 1930s saw widespread disdain for Jewish people from Europe. Opposition to admitting refugees was heightened by the economic worries left by the Great Depression. Those public attitudes were reinforced by the U.S. State Department and other agencies, which worked to limit an influx of Jewish people whom FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover labeled as potential infiltrators, he said.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered relaxation of refugee quotas, Vice President John Nance Garner counseled that if Congress were allowed to vote in private, the lawmakers would ban immigration altogether, Lichtman said.
Lichtman isn’t alone in making the comparison. Recently, Ohio professor Peter Shulman of Case Western Reserve University used Twitter to post results from a 1938 public opinion poll showing Americans overwhelmingly rejected admission of Jewish people from Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of war.
The reaction “was instantaneous and totally overwhelming. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” said Shulman.
New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, criticizing a number of Republican governors — including Scott Walker of Wisconsin — for opposing admission of Syrian refugees, cited the 1938 poll, which said 67.4 percent of Americans said the U.S. should try to keep German and Austrian refugees out of the country and 61 percent opposed allowing 10,000 German Jewish children to enter.
“We are not going to make that mistake in our time and voices of intolerance and voices of division are not going to cause us to do something that is against our values,” DeBlasio said.
“When we sent Jews back to Germany and when we sent Japanese to internment camps, we regretted it and we will regret this as well,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said before 47 House Democrats and 242 Republicans voted for a bill to put new security limits on a plan by President Barack Obama to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
Responding to the vote, Karin Johanson, director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s D.C. legislative office, said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., “and this un-American bill’s supporters falsely claim it will simply pause U.S. resettlement of refugees. In fact, it will bring resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to a grinding halt by adding layers of bureaucracy to an already rigorous process. It also discriminates against refugees based on their national origin, nationality and religion. Supporters of this bill want us to turn our backs on refugees who are seeking safe harbor from the very terrorism we all abhor. This is not leadership.”
There is a long pattern in U.S. politics of labeling refugees as a threat, whether those fleeing the Nazis, refugees of the Hungarian Revolution or boat people uprooted by the Vietnam War, said Kelly Greenhill, author of Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion and Foreign Policy.
“Every time this country is confronted with .… a visible influx of people, the issue becomes politicized,” said Greenhill, a professor of political science at Tufts University and a research fellow at Harvard University’s school of government. “This is a movie we’ve seen before and it’s sort of unfortunate, but it has a curious sameness across time, which doesn’t make it better.”
In the years since World War II, the U.S. has become the world’s largest recipient of international refugees.
But of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, just three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. Only one of those, an Uzbeki immigrant, spoke of targeting the United States but had no specific plans, the institute said.
While taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees would be a significant increase from the roughly 2,000 admitted since the country’s civil war began in 2011, it is a fraction of those going to other countries. Up to 800,000 people are expected to seek asylum in Germany by the end of this year, according to MPI.