Beginning in 1938, Europe and the United States faced a refugee crisis. Nazi Germany’s territorial expansion and the radicalization of Nazi anti-Jewish policies triggered a mass exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Jews sought to flee from under Nazi control. 

The American government took limited action to assist these Jewish refugees. Rather than focusing on the growing humanitarian crisis, the Roosevelt administration prioritized supporting the Allies and preparing the United States for war.

Nazi Territorial Expansion and the Start of the Jewish Refugee Crisis

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed the neighboring country of Austria, an event known as the Anschluss. The Anschluss led to a wave of antisemitic violence against Austria’s Jewish population, especially in the capital city of Vienna. Many Austrian Jews immediately sought to flee the country. In order to avoid falling into Nazi hands, some raced for the borders without visas or any long-term plans. Others took more formal steps to immigrate to other countries. They lined up at various consulates throughout Vienna to apply for immigration. At the US consulate, tens of thousands of Austrian Jews applied for immigration visas to the United States.

The Austrian immigration quota to the United States was very small. At the urging of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt combined the US immigration quotas for Germany and Austria to give greater immigration opportunities to Austrian Jews. The State Department could then issue a maximum of 27,370 visas per year for immigrants born in those countries. By June 30, 1938, however, nearly 140,000 people were on the German quota waiting list for US immigration visas.

Recognizing that the plight of Jews under German control had reached a point of crisis, Roosevelt called for an international conference to discuss the refugee problem. Delegates from 32 nations met in Evian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938, but most countries, including the United States, refused to expand their laws to admit more immigrants. Even as the conference was going on, the American press criticized the participants at Evian for their inaction. Time magazine summarized the stance of participating countries as follows: “All nations present expressed sympathy for the refugees but few offered to allow them within their boundaries.”

By September, the waiting list for a German quota visa had reached 220,000 people. Even if the State Department issued the maximum number of visas it could have under the existing laws each year, new German- and Austrian-born applicants could anticipate at least a nine-year wait for a US immigration visa.

The Anschluss, however, was only the beginning of Nazi Germany’s territorial expansion and the resulting refugee crisis. Later that year, Hitler threatened to unleash a European war unless the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany. In September 1938, the leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany met in Munich, and reached a deal that allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler’s guarantee that he would seek no further territorial gains in Europe. Nazi Germany soon violated that promise and occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. 

Germany’s aggressive takeover of additional territory in Europe worsened the refugee crisis. Jews residing outside those areas under direct German control worried that their safety might not be guaranteed in the future. The waiting lists for US immigration visas continued to grow.

Kristallnacht Intensifies the Refugee Crisis 

On the night of November 910, 1938, Nazi party leaders unleashed a wave of antisemitic violence across Germany and its newly annexed territories, an event known as Kristallnacht. Storm troopers (SA) and Hitler Youth members burned hundreds of synagogues, ransacked thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, and the German police arrested nearly 30,000 Jewish men and boys, sending them to concentration camps. Though German newspapers reported that the violence had been spontaneous, the American diplomatic corps in Berlin immediately reported to colleagues in Washington, DC, that the attacks were clearly part of a “prearranged plan.”

In the United States, the Kristallnacht attacks were front-page news nationwide for several weeks. At his November 15 press conference, President Roosevelt said that the attack had “deeply shocked” the American public, and announced that he was ordering the US ambassador in Germany to return home. The United States was the only nation to take this diplomatic response, and it would not have an ambassador in Germany again until after World War II ended in 1945.

Despite the growing refugee crisis, Roosevelt did not ask the US Congress to reconsider the quota system that limited immigration. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, however, persuaded Roosevelt to allow approximately 12,000 people who were born in Germany and who were in the United States on temporary visitors’ visas, to remain in the country indefinitely. Most of these people were Jews. President Roosevelt told reporters, “I cannot, in any decent humanity, throw them out.”

The refugee crisis intensified further after Kristallnacht, and the US visa waiting lists at consulates across Europe became even longer.

Immigrating to the United States: A Difficult Process 

Between 1939 and 1941, more than 300,000 people born in Germany joined waiting lists for immigration visas to the United States. Most of these people were Jews. In 1939, for the first time since the Nazis rose to power, the State Department issued the maximum number of visas legally allowed under the German quota. At US embassies and consulates throughout Europe, waiting lists for US visas also grew and wait times were estimated to be years-long.

Most potential immigrants to the United States had to collect many different documents in order to obtain a US immigration visa to leave Germany, as well as to travel to a port of departure within Europe. They could use their time on the waiting list to gather all the necessary documents needed to obtain a visa, which included identity paperwork, police certificates, exit and transit permissions, a financial affidavit, and others. These documents could be expensive and had to be obtained in a particular order. Many of these papers—including the visa itself—had expiration dates. Potential immigrants to the United States also had to find an American sponsor who had sufficient financial resources and would guarantee that the newly arrived immigrant would not become a public charge (i.e., a financial burden on the government). The potential immigrants also had to secure a valid ticket on a transatlantic ship. However, once World War II began, many passenger lines reduced the number of vessels crossing the ocean or even stopped traveling entirely, making it more difficult and expensive for refugees to find berths.

The Wagner-Rogers Bill

In February 1939, Democratic senator Robert Wagner (NY) and Republican congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers (MA) introduced legislation in Congress to admit 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 to the United States outside of the immigration quotas. Although Jewish children were to be the main beneficiaries, the bill’s supporters publicly spoke of assisting refugee children of all faiths. Eleanor Roosevelt lent her support to the bill, the first time she publicly endorsed a piece of pending legislation as First Lady. Public opinion polls on this proposal, however, revealed that Americans did not support the idea, and opponents argued that the bill would take resources, and eventually jobs, from American children. Congress never voted on the Wagner-Rogers Bill.  

The St. Louis

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. The majority of the 937 passengers were Jewish, and most planned to stay in Cuba only until their turn came up on the waiting list for a US immigration visa. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana, the passengers learned that the landing certificates they had purchased were invalid. The Cuban government refused to allow the refugees to disembark and, after nearly a week of negotiations, it forced the ship to leave Cuban waters. The St. Louis sailed towards Miami, as the passengers sent pleading telegrams to loved ones and public officials in the United States.  

The St. Louis became the subject of many articles, editorial cartoons, and opinion columns in the United States. Since the German quota had already been filled, Congress would have to pass a new law or Roosevelt would have to issue a presidential order in order for the passengers to be admitted. Polls showed that the American public was not generally supportive of any changes to existing immigration quotas. In a January 1939 poll, only five months before the St. Louis sailed, 83% of Americans had opposed accepting additional European refugees. And although newspaper coverage generally sympathized with the plight of the passengers, few editorials or letters to the editor advocated admitting the St. Louis passengers to the United States.

After Cuba finally refused to allow the passengers to disembark and the United States (and other Western Hemisphere nations) did not offer to take the passengers, the ship returned to Europe. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) worked with the State Department, ultimately convincing four countries—Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium—to admit the passengers. The following year, however, many of the refugees from the St. Louis found themselves once again living under Nazi control when Germany invaded multiple Western Europe nations in May 1940. Approximately 254 of the St. Louis passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.

The St. Louis was not the only ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean carrying Jewish refugees during the refugee crisis. More than 1,200 ships carrying nearly 111,000 Jewish refugees arrived in New York between March 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, and October 1941, when Germany banned emigration of Jews. As these passengers held US visas, they were admitted into the United States as new immigrants.

The Outbreak of War and National Security Concerns

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3. Many Americans had been anticipating the outbreak of war in Europe, but the overwhelming majority wanted to remain neutral rather than see the United States become involved in the war. In a fireside chat on September 3, President Roosevelt reassured Americans listening to their radios: “This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well.”

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and northern France. Many Americans believed that Germany was able to defeat these countries so quickly because of a “fifth column” of spies and saboteurs working on behalf of the Nazis to bring the countries down from within. In June 1940, seventy-one percent of Americans thought Germany had already started to organize a fifth column in the United States. Roosevelt warned that even Jewish refugees could become a threat, aiding Nazi Germany in exchange for the lives of loved ones held hostage in Europe. The FBI warned Americans to be on guard. Neither the president nor the FBI were able to provide any specific examples of Jewish refugees committing acts of espionage or sabotage.

The State Department instituted additional restrictions on immigration in 1941, citing national security concerns. Among these restrictions was the announcement that any refugee with close family still in enemy territory would be ineligible for a US immigration visa. American consulates closed in Nazi-occupied territory in July 1941, cutting off many applicants from the US diplomats issuing visas. At the same time, the State Department announced that all visa applicants had to be approved by an interdepartmental visa review committee in Washington, DC. This decision further delayed the departure of those refugees who had managed to make it to southern France or Lisbon, Portugal, the only places in Europe from which they could still escape.

Private Rescue Networks in the United States

As applicants sought US immigration visas, Jewish and non-Jewish private relief agencies, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the National Refugee Service, the Emergency Rescue Committee, the JDC, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the Unitarian Service Committee, and others formed networks of rescue to aid as many refugees as possible. Many of the non-Jewish agencies were funded through Jewish philanthropy.  

These organizations helped refugees navigate the US immigration system, explained the required paperwork, located potential financial sponsors, purchased ship tickets, and, for those fortunate enough to enter the United States, assisted with Americanization, employment, and housing. They also provided food, clothing, and medicine for those still in Europe. Some relief workers even worked directly in French internment camps.

These relief agencies and the individuals who worked for them operated under tremendous strain. Often, their work involved significant risk. Some of the organizations worked strenuously in public and private to raise money and provide assistance for refugees. Others advocated within the existing government bureaucracy to keep the country’s doors open in the face of public antagonism towards immigrants.

Debates over Intervention

The United States remained neutral during the first two years of World War II, from September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, to December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Though the majority of Americans continued to oppose intervention in the war, Roosevelt and Congress increasingly began to prepare the country for war.  

In September 1940, as President Roosevelt campaigned for an unprecedented third term as president, Congress passed and Roosevelt signed into law the first peacetime draft in American history. Roosevelt increased both monetary and military aid to Great Britain, eventually extending material aid to Allied nations through the Lend-Lease Act, passed in March 1941. Lobbying organizations formed within the United States to argue either for proactive intervention or against involvement in the war.

That same month, a group of college students at Yale founded the America First Committee (AFC) which rallied Americans against the war. The AFC, with some 800,000 members and at least 450 local chapters, encouraged civic engagement, such as letter-writing campaigns to elected officials, and sponsored rallies and speeches throughout the country. In the fall of 1941, one of the AFC’s main spokesmen, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, gave a speech blaming Jews and the Roosevelt administration for drawing the country closer to war. Critics claimed Lindbergh’s remarks promoted antisemitism, intolerance, and even bolstered claims made by Nazi propagandists.

In contrast, the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA) ultimately boasted 750 local chapters and an estimated membership of 750,000. The CDAAA staged rallies and performances, took out full-page newspaper ads, and handed out flyers in an effort to gain support for aiding Great Britain.

Though both organizations were very active in 1940–1941, US governmental support for aiding Great Britain (and the Soviet Union, after Germany attacked it in June 1941) placed the AFC on the defensive, and the group disbanded almost immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise aerial assault on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan but not on Germany. Three days later, on December 11, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. As a result, President Roosevelt was able to portray war against both Japan and Germany as defensive measures against Axis powers who were first to declare war on the United States.

As soon as the United States entered World War II, the vast majority of Americans rallied to defeat the Axis powers. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt told the American people:

"We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman, and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.”