Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1933-1945

James G. McDonald was an American diplomat whose experience as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the early 1930s and as Chairman of President Roosevelt’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees from 1938 to 1945 placed him at the center of the humanitarian crisis that culminated in the Holocaust.

Fortunately for scholars, McDonald also was a keen observer and diarist. His extensive and only recently released papers and diaries form the basis of this, the second of a three-volume series that chronicles his remarkable career from the end of World War I through the creation of the state of Israel.

Refugees and Rescue is a remarkable account that sheds new light on the plight of European Jews during the horrific decade from 1935 to 1945. It is especially telling with respect to the years immediately prior to the onset of World War II, when the possibility that many more thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands, or even millions—of German and East European Jews might have escaped their fate under the hands of the Nazis if only the democracies had been willing to take them in as refugees.

Tragically, the pervasive influence of Depression-era nativism in the United States, Europe, and the British Commonwealth, coupled with an equally pervasive anti-Semitism, made this all but impossible, despite the best efforts of McDonald and many other like-minded individuals, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of this can be found in the United States, where McDonald’s diaries indicate that President Roosevelt was repeatedly advised in the mid- and late-1930s not to even raise the possibility of a change in the highly restrictive U.S. immigration quotas for fear that such a move would result in a push for an even more restrictive regime. Frustrated by his lack of domestic freedom of action, Roosevelt—whom Breitman describes in his concluding chapter as a man of “grand vision”—sought to find solutions abroad. The most tangible consequence of this sentiment was the ill-fated Evian conference, which the President hoped would result in an effort by the democracies “to unite and share the burden” of finding suitable areas of settlement for “these unfortunate people.” Given the xenophobia and anti-Semitism of the time, however, there would be no direct call upon any of the participants to change existing immigration laws. In fact, much of the focus of the conference was on getting the democracies to encourage other states—especially in the developing world—to take in more people. Roosevelt also gave serious consideration to the possibility that he might try to convince Congress to appropriate $100 million to $150 million to be added to an additional potential $250 million provided by the other democracies to help finance the transfer of refugees to suitable areas of habitation.

Aside from the successful immigration of some 20,000 European Jews to Bolivia, and the establishment of the principle that German Jews were in fact political refugees, the Evian Conference was largely a failure. But the deliberations leading to it—including conversations between Roosevelt, McDonald, and others—provide a further example of the President’s antipathy for the Nazis and the most tangible evidence to date of his sincere desire to engineer a large-scale solution to the 1930s Jewish-refugee crisis.

McDonald also communicated with Eleanor Roosevelt, who, although not referenced in the diaries as frequently as her husband, was clearly seen as a sympathetic figure within his administration. For example, in October 1940, McDonald’s papers reveal that the First Lady joined others in appealing to the President for his support for the successful admission of eighty-one Jewish refugees from the Portuguese steamship Quanza, which had docked in Norfolk, Virginia. She also supported the efforts taken by McDonald and the President’s Advisory Committee in the fall of 1940 to counter Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge

Long’s attempts to tighten up the definition of political and intellectual refugees (which had been relaxed in the late 1930s under Roosevelt’s direction to admit more Jewish refugees). Long wanted visa controls tightened to prevent the admission of potential spies and saboteurs into the United States, a stance McDonald vehemently opposed.

The debate over immigration controls in late 1940 brings us to the war years. here, the manuscript turns out to be equally revealing—in part because of what these chapters tell us about the difficulty of trying to extricate refugees (both Jewish and non-Jewish) from a war zone, and in part because of what they tell us about the shift that occurred in the Roosevelt Administration from a focus on humanitarian concerns in the late 1930s to the actual war effort in the early 1940s. As noted, one consequence of the onset of the war was the push by long and other officials within the administration for an even more restrictive policy on immigration, leading to what Breitman calls the “most restrictionist phase of American refugee policy.” But McDonald’s papers and diaries also reveal what Breitman calls the “reversal” of this policy under the leadership of Henry Morgenthau, who, as Secretary of the Treasury Department and a confidant of FDR, directed an effort in late 1943 to counter the obstructionists. Thanks to Morgenthau’s efforts, FDR created the War Refugee Board in January 1944—a body which McDonald strongly supported and which, Breitman notes, in spite of its limited scope and duration, “stands up well to the light of history.”

Refugees and Rescue has much to teach us about the tragic events of the 1930s and ’40s. McDonald’s objective observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the Roosevelt Administration; about the level of support for refugees among Jewish leadership in Great Britain and the United States, as well as among the leadership of the Protestant and Catholic communities in both countries; and his assessment of what was and was not possible during these difficult years provide the reader with an unprecedented sense of the context within which these events took place. Sadly, his diaries also make clear that in spite of his prescience about the true intentions of Hitler and his Nazi henchmen—a prescience that began with McDonald’s first and only visit to Hitler in 1933—too few people understood or shared this conviction to prevent the greatest crime in history.  

—David B. Woolner, History Department, Marist College and Senior Vice President of the Roosevelt Institute