Source: B.A. Shapiro in Salon, October 1
Washington, the spring of 1939 – At that time xenophobes such as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy – along with their isolationist America First Committee – claimed that, given our own pressing domestic concerns, it wasn’t the U.S.’s responsibility to get involved in the “European War.” “If we help them, they will take our jobs,” they argued. “If we help them, we will go broke.”
These nationalists falsely asserted that the majority of the refugees were actually disguised German spies seeking American military secrets. Their rhetoric convinced most of the public. And it convinced President Roosevelt. Boatloads of European refugees were refused entrance into the U.S. – the SS St. Louis being the most famous and tragic – and sent back to Europe. Restrictive quotas were enacted and even those with valid visas were denied entry.
But Eleanor looked at the other side of the equation: What will happen if we don’t help them? She understood that these were human beings whose lives were being upended – and often ended – by the whims of a megalomaniac with a massive war machine behind him. That these people suddenly had no home, no country, nowhere to go. That they would most likely die if no one reached out a hand.
She pleaded with her husband, beseeched him to look beyond what appeared politically impossible and recognize what was humanly possible. But Franklin didn’t listen, most likely because there was a presidential election looming. He turned his back on those who needed help, instead playing to his largely isolationist audience – at that time almost 80 percent of Americans were against military involvement in Europe and many believed that accepting refugees might draw us into the conflict. He won the election.
The president again turned his back when, dismissing Eleanor’s entreaties, he promoted Breckinridge Long, an ardent anti-Semitic isolationist, to a position in which he had full control over the issuance of visas. We now know that Long kept almost 200,000 congressionally authorized visas out of the hands of needy refugees – almost all of them Jewish. These visas went unused, while the people for whom they were approved were either unable to leave Europe or were sent back there. We all know what happened next.