Americans were shocked by the invasion and the defeat of France in spring 1940. As The New York Times reported, Paris was the ninth European capital to fall to Hitler when the Germans entered the city on June 14, 1940. Like Brussels, Paris was declared an Open City, meaning the city would not be defended as a way to prevent it from being destroyed. Following the German invasion, a massive exodus started in May 1940 with some eight million refugees—most women, children, and the elderly—desperately trying to escape the German advance. These included about 6.2 million internal French refugees, 1.8 million Belgians, and 150,000 more from Holland and Luxembourg. About a third of the French refugees were Parisian, and 800,000 were from Alsace-Lorraine.
Their tragic experience of bombardment, hunger, loss of home, and family separations was reported in American media. Working in Paris at the time, Foreign Service officer William C. Trimble recalled his experience: “We had seen the poor refugees from Holland, particularly Belgium . . . It was a pathetic sight. These poor people pushing baby carriages, dogs running around, and then . . . French refugees from the north.”
As Hitler conquered Europe, turning his attention to Great Britain with a deadly bombing campaign, most refugees had no place to go.
While half of the respondents were sympathetic to the plight of France and Great Britain and willing to take on women and children for the duration of the war, a significant percentage, 36%, were not. This response was in line with previous polls. Asked in May 1938 if they favored accepting political refugees from Germany, Austria, and other countries, 67% of Americans polled responded “no.” Similarly, 83% responded “no” to a January 1939 poll about opening the doors of the US to a larger number of European refugees than was admitted under the immigration quotas.
What were the reasons for this reluctance to admit refugees?
As the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression, with 17% unemployment in 1939, immigrants, including refugees, were seen as an economic threat, despite reports of the beneficial impact of European refugees. The Columbia sociologist Gerhardt Saenger, for example, explained in a November 1940 article of Survey Graphic that “economic facts are important for any consideration of the refugee problem,” but that refugees’ “immigration does not present an economic problem for the United States. In fact, the refugee group is an economic asset.”
Other major reasons for refusing to admit immigrants from Europe were widespread isolationism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism. Two weeks after Kristallnacht, the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms which took place in Germany on November 9 and 10, 1938, a Gallup poll asked Americans “Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?” 72% responded “no.” In a much-publicized case, the United States refused to admit over 900 Jewish refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany on the St. Louis in 1939.
As a result of these attitudes towards immigrants, strict quotas limited the number of people who could immigrate each year, regardless of the situation in Europe. For example, in June 1938, 140,000 people were on the waiting list for the German quota. That number jumped to more than 300,000 the following year. The limit for Germany, however, had been set firmly at 27,000, with no additions to accommodate wartime conditions in Europe.
Like famed cartoonist Dr. Seuss, many Americans were upset by the lack of action and advocated for taking more refugees.
Polls such as this one certainly had an effect on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approach to the refugee problem. After Germany’ annexation of Austria in March 1938, he called an international conference in Evian, France, to discuss the refugee problem, without any results. Unlike First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, however, he did not publicly support a February 1939 bill proposing to admit 20,000 German refugee children into the United States outside the existing immigration quotas.
The president was clearly troubled by the situation in France. He started his May 26, 1940, fireside chat by saying “a word in behalf of women and children and old men who need help-immediate help in their present distress—help from us across the seas, from us who are still free to give it.” While he encouraged Americans to give to the Red Cross, the rest of his talk focused on the buildup of the military and he did not propose specific measures to help French and British refugees.
In the end, Roosevelt took significant, but limited, action in response to the refugee crisis. In 1943, he helped create the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to plan and coordinate “measures for the relief of victims of war” and established a War Refugee Board (WRB) in January 1944.
For many Europeans trying to flee the Germans, these measures often came too late.