Nazi Germany’s persecution of Europe’s Jews was not a secret in the United States. Though some Americans protested Nazism, the US response during these early years was limited, in large part because Americans were suffering through the Great Depression and did not want to become entangled in an international conflict in the aftermath of World War I.
From 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, American newspapers nationwide reported on Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews. Some Americans called attention to these persecutions with rallies, marches, petitions to the government, and an economic boycott, but their actions did not lead to a sustained nationwide protest movement.
Immigration to the United States was limited during the early years of Nazism. Racism and xenophobia were pervasive among Americans.
The Great Depression caused devastating economic turmoil, leading many Americans to fear that new immigrants might compete for scarce employment opportunities.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Immediately, newspapers in the United States printed articles speculating about how the Nazi Party’s antisemitic politics might transform Germany. Some journalists wondered whether power would tame Hitler’s bold and undemocratic pronouncements. Others worried that Jewish fears were justified; the Boston Globe, for example, reported on February 1 that the Nazis were already warning that “Jews who got out early would be wise.”1
In the spring of 1933, Nazi attacks on German Jews increased. Dozens of American journalists stationed in Nazi Germany submitted reports to US newspapers nationwide about what they witnessed. Americans could read about the April 1st boycott of Jewish businesses, the April 7th “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” removing Jews from public employment, and the May 10th book burnings on the front pages of their newspapers, as well as see photographs of these events in popular American magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and others. Journalists also reported that Americans were being attacked by Nazi storm troopers (Sturmabteilung, or SA) or by pro-Nazi crowds on the streets of Germany for laughing at an anti-Nazi joke, refusing to salute the Nazi flag, or just because the attackers thought the victim looked Jewish. US State Department diplomats protested some of the three dozen attacks on Americans in Germany in 1933, but did not issue a formal protest against the Nazi treatment of Germany’s Jews.
In response to these news reports, American Jewish organizations and labor unions drew tens of thousands of participants at protest rallies and marches in major US cities intended to draw attention to the Nazi treatment of Jews. More than five hundred organizations—Jewish and non-Jewish—from across the United States sent petitions to government officials demanding an official response to Nazi antisemitic actions. The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America organization and the American League for the Defense of Jewish Rights (which soon became the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League) advocated boycotting German-made goods and the US stores that carried them. Some Jewish organizations, which likewise opposed Nazism, argued against holding these rallies and boycotts, claiming that the Nazi regime might retaliate even more violently against Jews in Germany. These groups also worried that such public protests might contribute to widespread antisemitic stereotypes that grossly exaggerated Jewish influence in the United States.
As Americans read these press reports, the United States had been suffering through the effects of the Great Depression for nearly four years. Some twenty-five percent of workers were unemployed. The new US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, inaugurated on March 4, 1933, promised the country a “New Deal” and immediately embarked upon an ambitious agenda to repair the US economy. Many more Americans were focused on these serious domestic problems than on the persecution of a minority group thousands of miles away.
Immigration to the United States was controlled by Congress, which in 1924 had passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. The act set “national origins” quotas which privileged immigrants from northern and western Europe, who were believed to be able to assimilate more easily into the United States. After 1929, the act capped overall quota immigration at 153,879 people per year, and allocated 25,957 slots per year, the second highest quota of any country, to immigrants born in Germany.
At the beginning of the Great Depression in 1930, President Herbert Hoover issued instructions banning immigrants “likely to become a public charge,” meaning those who might not be able to financially support themselves. Immigration fell dramatically as a result of this “LPC” clause being strictly enforced. In 1933, only 8,220 quota immigrants arrived in the United States, a ninety-five percent decrease in immigration compared to the years prior to Hoover’s instruction. Although President Roosevelt liberalized Hoover’s instruction shortly after taking office, 83,013 prospective German immigrants were on the waiting list to enter the United States in June 1934. Most of them did not have the financial resources necessary to prove they would not become a “public charge,” but wanted to remain on the list in anticipation of the US economy recovering and the restrictions being lifted.
In 1933, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, whose department housed the Immigration and Naturalization Service, drafted orders to rescind Hoover’s instruction and give preference to people seeking to escape racial or religious persecution. The Labor Department also planned to allow Americans to place bonds demonstrating financial support for relatives seeking to immigrate, which would have exempted applicants from being rejected under the “LPC” clause. The State Department opposed Perkins’s efforts, however, citing the facts that unemployment was still high, that consular officers were sympathetic to Jews, and that the quotas were still unfilled. President Roosevelt did not intervene in the conflict, and none of Perkins’s proposals succeeded. Though 29,456 German-born immigrants entered the United States between 1933-1937, this number represents about 23% of the number of immigrants who could have legally arrived within the existing German quota.
International unrest in the 1930s—including Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Nazi Germany’s remilitarization and territorial seizures, and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War—tested the ability of the United States to remain isolated from affairs abroad. To ensure this commitment to isolationism, the US Congress passed a series of Neutrality Acts designed to prevent American involvement in these conflicts.
The Neutrality Act of 1935 prohibited exporting arms and ammunition to any foreign nation at war. Two years later, the Neutrality Act of 1937 reasserted the commitment to keep the United States out of war, but allowed the President to distinguish among nations at war when enforcing neutrality. The 1937 act permitted favored nations to purchase non-military products in the United States, provided they paid with cash and transported the goods on their own ships, an arrangement known as “cash and carry.”
Still, the vast majority of American people hoped that the United States would remain isolated from foreign conflicts. In 1937, 67% of Americans polled believed there would be another world war, and 73% agreed that a national vote should be required before the US could declare war.
In 1935, Americans debated whether to boycott the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin. Jeremiah Mahoney, the President of the Amateur Athletic Union, opposed US participation in the Games, claiming that it would “mean giving American moral and financial support to the Nazi regime, which is opposed to all that Americans hold dearest.” Avery Brundage, the chairman of the American Olympic Committee, went on a fact-finding tour of Germany, and was persuaded by the Nazis’ false assertions that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly. Brundage claimed that boycott advocates were injecting political concerns where they did not belong and implied that the boycott was a Jewish-led conspiracy of radicals and Communists.
African American athletes, including track-and-field star Jesse Owens, were pressured by both supporters and opponents of the boycott. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initially favored a boycott as a measure of solidarity with the persecuted German Jews, while others in the African American community saw potential Olympic victory as a way to disprove the Nazi regime’s claims to “Aryan” superiority.
Public opinion polls indicated that the American people were split on whether to boycott. In March 1935, fifty-seven percent of Americans said the United States should participate in the Games, while forty-three percent supported the protest. In a close vote in December, the Amateur Athletic Union voted to participate in the Olympics. Although eighteen African American athletes ultimately participated (and won fourteen medals) in Berlin, their victories did little to change racial prejudices in Germany or in the United States. The 1936 Olympics were also a public relations success for Hitler. Americans attending the Games were largely impressed by the Nazi regime, which temporarily hid the overt persecution of Jews, and newspapers predicted that Germany would now be "back in the fold of nations.”
A month after the closing ceremonies, prominent Nazi publisher Julius Streicher gave a speech to an international audience, explaining “to secure the safety of the whole world, they [i.e., the Jews] must be exterminated.” American newspapers reported on Streicher’s prediction, but with nearly seventeen percent of the US workforce unemployed, the statement did not garner the same protests, rallies, petitions, and marches in the US as the initial Nazi antisemitic attacks had three years earlier.
Boston Globe, “The Nazis and the Jews,” 1933 February 1, p. 14.