Have you ever heard about the time in 1939 when the United States Coast Guard prevented a vessel of German Jews fleeing Nazi tyranny in 1939 from docking in Miami? Chances are that unless you were living at the time–or had an amazing history teacher/professor in high school–that you have not heard this tragic tale.
In June of 1939, the St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying 937 mostly Jewish passengers, was turned away from the port of Miami only days after being rebuffed by the Cuban government of Federico Bru. With no options available in the Western Hemisphere, the refugees were forced to return to Europe; 254 passengers were later murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps–while many others suffered as laborers within the same until the end of World War II.
(Jewish refugees on the St. Louis)
To understand why these Jewish refugees were rebuffed by American authorities, one must understand both the racist and anti-Semitic underpinnings of what was known as the Eugenics Movement.
At its core, the Eugenics movement maintained that Aryan and Northern European blood was considered superior to all others. This philosophy would serve as the bases of both the Immigration Act of 1924, and Nazi tyranny in the 1930s and 40s. Eugenics drew a wide array of adherents that included such luminaries as American Industrialist Henry Ford, bootlegger turned Ambassador Joe Kennedy Sr., President Warren G. Harding, and most notoriously, Adolf Hitler.
Throughout the mid and late 1930’s, Nazi repression of Jews was well documented but curiously, there was little outcry to protest this mistreatment in the mainstream American press. This extended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office shortly after Hitler in 1933 and was fully aware of Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Roosevelt and the State Department knew that Jewish businesses were being absorbed by the German government, that Jewish soldiers were being removed from service, and that Jewish owned homes were being foreclosed and sold off to loyal Nazis. These acts soon led to a wave of Jewish refugees seeking asylum in other parts of Europe and the United States.
Back in 1917, the U.S. Congress enacted a ban on allowing the immigration of persons who were “likely to become a public charge” or, simply stated, people who were likely to have to subsist off the public dole. This ban, coupled with the strict quotas soon enacted through the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, had a detrimental impact on Jewish immigrants circa 1939, particularly highly skilled Jewish artisans, professional doctors, lawyers and academics who were unlikely to find work during the Depression–thus forcing them to subsist off of the government.
In a sickening twist, the Roosevelt State Department further enacted a provision that required Jewish refugees who were fortunate to secure jobs in the United States to provide proof of good conduct from the German government, an almost quixotic task when considering that by the mid-1930’s, the Nazi controlled Gestapo police force largely refused to assist German born Jews. FDR’s insensitivity led then US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was Jewish, to write future Justice Felix Frankfurter that “F.D. [Franklin Delano] has shown amply that he has no anti-Semitism…But this action, or rather determination that there shall be none [i.e., no change in the immigration policy] is a disgrace to America and to F.D.s administration.”
By 1943, Hitler’s SS forces were murdering Jews, Roma and other non-Aryans at alarming rates. President Roosevelt reportedly was apprised of these murders as early as November of 1942 but despite this knowledge, did nothing to stymie the German military’s ability to transport Jews to known death camps like bombing railroads and supply routes to the camps. Even worse, Roosevelt, in a public address, outlined his fears that German Jewish refugees were “spies sent by the Nazi regime.” Roosevelt falsely proclaimed that: “Not all of them are voluntary spies…It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”
Earlier this year, historical journalist Erin Blakemore wrote that: “Though Roosevelt had considered a concerted push to rescue Jewish refugees the year before the St. Louis sailed, he eventually dropped the idea, both because he knew it would be politically unpopular and because of his increasing focus on the looming world war.”
Today, as we live in an era in which immigration reform has vexed the last two presidents, one in which the current occupant of the Oval Office, Donald Trump, won both the 2016 Republican nomination and the general election in part due to his oft crude, bigoted, and factually suspect demonization of Mexicans and Muslims, it is important to see that one of the most beloved presidents in American history–FDR–not only propagated fallacious statements and stereotypical tropes about Jewish asylum seekers, but also turned a blind eye that kept many of the same from avoiding death in Hitler’s concentration camps.
The aforementioned fact, when coupled with the shame that was the Roosevelt administration’s internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens from fear that they were Imperial Japanese sympathizers, reminds us that the notion of Christian white supremacist bigotry is not an anomaly. No, white supremacy as immigration policy is what America has always been–and remains–despite the rampant “we are a nation of immigrants” phrase that politicians and public figures use to inspire faux nationalistic pride.