When FDR Turned Away Refugees
Long before Trump exhorted us to fear the Syrians at our gates, American have gullibly gone along with leaders who exploit fears of alien enemies hidden among us.
A brutal foreign war displaces millions, many of them clamoring for refuge in America. In the midst of the crisis, an American presidential candidate warns the nation that it faces “new methods of attack. The Trojan Horse. The Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy.” That wasn’t Donald Trump’s latest verbal assault on Syria’s war refugees. Those words were spoken 75 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he moved towards a third term in office. Fears of a Trojan horse in the form of foreign refugees of war kept the nation from saving the lives of 190,000 innocent people.
One would hope that Americans might have learned to beware of those who ride the Trojan horse. Yet time and time again Americans fall for baseless fears of alien enemies trying to get through the nation’s gates.
In 1938, Texas Democratic representative Martin Dies Jr. created and chaired the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate what he in the title of a 1940 book termed The Trojan Horse in America. Unlike FDR, who warned of a menace within brought by German and Italian refugees and Nazi sympathizers plotting a fascist takeover, Dies focused his investigations on communists and labor union members. He claimed the “subversive element” in that Trojan horse numbered some 7 million of the 130 million Americans at the time. They were in Hollywood and in the government; they were teachers, unionized workers, authors, and journalists. They sat in FDR’s cabinet and had burrowed into the minds of America’s youth. Dies even labeled “America’s darling,” the 11-year-old Shirley Temple, a subversive.
Never one to be outdone in his pursuit of Trojan horses, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover became so apoplectic in warning about the threat of the Red menace that he couldn’t keep his metaphors from colliding like bumper cars at an amusement park in a 1950 interview. “The Communist Party,” he intoned, “is today a Trojan horse of disloyalty, coiled like a serpent in the very heart of America.” I’m not quite sure what he meant, but the commies were surely ready to pounce upon an unsuspecting nation.
Today, Donald Trump exploits similar fears of the Trojan horse, this time in the form of Syrian refugees. “This could be like a Trojan horse,” he claimed. “I mean, this could be a Trojan horse in a sense: 200,000 people coming into the United States, and let’s say a lot of them would be ISIS. And they come in here and we’re totally unprepared for it.” Are many of them committing to attacking us? Are we totally unprepared? It’s not just like those bad ass Trojan horses of yore, he claims, but “It could be one of the great Trojan horses of all time.” Are we destined to be another Troy?
Since the mythical fall of Troy 3,500 years ago, the Trojan horse—the stealthy enemy who brings down society from inside its very walls—has served as a foundational and fundamental Western myth of fear and warning, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, the Sirens’ song tempting sailors to their doom, Icarus flying too close to the sun, and Judas turning on Jesus. The Trojan horse seems unique, though, in its cautionary tale about civilization falling prey in its entirety to an enemy lurking within its borders. Bearing false gifts, the tricky ancient Greeks rolled a giant wooden horse with warriors hidden inside to the gates of Troy. The unsuspecting Trojans dragged it into their city which the Greeks promptly sacked.
Fear of the Trojan horse feeds on base fears of the other we all harbor. Americans have shown themselves all-too-ready to succumb to such panic.
During World War II, fanned by Roosevelt’s attempts to arouse his isolationist people to fight the Germans in Europe, fear of a potential Trojan horse gripped the nation. In January 1939 when Germany had already deprived its Jews of all rights, two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion said they would not take in 10,000 German Jewish refugee children. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military, with FDR’s consent, interned some 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent, as well as thousands of German and Italian immigrants, most for the duration of the war. And, much like the calls against permitting immigration by Syrian war refugees today, the U.S. sealed its ports and borders to virtually all of Europe’s desperate peoples fleeing certain death at home.
Keeping immigrants out was in fact quite easy at the time. During an earlier period of Red scares, bigotry and Trojan horse fears of immigrants bringing communistic and other unwelcome ideas with them, the 1924 Immigration Act set national levels for immigrants at 2 percent of the numbers at which foreign nations sent would-be citizens to the U.S. in 1890. Those limits were deliberately based on levels before the turn-of-the-century’s massive wave of migrants arriving primarily from Central Europe.
After that, U.S. law permitted just 25,957 German citizens and 6,542 Poles to enter annually. Even then, during the war years when Germany expelled, imprisoned, or murdered its Jews and stalked the Jews of Poland and beyond, far fewer were actually admitted. U.S. State Department officials went out of their way to find grounds to reject applicants. State Department official George Warren admitted, in May 1942, that the immigration system was “one of incredible obstruction to any possible securing of a visa.” FDR’s personal friend, S.R. Breckinridge Long, long time diplomat and powerful assistant secretary of state during the war, called for consuls “to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” Ninety percent of the quotas for nations occupied by the Nazis were never filled. Almost 190,000 more lives could have been saved even under the existing immigration restrictions.
Virtually every Jewish family originating in Europe and living in America today shares two kinds of family stories: those who survived by making tortuous and dangerous refugee journeys and those who did not. Thanks to the 1974 book and 1976 movie, The Voyage of the Damned of the German ocean liner MS St. Louis has become well known. The ship sailed in May 1939 from Hamburg to Havana carrying 937 German-Jewish passengers. They were turned away in Cuba, then the United States, and finally Canada before returning to Western Europe. At least 250 of the St. Louis passengers died during the Holocaust.
Countless such stories of refugees seeking American asylum during the war being turned away can be told. A cousin of mine by marriage was one and a half years old in September 1939 when German bombs began to fall on his Polish family’s home in Warsaw. They fled east to Lithuania, carrying only what they could fit in their suitcases. Fearful of what might befall them, they sewed up family jewelry in their infant son’s teddy bear, drawing pieces out to pay for shelter, buy food, purchase transport, and bribe officials as they went. With the dismemberment of Poland by the Soviet Union and Germany, they became stateless, much like today’s Syrians. When the Russians moved to seize Lithuania, they went to Stockholm where they remained for six months. Increasingly cozy relations between Sweden and Nazi Germany set them back into flight for safety.
They cashed in more jewels and traveled through the Soviet Union. They reached Japan in March 1941. From there they eventually sailed on the last commercial passenger ship to San Francisco where they were permitted to stay for just 30 days. They beseeched U.S. immigration officials for permission to remain—and even had family living in the U.S. willing to sponsor them. The State Department refused to grant them visas. After their 30 days were up, they went to Mexico City where the Polish government-in-exile arranged a nonpaying job that enabled them to get Mexican visas. The family remained there until finally, more than four years after fleeing Warsaw, they were granted U.S. visas.
Almost half of their family—together with most European Jews—was far less fortunate. They never got out and perished in the fighting or in the Holocaust.
History has not been kind to the many politicians, public officials, commentators, anti-immigrant organizations, and others who have in the past fanned fears of Trojan horses. When Trump warns of Trojan horses and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joins that fear-mongering chorus by declaring he wouldn’t let even a single Syrian refugee orphan under five into the country, they are just the latest in a long line of shamelessly vicious demagogues and bigots deploying the same Trojan horse fears that have beset American minds time and again. Today’s Syrian child was yesterday’s union organizer, Jew, and Japanese.
What will future Americans say about a nation that once again rides the Trojan horse while desperate refugees wander or perish? Americans should step off their high Trojan horse once and for all.