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American Statism and the Holocaust

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Weighing in on the Helen Thomas controversy, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen made an interesting observation as to one of the reasons that post-World War II Jews looked to the establishment of Israel as a safe haven for Jews. Cohen stated, “For most of the DPs [displaced persons], America was also out of the question. The United States, in the grip of feverish anti-communism and already unreceptive to immigrants, maintained a tight quota.”

Unfortunately, Cohen is being a bit disingenuous. What he obviously is uncomfortable in pointing out is that it wasn’t just anti-communism and anti-immigration that motivated U.S. officials in their use of immigration controls to exclude Jews. A much more important factor was anti-Semitism within the U.S. government.

Why might Cohen be reluctant to point that out? One reason might be because the U.S. president during the Nazi years was none other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who has long been portrayed by American liberals as the “great humanitarian.” Pointing out FDR’s use of immigration controls to prevent European Jews from escaping the Holocaust might cause people to begin wondering whether the establishment of the welfare state might have had to do with something other than Roosevelt’s purported love for the poor, needy, and disadvantaged. (Let’s not forget, after all, that Adolf Hitler himself, along with his socialist cohorts, embraced Social Security in Germany as much as Roosevelt and his statist cohorts did in the United States.)

Consider the infamous “voyage of the damned.” In 1939 a German liner named the SS St. Louis was taking approximately a thousand Jews out of Germany to Cuba. One passenger, Aaron Pozner, had just been released from Dachau, where he had been sent after Kristallnacht.

When the ship arrived in Cuba, Cuban officials refused to permit the passengers to disembark. The reason? Anti-Semitism. Cuban vessels surrounded the German liner to ensure that no Jew jumped ship in a desperate attempt to avoid having to return to Nazi Germany. Not surprisingly, the passengers became highly agitated over the prospect of being sent back to Germany. One of them, Max Loewe, even attempted suicide when it became apparent that a return to Germany was likely.

The liner then headed toward Miami. What do you think happened? Do you think the “great humanitarian,” President Franklin Roosevelt, announced that the SS St. Louis would, of course, be permitted to land at Miami Harbor and that the Jewish passengers would be permitted to disembark onto American shores? Isn’t that what you would have expected from a man who had established Social Security, which, liberals tell us, was motivated by his love for the poor, needy, and disadvantaged?

Well, that’s not what happened. Instead, U.S. officials, just like their Cuban counterparts, refused to let those Jewish refugees set foot on American soil. The reason? The refugees were Jews, and U.S. officials felt the same way about Jews as those Cuban officials did. And those U.S. officials, from Roosevelt down, knew full well the fate that awaited those Jewish refugees back in Germany.

Rejected by Cuban and U.S. officials, the SS St. Louis set sail for Germany. At the last minute, some European countries agreed to accept the Jewish refugees. Unfortunately, those who ended up on the Continent didn’t survive the Holocaust.

Was the voyage of the damned just an isolated incident? Alas, it was not. In his book While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, Arthur Morse points out that after the Nazis sent 25,000 innocent people to concentration camps after Kristallnacht, President Roosevelt was asked whether he would recommend a relaxation of immigration restrictions so that Jewish refugees from Germany could come to the United States. Roosevelt replied, “This is not in contemplation. We have the quota system.”

How convenient. Blame it on immigration controls, as if it wouldn’t have been possible to lift or even ignore the controls.

Of course, herein lies one of the fascinating aspects regarding the establishment of Israel: America’s tragic abandonment of open immigration in favor of government immigration control.

One of the principle reasons given for the establishment of Israel after World War II was that Jews needed a safe haven from future Holocausts. Yet, a safe haven for people all over the world was one of the principle reasons why our American ancestors founded our nation on a policy of open immigration.

Nineteenth-century Americans essentially sent the following message to the people of the world: If you are suffering tyranny, oppression, starvation, or whatever, we will not permit our government to send military forces to help you out. But if you are able and willing to escape your country, you should know that there will always be a place that you will be able to go, without fear of being repatriated to the country from which you fled.

In other words, what hope does a person suffering tyranny or oppression have if he knows that even if he escapes, any country he goes to will forcibly return him to his place of origin? What’s the point of escaping if you’re only going to be returned regardless of where you end up?

But if people know that there is at least one country that guarantees that they will not be repatriated, then there is hope. “If I can only get out and make it to America, I will be free to stay there.”

That’s one of the things that made America so different from all other nations in history. For some hundred years, it was a safe haven for Jews and everyone else around the world, including the type of people who might be described as the “wretched refuse” or “huddled masses” of a nation.

That’s why the French awarded the Statue of Liberty to America. Their gift was in recognition of the gift that the American people had given the people all over the world who were struggling to breathe free, a gift that our American ancestors rightfully felt was consistent with Judeo-Christian ethics regarding man’s relationship to man.

It all ended when America abandoned its open-immigration tradition in favor of immigration controls (and an interventionist foreign policy in which the U.S. government invades countries and kills people in the name of bringing them freedom and democracy). Once government was given the power to decide who would enter and not enter the United States, it was inevitable that public officials would abuse such power, especially officials who were anti-Semitic.

In the absence of immigration controls, German and Eastern European Jews would have been free to come to America, both before and after World War II, where they would have lived in peace with Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, atheists, and everyone else. America would have been a safe haven for them.

Unfortunately, all too many American liberals not only continue to embrace immigration controls for America but also are reluctant to shine a light on the role that America’s founder of the welfare state, the “great humanitarian” Franklin Roosevelt, played in the Holocaust.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.