On June 6, 1939, the MS St. Louis, a commercial passenger cruise ship from Germany, headed back to Europe from the coastline of the United States after the Roosevelt administration (among other government agencies) refused to grant docking privileges to the ship.
The date of the return voyage predates America’s war with Germany by a good half decade, and even predates the outbreak of World War II itself by three months, so official hostilities played no part in Washington’s refusal to admit the St. Louis to port. Why was this ship not granted permission to dock at America’s ports? Because there were about 900 Jews on board, and they were seeking asylum.
Roosevelt, whose deft political calculations are well known and largely heralded, made a decision to refuse the Jewish refugees asylum because he wanted to run for an unprecedented third presidential term, and admitting Jews would make him look bad to a public that was in an isolationist mood. The economy was in bad shape even after six years of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and Roosevelt thought, correctly, that admitting more people into the country - even people who were being actively, viciously persecuted in their country of origin - would make him look like he didn’t care about the plight of American citizens. Democracies can make bad, even immoral, decisions, too.
It wasn’t just the Roosevelt administration or the American public who turned away the Jewish refugees, either. The St. Louis tried to dock in Cuba on May 27 but authorities there took the same stance, for the same reasons, as the Roosevelt administration. Canada also refused to let the St. Louis dock at its ports, again for the same reasons. Major Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia also began restricting Jewish migration once the Nazis came to power in 1933. The Dominican Republic and Bolivia were brave exceptions to this condemnable trend.
Many politicians, lawyers, and civil society groups in these countries fought to get these refugees asylum, so it would be unfair, and unwise, to try and use increasingly useless terms like “racism” or “ignorance” to understand why the republics of the New World rejected Jewish people fleeing obvious persecution in Europe.
Anti-semitism definitely played a role in the New World’s restrictions, especially in Latin American countries where Catholics from Poland and monarchists from Spain were granted asylum upon request, but it’s hard to imagine that it was so pervasive throughout society that Jews were specifically rejected because they were Jews. There were, again, many factions who fought for Jewish asylum seekers, and the tone of the mainstream press in the Americas was largely sympathetic. Early in the 20th century Jewish migrants to the New World were subject to the same restrictions as other ethnic groups, and it was only beginning in the 1930s, when the Great Depression - a global phenomenon - was at its peak, that Jews began to see their asylum requests denied in large numbers throughout the New World.
World War II had not yet begun, so maybe, like Roosevelt’s calculation to reject the passengers of the St. Louis, politicians and diplomats in the New World were trying to placate Germany’s foreign ministers by rejecting its Jewish citizens’ requests for asylum. Maybe the xenophobic hostility that inevitably arises when an economy depresses was so strong at the time that elected politicians and strong men alike felt that admitting people who were too unfamiliar into the countries they governed would be a worse outcome than helping out a few thousand refugees. Both of these counterfactuals are ugly, but facing them, instead of blaming the ignorance of the people, might be the best tool we have, as humans and as enthusiasts of history, to learn from our mistakes.