The United States and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-41

Between 1938 and 1941, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe, bringing millions of Jews under its control. The United States remained neutral during this period. Though many Americans were sympathetic to the plight of Europe’s Jews, the majority did not want to increase immigration, nor see the United States become involved in World War II.

Key Facts

  • 1

    After Germany annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, applied to immigrate to the United States. It became more difficult to secure a US immigration visa, due to America’s national security concerns, the difficulty of obtaining affidavits, and a finite number of visas and travel options.

  • 2

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt took significant but limited actions to aid Jewish refugees during this period, but he was most concerned with preparing the United States for war.

  • 3

    The American public placed little pressure on the president or on Congress to increase immigration to aid European Jews. Private relief organizations, however, assisted thousands of Jewish refugees.

Nazi Territorial Conquest

German troops entered Austria on March 12, 1938, and, with the enthusiastic support of most of the Austrian population, annexed the country the next day (an event known as the Anschluss).  Nazi leadership quickly implemented antisemitic laws against the 192,000 Austrian Jews. Tens of thousands of Austrian Jews lined up at the US consulate in Vienna to apply for immigration visas to the United States.  

At the urging of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, 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 German Jews 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, 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. As Time magazine concluded: “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 jumped to 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.

In September 1938, Hitler threatened to unleash a European war unless the Sudetenland, a border area of Czechoslovakia with a majority ethnic German population, was surrendered to Germany. The leaders of Britain, France, Italy, and Germany held a conference in Munich, Germany, on September 29-30, 1938, during which they agreed to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hitler.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, convinced the appeasement had averted a world war, declared that the agreement meant “peace for our time.” However, six months later, Hitler violated this “Munich agreement” and the German military occupied the Czech provinces of  Bohemia and Moravia. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist.

Kristallnacht

In the evening and early morning of November 9-10, 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—a public retaliation in response to the assassination of a minor German diplomat in Paris by a Jewish teenager—the American diplomatic corps in Berlin immediately reported to colleagues in Washington, DC, that the attacks were obviously part of a “prearranged plan.”

In the United States, the Kristallnacht attacks were front-page news nationwide for several weeks. At his November 15th press conference, President Franklin D. 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.  Roosevelt did not ask the US Congress to reconsider the quota system that limited immigration. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, however, persuaded him to allow approximately 12,000 Germans—most of whom were Jews—then in the United States on temporary visitors’ visas to remain in the country indefinitely. President Roosevelt told reporters, “I cannot, in any decent humanity, throw them out.”

Increased Immigration

The refugee crisis intensified after Kristallnacht. Between 1939 and 1941, more than 300,000 Germans—mostly Jews— remained on the waiting list for immigration visas to the United States.  For the first time during the period of Nazi rule, the State Department issued the maximum number of visas legally allowed under the German quota.  Other European countries had long waiting lists for US visas as well; the wait for a visa under the small Romanian quota (377), for instance, was forty-three years long. The majority of these applicants were Jewish.

Most potential immigrants to the United States had to collect many different documents in order to obtain an 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. Immigrants also had to find an American sponsor who had the financial resources to guarantee they would not become burden (or “public charge”) on the state, and a valid ship ticket. After World War II began, many passenger lines stopped entirely or at least reduced the number of vessels crossing the ocean, making it more difficult and expensive for refugees to find berths.

In February 1939, Democratic senator Robert Wagner (NY) and Republican congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers (MA) introduced legislation in Congress to admit 20,000 German children under the age of 14 to the United States outside of the immigration quotas.  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, carrying 937 passengers. The majority of passengers were Jewish, and they planned to stay in Cuba only until their turns 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 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. Since the German quota had already been filled, Congress would have had to pass a new law, or Roosevelt would have to issue a presidential order in order for the passengers to be admitted.  In a January 1939 poll, 83% of Americans 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.

After Cuba finally refused to allow the passengers to land 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. Many of the refugees, however, found themselves living under the dangers of Nazi occupation again 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 this period of 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.  As the passengers held US visas, they were admitted into the United States as new immigrants.

Outbreak of War

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, defeating the Polish Army within a few weeks. Great Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3, marking the official beginning of World War II. Many Americans had been anticipating world war, 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 on 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, and northern France. Many Americans believed that Germany defeated 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. (Historians now agree that Jewish refugees posed no security threat to the United States.) The FBI warned Americans to be on guard.

The State Department instituted additional restrictions on immigration in 1941, citing national security concerns. Among these 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 a interdepartmental visa review committee in Washington, DC. This decision lengthened the delays for refugees who had managed to make it to southern France or Lisbon, the only places in Europe from which they could still escape.

Networks of Rescue

As applicants sought US immigration visas, private relief agencies, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, 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. They 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. These agencies, both Jewish and non-Jewish (though many of the non-Jewish agencies were funded through Jewish philanthropy) 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.  Congress approved the first peacetime draft in American history, which passed just as Roosevelt began an unprecedented campaign for a third term as president. 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 either proactive intervention or against involvement in the war. In August 1940, a group of college students at Yale founded the America First Committee (AFC) which rallied Americans in an antiwar movement. 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.

The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (CDAAA), in contrast, 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 the June 1941 invasion of Russia) 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 more days passed before Nazi Germany declared war on the United States on December 11. President Roosevelt was able then to portray war against both Japan and Germany as defensive measures against Axis powers who declared war on the United States first.

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

"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.”

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Investigate American awareness of the events mentioned here. What pressures and motivations may have affected the responses of citizens? Of officials?
  • Why was there a sharp difference between American public dissatisfaction with Nazi policies and public willingness to help refugees and ease immigration quotas?
  • What obligations do nations have to refugees from other countries, in peace or in wartime?

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