By Peter Eisner
In June 1940, after the fall of Paris, an American vice consul in Marseille, Hiram Bingham IV, received an order from the State Department to slow down and effectively block issuing visas for refugees attempting to flee the Third Reich. The refugees were mostly Jews.
A xenophobic and possibly anti-Semitic official at the State Department, Breckenridge Long, had issued a declaration to delay and stop Jews from entering the United States. He and others claimed — without evidence — that Hitler could sneak Nazi agents into the United States among the Jewish refugees. He wrote:
“We can delay and effectively stop, for a temporary period of indefinite length, the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
Bingham, however, acted on conscience and out of decency in the highest traditions of the country he believed in. As I wrote, Bingham:
…challenged indifference and anti-Semitism among his State Department superiors. In speeding up visa and travel documents at the Marseille consulate, he disobeyed orders from Washington. In all, an estimated 2,500 refugees were able to flee to safety because of Bingham’s help.
Today, the United States faces a disgusting wave of xenophobia and prejudice. Think about the example of Hiram Bingham, whose promising career was destroyed — because he took a moral stance. More than half a century after his actions, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell honored Bingham posthumously for his actions.
Breckenridge Long’s order, obeyed by others, contributed to blocking tens of thousands of refugees from entry into the United States. Many who could have been saved died under the Nazi boot.
The times are changing, and yet the principles of decency remain unchanged.