By Neil Rolde
With the Holocaust now having embedded itself deeply into the world’s conscience, interest in that period from the early 1930s when Hitler took power through to World War II and its immediate aftermath in the 1940s has remained high. The role of the United States and its government during this period is receiving increasing attention.
My biography of Breckinridge Long is a hitherto uncovered life story of the State Department assistant secretary who bureaucratically blocked many refugees, preponderantly Jewish, from escaping Hitler’s death machine, in their quest to seek asylum in America. In that role, Long has received much scrutiny from Holocaust historians, but who was this man? What motivated his behavior? What was his background? Those were questions I asked myself until I discovered that all his papers and diaries were at the Library of Congress, open for study.
“This book will fill a large, gaping hole in the field of Holocaust studies. It provides a window into Washington and into FDR’s White House (not to mention the State Department) and Democratic Party politics that is marvelous.” These are the words of Chris Breiseth, the retired former director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park.
Roosevelt’s role during the Holocaust years has certainly stirred considerable debate among historians. Breckinridge Long and FDR first became friends in 1916, when both were working for President Woodrow Wilson—Roosevelt as an assistant secretary of the Navy and Long an assistant secretary of state. The insider’s look that Long’s diaries give us presents many fresh insights into American politics in the almost four decades following 1916 when the first of these diaries appeared.
Whether it is the explosive anti-Semitic diatribe from Belgium’s heroic King Albert on a sea voyage where Long, representing the State Department, accompanied him or intra-Democratic infighting in Missouri (Long’s home State in which he twice ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator) or upfront meetings with Mussolini during Long’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Italy, most of these events have never seen print due to the heavy focus on Long’s World War II, second State Department stint when he had control of the Visa Division.
Was Long an out-and-out anti-Semite? Even a severe FDR critic on this issue, the historian David Wyman, thinks not. Was he a “But some of my best friends are Jewish” type of anti-Semite? Most probably yes. He had Jewish friends like Bernard Baruch and Herbert Swope and worked closely with Jews in Democratic politics and charitable work.
What was the effect on FDR of the pronounced anti-Semitism rife in the U.S. since the days of Henry Ford, whom Hitler said was an inspiration to him. How did the prevalent anti-Semitism of certain individuals at the State Department affect Breckinridge Long? What was the influence of the immigration laws passed in 1924 (with strong State Department input) that heavily favored keeping the U.S. as Anglo-Saxon and northern European as possible as a factor in keeping out refugees from Eastern and Southern Europe?
Who were the Breckinridges, Long’s ancestors on his mother’s side, one of whom, John Cabell Breckinridge, was Vice-President of the United States, a presidential candidate in 1860 who came in second to Lincoln and the last Secretary of War of the Confederacy?
Why was Breckinridge Long kept at the State Department after his power over visas was taken from him and replaced by the War Refugee Board, which saved more than 200,000 people? How did he get to be named a U.S. delegate to the Dumbarton Oaks conference that devised the plan for the UN?
One more dimension must also be considered. It is contained in the question the book’s title asks: was Breckinridge Long an American Eichmann? The Holocaust was a bureaucratically engineered massacre, a new phenomenon introduced to world atrocities by the Nazis. Was Breckinridge Long another example of Hannah Arendt’s controversial concept of “the banality of evil?”
In our current world situation from which genocide has not perished but seems to have increased on this evermore crowded planet, here is an important look at an individual who bears guilt for what happened to trapped Jewish and other ethnic minority groups from 1939 to 1943.