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The infamous Kristallnacht- or the night of the broken glass- on the 9th of November 1938 instigated the American public’s severe disapproval. They were appalled upon learning of the aggressive acts of targeted anti-Semitic vandalism and violence, and their reactions were united in their censure of these actions. The mainstream press acted upon the temperament of the public and vigorously reported their disapproval, and the mutual feeling of dissent was particularly evident in their editorials. Despite this broader public sentiment, Roosevelt was hesitant to offer his comment. He was wary of making any hasty and ill-informed statements or decisions, particularly aware that though there was a strong sentiment of condemnation at the time, Americans were just as stringent in their refusal of easing immigration restrictions and did not desire for their country to be involved in the European disturbances. Such a sentiment owed itself to the American policy of isolationism and neutrality; in fact, a Gallup poll conducted in 1939 revealed that Americans saw the maintenance of neutrality as the most pressing challenge of the time, thereby blatantly expressing their relative unconcern with the Jewish victims’ and immigrants’ fates. In this light, Roosevelt did not make any drastic alterations to the foreign policy either.

The Wagner-Rogers bill

One of the central arguments for relieving the press of the blame for the government’s inaction comes about the Wagner-Rogers Bill of 1939. This legislation called for the admittance of around 20,000 child immigrants to America. The press was extremely vocal in its support of this measure and openly sought its passing. Even former President Herbert Hoover, who had been skeptical of immigrants in the aftermath of the First World War, endorsed the bill and his words resounded through the front pages of a myriad of publications, including the New York Times. Numerous editorials reflected the public’s sympathies for the children’s plight and were confident that the bill would receive majority support. However, irrespective of the press’s lobbying, after a four-day session the committee failed to pass the bill towards a Congressional vote.

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Despite being in the midst of a largely supportive environment, the few stringent skeptic individuals and organizations- such as the American Legion, the Daughters of the American Revolution, etc.- came together and made their case in speaking of the domestic sufferings of the children within America. Though the basis for their claims hasn’t been explored in depth so far, one may speculate that they feared the competition that the American youth would face in terms of access to educational and job opportunities. Another reason cited in opposition went beyond the realms of irrationality in stating that the bill was flawed and held loopholes that would allow Aryan Germans to be shipped to America, and consequently tear German families apart against their will. Moreover, the opponents drew on Roosevelt’s words in speaking of how “charity must begin at home”. Here, one should also note that despite the resounding press support, Roosevelt once again failed to openly take a stance on the matter, and inquiries made regarding the same were filed under “No Action FDR”. On the contrary, an unashamedly anti-Semitic declaration came from the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, who went so far as to state that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults”. What becomes increasingly disheartening is the realization that only a year from that time the American government modified its immigration quotas to admit child evacuees from Britain, therein exposing its explicitly discriminatory leanings. The aforementioned facts should ideally leave no room for doubt in assessing the failure of the American government as independent of the press reportage of the time. One must recognize the government’s stringent resolve to remain selectively isolated from the rest of the world, even in light of such severely tragic moral and ethical implications. The benevolent stand taken by the press was insufficient in combatting pre-existing fears, opinions, and prejudices. (this ties in with the papers burying the Holocaust news within the folds- cuz other issues took up more domestic importance)

Sentiments during the war and the surfacing of voices advocating immigration

Beliefs in German Espionage As briefly mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, in the wake of the Second World War in 1939, there was a resounding fear regarding the possibility of German spies being implanted within the American population. The underlying basis for this notion lay in the memory of German espionage during the First World War and the press reports from the 1938 Rumrich trial, which had exposed a persisting network of Nazi spies and secret agents who were organized into well-connected groups across America’s landmass. Such fears heightened further with the increased activities of the pro-Nazi organizations such as the German-American Bund, who under the leadership of German immigrant Fritz Kuhn had adopted uniforms, symbols, and mannerisms identical to those of the Nazis, and openly claimed to take their orders from Hitler directly. Though scholars have accused the press of sensationalizing such stories and creating mass hysteria, research indicates that the American government, in its attempt to maintain caps on the immigration quotas also endorsed the same belief. The Assistant Secretary of the State Breckenridge Long was of the view that German spies were entering the country in the guise of refugees. Similarly, the President chose to pay significant heed to these claims and publicly expressed his intent for a stronger espionage force. As a result, in 1939-1940, Americans came to attribute the Nazi invasion of France, Scandinavia, and Poland to the espionage of the German sympathizers and spies, who they believed were stationed across the Allied nations. Thereafter, they increasingly resonated with Long’s views, and their already tainted attitudes towards immigrants now also became plagued with strong suspicions. Though these rapidly multiplying suspicions came to influence the reporting of the press to an extent, one must note that this was also in the light of the government instruments and spokespersons advocating the same views. In 1940, the Ambassador to France gave the following statement to the New York Times, “The French had been more hospitable than are even we Americans to refugees from Germany. More than one-half of the spies captured doing actual military spy work against the French army were refugees from Germany. Do you believe that there are no Nazi and Communist agents of this sort in America?” Yet another rigorous propagator of espionage and fifth column fears included the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who appealed to the masses to report any suspicious activities to the authorities.

Roosevelt further ignited the prevalent fears by addressing the spies as “aliens” and openly perceiving their activities as a threat to national security. On the 20th of May 1940, he called for Congress to shift the Immigration and Naturalization Service from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice. Stringent actions on the State’s part only reinforced the mass hysteria and proved to be increasingly disadvantageous to the incoming immigrants, especially since the Department of Justice had its hands full in the pre-war period and owing to their lack of expertise in employment or labor market issues, immigrants’ concerns took a back seat. Notably, a similar apprehension had arisen regarding the possibility of the dissemination of Communism within America. In addition to their anti-Semite policies, news of the Nazi’s hatred for the Communists had reached the American populace, and owing to Long’s publicly declared assumption of a possible link between Communism and Jewish internationalism, they began fearing the assimilation of Communists within the incoming refugees. One may infer that these fears were rooted in the memory of the Red Scare from the post-World War One period. These misgivings would be fueled further in 1941, with the Nazi initiation of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, wherein death squads specifically targeted Soviet Russia’s Bolsheviks. In 1941 the State Department- under Long’s influence- gave an anti-refugee ruling wherein any refugee with relatives in the German-occupied territories was barred entry into the United States.

The State Department specified that this was in response to the investigations of the ‘House Un-American Activities Committee’ which claimed to have found that any prisoners released from the concentration camps in Germany were made to pledge their allegiance to the service of the Nazi Gestapo. However, despite the prevailing anxieties, this ruling was on the receiving end of backlash from numerous segments of the press for its ambiguity and the lack of evidence made available to support their claims. And though at the time it was instrumental in asserting the public’s fears, later in 1943 the State Department would be implicated in a series of immigration and Holocaust-related cover-ups, further dissolving the authenticity of their claims. Bermuda Conference Before 1941, though there were numerous instances of witnessed killings of the Jews, the Nazi persecution hadn’t involved the large-scale extermination of the Jewish civilian masses systematically. The infamous ‘Final Solution’ was initiated in 1941. Though in its early stages, the killings were enabled through the use of ‘mobile killing units’, these soon progressed to the stage of ‘death trains’ which carried Jews to the dreadful extermination and concentration camps. However, owing to the deceptive and secretive measures taken by the Nazis to conceal their actions, as well as the logistic issues and ambiguities inherent to wartime, it wasn’t until 1942 that the Americans came to be aware of the repugnant Nazi atrocities. Needless to say, on receiving official confirmation of these barbaric events, the American public’s reaction was one of shock and absolute horror. The American Jewish committees’ and Jewish sympathizers’ rallies and protests took on an extreme vigor, and the pressure on the American government to reprimand the German state and sanction aid for the Jewish victims multiplied manifold. Finally, in 1943 the United States of America and the United Kingdom decided to hold a bilateral conference to discuss the possibilities of aid and laxer immigration measures. Or so they claimed.

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