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This Isn't America's First Freakout Over Refugees

As refugees flee the brutal chaos in Syria, their plight has prompted a lot of talk about the Jews who fled Germany in the Nazi era. Sometimes the people who raise the topic are highlighting the parallels; other times they're trying to draw distinctions. But one similarity between the situations hasn't gotten as much attention as it should. Both crises fed the fears of foreign infiltration that have long lurked within American culture.

In the late 1930s and early '40s, Americans saw Nazi agents everywhere. In August of 1940—more than a year before Pearl Harbor—Gallup's pollsters knocked on people's doors and asked, "Without mentioning any names, do you think there are fifth columnists in this community?" Forty-eight percent said yes, some of their neighbors were probably secret agents; just 26 percent said no. Those suspicions often extended to the refugee population. The Saturday Evening Post told its readers that Nazis "disguised as refugees" were working around the world as "spies, fifth columnists, propagandists or secret commercial agents." Similar stories appeared in such organs as Reader's Digest and American Magazine, with the latter running a feature that bore the calm, collected headline "Hitler's Slave Spies in America."

The idea in that piece was that the agents among the refugees didn't want to do Hitler's bidding. They simply had no choice, because otherwise their relatives back home would be in danger—an approach the article called a "blitzkreig of blackmail." This theory was endorsed by no less than President Franklin Roosevelt, who said at a press conference that refugees ("especially Jewish refugees") could be pressed into Nazi service with the words "we are frightfully sorry, but your old father and mother will be taken out and shot."

Those worries turned out to be overblown. In Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front, the historian Francis MacDonnell concludes that "Axis operations in the United States never amounted to much, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation easily countered the 'Trojan Horse' activity that did exist....Though the Germans practiced espionage, sabotage, and subversion in United States, their efforts were modest and almost uniformly unsuccessful." In American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1945, Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut point out that "fewer than one-half of one percent of all refugees arriving from Nazi-Soviet territory in 1940" fell under enough suspicion to be brought in for questioning; just a fraction of those were indicted, and "most of those were violation of immigration regulations rather than espionage."

Furthermore, one of the best defenses against infiltration turned out to be the refugees themselves. After the American ambassador to France, William Bullitt, declared that "More than one-half the spies captured doing actual military spy work against the French army were refugees from Germany," the anti-fascist writer Heinz Pol noted not merely that the number was far smaller than that, but that the handful of pseudo-refugees who did exist were frequently caught with the assistance of refugee organizations, who after all were especially eager to work against Hitler. (Significantly, Pol's argument appeared in The Nation, which at that point in its history was very susceptible to fears of foreign subversion. The magazine ran a regular feature, called "Within Our Gates," devoted to exposing alleged fifth-column activities; one installment argued that "every German alien in the country" except the refugees and obvious dissidents "must be presumed to be doing everything within his power to undermine the United States.") ...

Read entire article at Reason