Wade spends less than two pages making these point, and I hate to focus an entire article criticizing this small part of an otherwise-excellent book. But I hear this myth so often that I want to take this opportunity to debunk it.
Wade writes that “The intent and effect of the law was to increase immigration from Nordic countries and restrict people from southern and eastern Europe, including Jews fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia,” and that “When Jews in increasing numbers tried to flee German after 1936, U.S. Consuls refused to grant visas to them.”
The 1924 Immigration Act enacted a quota system based on the national origins of the 1890 (and later 1920) American population. Wade correctly notes that this restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, including by the Jews who lived there. But note that, while some of the legislation’s supporters endorsed “Nordicism”—the law itself did not impose any racial or religious restrictions on immigration.
Thus connecting the 1924 cutoff to Jews fleeing Germany is a non-sequitur. In fact, Germany had the largest quota of any country after the 1924 Immigration Act. Jews from Germany were not categorically barred. Indeed, according to the US Holocaust Museum, “thousands of Jews had been admitted into the United States under the combined German-Austrian quota from 1938–1941.” [United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1941–1952 ] Immigration was reduced across the board during the 1930s, but this was due to economic concerns—the quaint idea that immigration should not continue at a time of high unemployment—and Germany still had the largest quota.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that allowing more Jews who lived in Nazi occupied Europe entrance to the United States would have saved many lives. But once America became aware of that the Nazis were engaged in the systematic slaughter of the Jews, it created War Refugee Board with the assistance of Jewish organizations, specifically to help facilitate Jewish refugees. Unfortunately, by this point, the Nazis had switched from encouraging emigration to preventing it. And as America was in the middle of a war with Germany, it was difficult to do much more.
Nazi Germany was undoubtedly an unpleasant place for Jews to live in the 1930s, but it was not then apparent that fleeing to the United States was their only choice to avoid genocide. At that time, Nazis had not taken over any territory beyond Austria and the Sudetenland. They were encouraging emigration of Jews. From 1933 through 1939, the Nazi government cooperated with the British and Jewish organizations to facilitate emigration of Jews to Palestine under the Haavara Agreement.
The Nazis did not finally formalize their decision to exterminate European Jews until the Wannsee Conference in 1942. By this point, America was at war with Nazi Germany and had a very legitimate concern that some of the refugees might actually be Nazi spies or saboteurs.
The most famous case of US consuls turning away Jews: the S.S. St. Louis, which departed from Hamburg in May of 1939. The Jewish passengers attempted to find refuge in Cuba, then the United States and in Canada, but were turned away from each.(This was the subject of the book and movie Voyage of the Damned in the 1970s.) They were turned away from the U.S. because Germany’s quota was filled. The consulate was willing to let them after the spots opened.
Turning away the passengers of the St Louis certainly had tragic consequences. However, contrary to popular belief, the refugees were not sent back to ghettos or concentration camps. They returned to Europe, but not to Germany or to any country with an anti-Semitic government.
The Jewish passengers of the St. Louis settled in Belgium, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, and France—none of which had anti-Semitic governments at the time. But, sadly, all of these countries except for the United Kingdom ended up under Nazi control and approximately 250 of the 990 Jews who aboard the St. Louis died during World War II.
While I do not want to minimize the tragedy of those 250 deaths, at least 50 million people died during World War II, including over 20 million civilians, in addition to tens of millions who died due to wartime famine and disease.
With the benefit of hindsight, America could have probably saved the lives of more Jews by loosening its overall immigration policies. However, with hindsight, the Jews of Europe could also have immigrated to many other countries that did not end up under Nazi control. Moreover, to the extent that Jews were denied entry to the United States it was not due to the “Nordicism” of the 1924 Immigration Act or anti-Semitism among American officials—but due to legitimate concerns about national security and protecting American workers during the Depression.
America could not—and cannot—solve the world’s problems by Inviting The World.
Charles Bloch (email him) considers himself an unhyphenated American.