Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
That quote was brought to mind recently, when I ran across a column in The New York Herald Tribune by Dorothy Thompson, dated April 4, 1938.
Thompson was expelled in 1934 from Germany, where she had worked as a foreign correspondent, for remarks critical of Adolph Hitler.
She came home and started writing a wildly popular syndicated column called “On The Record,” which ran in 170 newspapers at the time. Thompson was proclaimed by Time magazine in 1939 as one of the most influential women in America, along with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was married to novelist Sinclair Lewis.
Her column from April 4, dealing with immigration, began as follows:
“The immediate popular response to the president’s appeal to all countries to join in a movement to deal with the problem indicates that in some quarters his move has been misunderstood. There is a strong fear in all countries still open to emigration, that the barriers will be let down and they will be flooded with newcomers at a time when many of their own citizens are unemployed.”
She is talking about President Franklin Roosevelt, of course. Leading up to World War II, Roosevelt and many in the State Department were concerned that the Middle European countries that the Third Reich was rolling over had been heavily infiltrated by Germans posing as journalists, diplomats and tourists. By 1940, America had severely curtailed immigration.
Recent commentary in Business Insider magazine about President Donald Trump’s handling of immigration policies stated that he took a page right out of FDR’s playbook from those days. Fear is the common denominator. Many of Trump’s bedrock supporters are on the edge, either unemployed or underemployed without great prospects for coming back. They are fearful of foreigners, afraid of a future full of people they don’t know and issues they don’t fully understand. They believe that Trump is on their side because he calls for an “America First” platform.
Thompson once wrote of Hitler, “(He) is the most golden-tongued of demagogues. Don't bother about the fact that most of what he says, read the next day in cold newsprint, is usually plain nonsense. …”
“Actually, what prompted the president (on FDR’s call for addressing the refugee problem) was, no doubt, a keen sense of self-preservation. The world, as it is, in a place of unrest and agitation, with desperate people taking desperate measures in the attempt merely to survive, and millions of people wandering more or less aimlessly, and battering at every conceivable door, being passed from frontier to frontier, will certainly do nothing to help restore world order.”
There are currently an estimated 3-4 million refugees wandering about the world, beating on every door and being passed from country to country in a game of musical chairs. They pile up in camps on the borderlands.
There seems to be no place to land or be welcomed, including the U.S. Of course, the Home of the Brave can’t take in all the world’s population problems. We can’t even shepherd New York City’s homeless population. But we could do something, and we don’t even do that.
“Nor can any democratic country wash its hands of the problem, if it wishes to retain its own soul. The spectacle of acute human suffering arbitrarily imposed, incurred by thousands in defense of the very ideals which are the ones we are supposed to live by, cannot be regarded with equanimity or indifference unless we are prepared to admit that the ideas no longer have validity. A defeatist attitude toward the refugee problems becomes a defeatist attitude toward democracy itself.”
I admit this is a perplexing problem. Many of those wanderers are children caught in an ugly world. Many were uprooted because of fighting in the areas where they live. Others take to the road because of a new government that turns hostile to old rivals or religions. How do we know we’re not being infiltrated by terrorists when we let people inside? It’s easier just to try to keep them out.
“To admit that the whole round earth has no place left for men and women of peculiar and expert skill, once the doors of their own land close behind them, is to admit that the whole round earth, as it is at present organized, is a colossal and incurable failure.”
Almost eight decades after Dorothy Thompson wrote those words, we find ourselves in an almost identical refugee situation to the beginnings of World War II. Yes, we have failed colossally to learn from history.
Back then, it was Germany creating the crisis. Our refugee problem now is largely from starting wars we can’t, or don’t, finish, building nations we don’t understand the nature of, and pulling threads that hold so many unintended consequences.
Pat Taylor is advertising director of The Pilot.