Children under eighteen years of age make up more than half of the approximately 22 million people seeking refuge today.  We read statistics like this often, and sometimes our empathy for such human devastation of can get lost in the numbers. The problems can feel remote, foreign, and unrelated to our own daily struggles. And that is precisely how many Americans felt just before the outbreak of WWII, as the number of people applying for refuge in the United States multiplied. In 1938, 125,000 asylum seekers applied for the 27,000 visas under the restrictive U.S. quota system. By 1939, that number increased to over 300,000.  A Fortune magazine poll from the summer of 1938, showed that 67% of Americans thought “we should try to keep them out.” Only 5% thought the U.S. government should raise the quotas to allow more people asylum. 
Again, the staggering statistics can be numbing. But even at our most ambivalent, the stories of children fleeing persecution seem to break through our indifference and stir us to act. For example, in 1938, British citizens lobbied their government to act on behalf on children fleeing Austria and Germany after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht. They agreed to fund the transportation, care, and education of these children and infants. These rescue missions, known as Kindertransport, saved ten thousand children from annihilation.
Despite the prevailing attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, some hoped their fellow Americans would make an exception for child refugees. Hope came in 1939, in the form of the Wagner-Rogers Bill that aimed to bring 20,000 children escaping Nazi Germany to the United States. Hoosiers both supported and opposed refugee immigration and the bill. Looking through Indiana newspapers for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s History Unfolded project, we can see what Hoosiers knew about the issue, how they aided, and how they failed these small asylum seekers. (Find out how you can participate in the History Unfolded Project which helps the USHMM determine what Americans knew about the Holocaust.)
The Wagner-Rogers Bill
Clarence Pickett, an Earlham College professor and leader of Quaker relief organization American Friends Service Committee, led the drafting of the bill in December 1938. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) introduced this legislation in both the House and Senate on February 9, 1939. The bill would allow 20,000 children under the age of fourteen to immigrate to the United States (10,000 in 1939 and that same amount in 1940) outside of the established quota. While the bill did not specify that these were Jewish children, “the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe made this an obvious and understood fact.  The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) quoted Senator Wagner:
The admission of a handful of unfortunate people means little in the economic life of 120 million people, but it means a great deal for us and the world as a symbol of the strength of democratic convictions and our common faith.
Support for the bill came from unlikely places. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) both supported the legislation, specifying that the children were not a threat to American jobs, an oft-cited fear for those with anti-immigration sentiments. In fact, Pickett argued, they would become consumers, helping the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor agreed, and offered to place the children via their Children’s Bureau. Leaders from all of these organizations testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the bill. The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post reported via the JTA that John Brophy, National Director of the CIO “told the committee that organized labor had no fears of an undue influx of refugees resulting from the Wagner-Rogers Bill.” Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke in favor of the bill, allowing herself to be quoted on a heated political issue for the first time in her six years as first lady, according to the USHMM. She told UP reporters:
I hope very much it will pass. It seems to be a wise way to do a humanitarian thing.
“The Conscience of the American People”
At the same time in Indiana, several notable Hoosiers were at work on grassroots campaigns to rescue German-Jewish children. Prominent Jewish civic leader Sarah Wolf Goodman and the leadership of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, among others, raised money to bring refugees to the United States. We examined these efforts thoroughly in post 5 of this series “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue.” But these were small-scale operations. The sweeping action needed had to come from the federal government.
On December 16, 1938 Jewish Post Editor Gabriel M. Cohen made a passionate argument for congressional action. Cohen stated that protests against the Nazi perpetrators and prayers for the victims were not enough. It was time for “immediate relief.” Cohen noted that President Roosevelt was not seeking to extend the quota system, but that maybe it was not up to the president to lead the way on this issue. Cohen continued:
Possibly such a demand cannot at this time come from the President. It can and should come, however, from the conscience of the American people.
He noted especially the responsibility of communities and leaders of faith. He expressed his confidence in American Jews to take a leading role in the care of these children
We are certain that there are thousands of Jewish families in the United States, who, in the face of the present crisis, will gladly take refugee children into their homes and provide them with food and shelter as long as necessary.
Cohen’s prediction was correct. The JTA reported that at an April 1939 joint committee hearing for the bill, attorney Wilbur Large presented 1,400 letters from citizens around the country offering to adopt a refugee child. In fact, the AP reported that Paul Belsser, head of the Child Welfare League of America testified that there were more than enough homes for the children with twelve applications coming in for every child adopted in America.
Hollywood actress Helen Hayes offered to adopt a refugee child herself. Hayes told the committee that her grandmother, who had nine children, lived by the motto, “There is always room for one more.” Then, joking aside, Hayes addressed the lawmakers:
There is room in my family for one more. I beg you to let them in.
One senator “heckled” her, according to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, asking sarcastically, “Do you mean to say you’d adopt a child unseen?” Hayes replied sharply, “I never saw my own child until it was delivered!”
“A Stand Against A Haven”
In his plea for congressional action, Cohen also anticipated and refuted opposing arguments. Echoing Pickett, the Jewish Post editor wrote:
Whatever economic objections and fears of increased unemployment Congress may have with regard to enlarging the existing immigration quota, there can be no such objections to the admission of children.
Also like Pickett, Cohen argued that the children would first be consumers before they would be job seekers. He continued, “Their presence in the community would stimulate business.”
Again, Cohen’s predictions were correct. The bill’s opposition focused on the “economic dangers” of increasing immigration just as the country was climbing out of the Great Depression. Senator Robert R. Reynolds (D-NC) argued that the children would grow up and “undoubtedly keep our own children from jobs and work that they are rightfully entitled to.” Reynolds pledged to “filibuster the plan to death,” according to the Associated Press (AP).
Meanwhile, in Indiana, members of the American Legion‘s Subcommittee on Immigration gathered in Indianapolis to begin a series of meetings on the bill and establish the official position of the national organization. According to a May 3 AP article via the Kokomo Tribune :
Some members of the immigration committee were reported to be favoring the admission of the children for humanitarian purposes while others were opposing it on the grounds American children would suffer by the influx of additional foreigners.
By May 5, 1939, the American Legion made its decision to oppose the bill and adopted a report of their official position. Announcing their decision from their Indianapolis headquarters, American Legion Chairman Jeremiah Cross called the bill “class legislation” because it “would benefit persecuted minorities in only one country.” According to the International News Service via the Hammond Times, Cross claimed that accepting the children would “break up homes and thus be contrary to the American tradition of preserving home life.” National Commander Stephen Chadwick stated that there were too many children at home that needed assistance. Chadwick continued:
We should solve this problem at home before extending a helping hand to foreign nations.
The local Franklin, Indiana, American Legion chapter encouraged the legionnaires gathered at Indianapolis to go further in denying asylum. The Edinburg Daily Courier and Franklin Evening Star reported that the district recommended “a ten-year curtailment of all immigration into the United States” on top of opposing the bill. At the final session of their meetings on immigration, American Legion director Homer L. Chaillaux announced that the powerful organization would indeed back a policy of “curtailed immigration for 10 years to solve the unemployment problem” and “halt the flow of undesirable aliens into this country.” The Evening Star reported that the Legion also reiterated that they were taking “a stand against a haven for thousands of German refugee children seeking admittance to this country, on the grounds that entrance of the children would clear the way for a increased number of parents and close relatives.”
The anti-immigration position of the American Legion and other organizations (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) was translated into policy. The Senate Committee on Immigration proposed admitting the children but counting them against the quota. Senator Reynolds proposed the children be admitted in exchange for an end to all quota immigration for five years. This is exactly what leaders of organizations dedicated to rescue feared. James G. McDonald, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee (and a former Indiana University professor who has been covered in detail in our History Unfolded series post 4 and post 5) predicted this response and the death of the bill. Assistant Secretary of State George S. Messersmith recommended to McDonald that his advisory committee not attempt to intervene, as any effort to expand the quota would result in a cutting of the quotas instead. Congress was eager for the chance to respond to American anti-immigration sentiment. McDonald worked behind the scenes to put pressure on President Roosevelt to intervene, but the president declined to act or comment on the issue. McDonald wrote despairingly in a private letter that the settlement of refugees was “dependent upon the attitude of governments which are little influenced by humanitarian factors.” 
The amendments added by the legislation’s opponents, nullified its intent, and Senator Wagner withdrew his bill on July 1, 1939. The Jewish Post reported that antisemitic groups and publications praised Senator Reynolds. The newspaper also reported on Reynold’s founding of the Vindicators Association, which was “an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist” group, according to the North Carolina History Project. The Post reported via correspondent:
Speaking of refugees, Senator Bob Reynolds, of North Carolina, who sees the overthrow of the republic if 20,000 refugee children are allowed to enter this country in the space of two years, has just opened a new headquarters for his organization, The Vindicators, here in Washington. It’s right behind the Supreme Court Building, and cost $20,000.
The New York Times and other national publications also condemned Reynold’s extreme anti-immigration stance and linked him to antisemitic groups. But the senator continued to advocate for isolationism. The Congressional Record reported his 1941 address to the Senate:
I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.
Private citizens and charitable organizations continued their rescue efforts (and this series will continue to share the stories of such notable Hoosiers.) However, the immigration quotas remained in effect, denying asylum to those fleeing Nazi persecution. As we reflect this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remember the 1.5 million children who were killed by Germans and collaborators — not as “unwanted aliens” and not as statistics — but as boys, girls, and even infants who deserved a future. And we can’t help but regret that Cohen’s appeal in the Jewish Post to “Save the Children” went unanswered. In it, he concluded:
Tens of thousands of innocent children are now exposed to a life of torture or to a slow painful death . . . America must do its share. Let us open our gates to their outstretched hands.
Learn more about the History Unfolded project and about issues facing Refugees Today through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees Today,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees-today.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees.
- Poll: , Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world-war-ii/?utm_term=.2a6a6f677323.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” Wagner-Rogers Bill,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/wagner-rogers-bill.
- Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009), 160-161.