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November 29, 2015 / 17 Kislev, 5776
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FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’


The question of unused quota places is important because when American Jewish refugee advocates privately asked the Roosevelt administration, in the 1930s, to permit more immigration, they were told nothing could be done because the administration could not persuade Congress to liberalize the immigration laws.

To this day, FDR’s supporters continue to blame the 1920s immigration laws as the obstacle to refugee immigration in the 1930s. “It has always seemed to me a bit unfair to blame President Roosevelt for a law that was passed and signed by … Calvin Coolidge,” military historian Gerhard Weinberg asserted in a recent radio interview. “Until the Congress changed the immigration law … President Roosevelt, like any other president, was obliged to enforce the law.”

Similarly, Roosevelt Institute president William vanden Heuvel wrote in American Heritage magazine: “Roosevelt’s critics severely underestimate limitations on presidential power . Clearly, the President could not unilaterally command an increase in quotas.”

But in fact, many lives could have been saved without changing a single law or fighting Congress. All FDR had to do was quietly instruct the State Department to admit as many refugees as the law allowed. That alone would have saved more than 100,000 German Jews before World War II – and nearly 200,000 more during the Holocaust years.

‘20,000 Ugly Adults’

Meanwhile, just as the St. Louis crisis was escalating, members of Congress were considering legislation, introduced by Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-MA), to admit 20,000 German refugee children outside the quota system.

Supporters of the bill included prominent church figures, leaders of the AFL and CIO labor unions, university presidents, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, the 1936 Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and former First Lady Grace Coolidge, who announced that she and her friends in Northampton, Massachusetts would personally care for 25 of the children.

Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill. Typical of their perspective was a remark by FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration: she warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

FDR responded negatively to a private appeal to him by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for his support of the bill. He did tell Eleanor that he would not object if she endorsed it, but she refrained from doing so. When a congresswoman inquired as to the president’s position on the bill, FDR returned the note to his secretary marked “File No action FDR.”

Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed to more immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it. Without his support, the Wagner-Rogers bill was buried in committee.

‘Roosevelt Was Apathetic’

FDR’s silence with regard to the St. Louis has long intrigued historians. On the one hand, Roosevelt is well known for his tendency to refrain from committing his private thoughts to writing. On the other hand, it is remarkable that an episode such as the controversy over the St. Louis, which made the front page of America’s major newspapers for nearly a week, and which raised important questions about U.S. policies, did not elicit any comment from the president.

A newly-discovered document offers a rare insider’s account of the Roosevelt administration’s response to the St. Louis.

The document was unearthed by Dr. Bat-Ami Zucker, a historian at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who has written extensively on America’s response to the Holocaust and whose latest book is Cecilia Razovsky and the American Jewish Women’s Rescue Operations in the Second World War (published by Vallentine Mitchell).

Cecilia Razovsky, a refugee advocate and senior official of the National Council of Jewish Women, went to Havana in May 1939 and took part in high-level discussions with Cuban and U.S. officials in an attempt to resolve the St. Louis crisis. In Razovsky’s papers, Dr. Zucker discovered an unpublished memoir about the St. Louis episode that Razovsky wrote after the war.

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.

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