When a Piece of Paper Meant Life or Death

June 8, 2015

3 min read

Rafael Medoff

“It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times,” journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote at the height of the 1930s European Jewish refugee crisis, “that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”

Seventy-five years ago this month, president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s newly appointed assistant secretary of state sent his colleagues a memo outlining a strategy to “postpone and postpone and postpone” the granting of that “piece of paper” to refugees. Breckinridge Long’s chilling memo, more than any other single document, has come to symbolize the abandonment of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Long, a personal friend of Roosevelt’s and a major donor to his first presidential campaign, was rewarded with the post of U.S. ambassador to Italy. Long’s dispatches to Washington from Rome in the early and mid 1930s praised the Mussolini regime for its “well-paved” streets, “dapper” black-shirted stormtroopers, and “punctual trains.” Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked to the president about Long, “Franklin, you know he’s a fascist”—to which an angry FDR replied, “I’ve told you, Eleanor, you must not say that.”

In early 1940, Roosevelt promoted Long to the position of assistant secretary of state, putting him in charge of 23 of the State Department’s 42 divisions, including the visa section.

Long joined a department that was well-schooled in suppressing immigration. From 1933-38—the first five years the Nazis were in power—the Roosevelt administration had gone out of its way to restrict Jewish immigration from Germany to levels far lower than what the law allowed. By adding extra requirements and layers of bureaucracy, the German quota of 25,957 was only 5 percent filled in 1933, and 14 percent filled in 1934. The only year that Roosevelt permitted the German quota to be filled was 1938-39, and only then because of tremendous international pressure, following the German annexation of Austria and the Kristallnacht pogrom.

By the time Long assumed his post at the State Department in early 1940, the old practice of actively suppressing immigration below the quota had returned. In addition to the administration’s general hostility toward immigration—especially Jewish immigration—there was now the added fear of Nazi spies reaching the U.S.

The quick collapse of France in the spring of 1940 triggered a wave of alarm in the U.S. about German “fifth columnists” undermining the U.S. from within. The press was filled with wild stories about Hitler planning to send “slave spies” to America. Attorney General Robert Jackson complained to the cabinet about “the hysteria that is sweeping the country against aliens and fifth columnists.”

But FDR himself was fanning the flames. In a series of remarks in May and June, he publicly warned about what he called “the treacherous use of the ‘fifth column’ by persons supposed to be peaceful visitors [but] actually a part of an enemy unit of occupation.”

The notion that German spies would reach America disguised as refugees was baseless. There was only one instance in which a Nazi successfully posed as a Jewish refugee in order to reach the Western hemisphere—and he was captured in Cuba and executed.

On June 26, 1940, assistant secretary Long composed a memo explaining to his colleagues how to keep out the Jews.

“We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States,” he wrote. “We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

Long’s plan was to use the “postpone and postpone” method as a temporary measure, until a way could be devised to make it permanent. And that’s exactly what happened.

Three days after Long’s memo, the State Department ordered U.S. consuls abroad to reject applications from anyone about whom they had “any doubt whatsoever.” The new instruction specifically noted that this policy would result in “a drastic reduction in the number of quota and non-quota immigration visas issued.”

It worked as intended. In the year to follow, immigration from Germany and Austria was kept to just 47 percent of the quota, and the following year it was held to under 18 percent.

Then, in June 1941, the Roosevelt administration adopted a harsh new policy, known as the Close Relatives Edict. It barred the entry of anyone who had close relatives in German-occupied territory, on the grounds that the Nazis might hold those relatives hostage in order to force the immigrant to become a spy for Hitler. No such cases were ever discovered, but in the meantime, countless Jews with relatives in Europe were automatically declared ineligible for immigration to America. Another “piece of paper” helped trap millions of Jews in Hitler’s Europe.

Reprinted with author’s permission from JNS.org

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