Memo on U.S. Plans to Discuss Refugee Issue with Britain

(March 1943)


“(A) The refugee problem should not be considered as being confined to persons of any particular race or faith. Nazi measures against minorities have caused the flights of persons of various races and faiths, as well as of other persons because of their political beliefs.”

1. The Government of the United States and the British Government, in agreeing to this topic of the agenda, have mutually recognized the fact that the refugee problem is not limited in scope or character to persons of any particular race or faith who may be subjected to oppression, persecution, or extermination by the Nazi-Fascist Governments and their satellites. Any steps taken exclusively in behalf of [ill.]would be vulnerable to criticism by or on behalf of the other unfortunate peoples whose plight also warrants our most earnest consideration. False charges have been made by the Nazi-Fascist propagandists who have been made by Fascist propagandists who have attempted to distort the humanitarian interest of the United Nations into a sole interest in certain minorities. The conferees in their findings should endeavor to avoid any possible implication which might be of assistance to the Nazi-Fascist propagandists.

2. In considering the plight of refugees of various races and creeds it should be borne in mind that substantial funds may required to afford any appreciable relief. Any appeal which may be made for the contribution of funds from private sources should be addressed to persons of all races and faiths. Likewise, in any campaign to raise funds from private sources, there should be no stipulation or representation that any particular race or faith will be favored over another in dispensing the funds raised.

“(B) Wheresoever practicable, intergovernmental collaboration should be sought in these times of transportation difficulty, shipping shortage, and submarine menace, to the end that arrangement may be determined for temporary asylum for refugees as near as possible to the areas in which those people find themselves at the present time and from which they may be returned to their homelands with the greatest expediency on the termination of hostilities.”

3. This item of agenda envisages the manifold dangers, as well as the financial and other difficulties, of transporting any appreciable number of refugees from European countries to places beyond the seas. The Government of the United States in utilizing all available cargo space for the purpose of transporting large military forces overseas and in keeping these forces supplied with the food and other materials necessary to support and maintain them. For your confidential information it may be stated that the Government of the United States has agreed to accept from the British Army approximately 175, 000 prisoners of war for safekeeping in the United States and, of course, we may need more and more shipping space in the months to come for use in returning our own wounded soldiers and the prisoners of war we will capture in increasing numbers on the various battlefronts where American forces may be fighting. No commitment regarding trans-Atlantic shipping space for refugees can be made, as the urgent need for the evacuation of our wounded and our prisoners of war must not be delayed or hampered by civilian transportation commitments.

4. Any movement of refugees across the Atlantic on ships of the United Nations may require either naval convoys or the issuance of a “safe conduct” by the enemy if the refugees are not to be subjected to the hazards of submarine warfare. The use of convoys for this purpose is not feasible. There is no evidence that either the Congress or the people of the United States would consider with equanimity the use of naval convoys in this manner as being a proper measure in the prosecution of the war. Care should be exercised to avoid placing the Government of the United States in a position where it could be accused of an attempt to fill with European refugees the places of our men and women in the armed services of the United States who have been sent to Europe to lay down their lives, if necessary, for the common use. Such action might well cause profound and serious repercussions, as well as sharp and unfortunate division of opinion among the people of the United States at a time when there is a paramount necessity for national unity.

5. In the light of our experience with the enemy in attempting to procure a “safe conduct” for ships loaded with refugee children who were to be brought to the United States for safety, there is no indication that the enemy would grant a “safe conduct” to any ship bearing European refugees. Even if shipping space could be found, and even if convoys could be used or a “safe conduct” procured from the enemy against the submarine menace, it would not appear to be either necessary or practicable to transport refugees across the Atlantic when there are places in Europe or adjacent territory which could provide them a suitable sanctuary. Moreover, those who were transported may have to be taken back across the Atlantic to their homelands in Europe at the end of the war, a task which definitely should be avoided. Some of the refugees may have to be returned against their will. The availability of shipping facilities for their return is extremely problematical. Funds and legislation, the extent of which is not now foreseeable, may be required and it is not now possible to give assurances on these questions.

“(C) There should accordingly be considered plans for the maintenance in neutral countries in Europe of those refugees for whose removal provision may not be made. Their maintenance in neutral countries may involve the giving of assurance for their support until they can be repatriated, which support will necessarily come from the United Nations augmented by funds from private sources. It may also involve the giving of assurances in all possible cases by their Governments in exile for their prompt return to their native countries upon the termination of hostilities.”

6. The neutral countries of Europe, through which lies the principal avenue of escape for the refugees from the countries now dominated by the Nazi-Fascist Governments, may be willing to accept into their territories an increasing number of refugees, provided they can be assured of

(a) the support of the refugees by official and private funds from within the United Nations countries,

(b) the evacuation of the greater number of these refugees as soon as possible to sanctuaries in nearby European or African countries, or

(c) their eventual repatriation from the neutral countries to their former homelands.

7. Obviously no official funds of the United States can be pledged in advance by the Delegation as a contribution to the general fund which may have to be created by the joint contributions of the governments and people of the United Nations and the neutral nations, as any such obligation would involve action by the President and the Congress. However, it is believed that a proper request made for the appropriation or allocation of funds for this purpose may receive favorable consideration by the Government of the United States, provided that it should be established that such an appropriation or allocation of funds is to be made upon a pro-rata basis.

8. As the sanctuary of refugees either in neutral countries or in other places in Europe involves the question of the eventual repatriation of the refugees to their homelands in Europe, it will be necessary to procure from the several governments in exile their consent to the repatriation of refugees to their homes in those countries. So far as the enemy countries are concerned it may be assumed that, as the terms of peace with the enemy will be an unconditional surrender, the United Nations will encounter no effective opposition from the enemy to the repatriation of refugees to their homes in the enemy countries after the cessation of hostilities. The acceptance by the neutral countries of assurance of such repatriation, however, naturally must be predicated upon their own confidence in and presumption of a complete military victory of the United Nations over the Nazi-Fascist forces.

“(D) The possibilities for the temporary asylum of the refugees, with a view to their repatriation upon the termination of hostilities, in countries other than neutral, and their dependencies, should be explored, together with the question of the availability of food and accommodation.”

9. As the Government of the United States has no territory in Europe or Africa the question of affording temporary or permanent asylum for refugees in any of the countries on either of those continents must be determined largely by the governments of the countries concerned. Practically any place in Europe or Africa which may be found to be suitable as an asylum for refugees for the period of the war would be agreeable to the United States, provided there are no military considerations which would render such place undesirable from that point of view, and provided further that the problem of food and other necessary supplies and the availability of the necessary supplies to the area chosen, should be borne in mind and satisfactorily solved. The British Government has requested that the question of providing suitable accommodations for the refugees in the place of asylum chosen should be considered.

“(E) Examination of the practice method of organizing concerted action and providing the necessary executive machinery.”

10. The views of the Government of the United States on this topic of the agenda, which has been added at the request of the British Government, are that existing agencies and instrumentalities, both public and private, should be utilized to the fullest extent. On this point it may be stated as the view of the Government of the United States, in which the British Government has concurred, that the Executive Committee of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees constitute the machinery necessary to formulate and present an appeal to the governments and people of the United Nations and to the governments and people of neutral countries.

11. The American Delegation should propose that an early meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee be called for the purpose of implementing the plan of action which may be formulated at Bermuda.

12. The Intergovernmental Committee should be requested to proceed at once to consult the governments of the several neutral countries, as soon as a definite plan of action shall have been agreed upon, and should also consult the several governments it represents, including the governments of the United Nations, with a view to procuring the necessary contributions of funds and the agreements for the reception of refugees in neutral and other countries which may be able to receive them, and for their eventual repatriation to and reception by their home countries upon the conclusion of the period of hostilities.

13. With general reference to the part to be played by the United States in the reception of refugees in American territory, the various quota and other provisions of our immigration laws, which are the most liberal of any nation in the world, may be mentioned. The statistics showing the extent to which aliens have in the past been able to avail themselves of our asylum and hospitality may be used as a basis for discussion, without, of course, giving any assurance that there will be no change in our laws. It must be borne in mind at all times that the immigration policy of the United States is contained in the laws enacted by the Congress and approved by the Executive, who has no power to relax or rescind those laws.

14. There is no indication that the Congress would be likely to act favorably upon any proposal that the immigration laws be relaxed or suspended in behalf of refugees. In a previous Congress a Joint Resolution to authorize the admission of 20,000 German children failed of passage. Several bills to make the unused portions of the immigration quotas available to refugees without regard to the national origins principle embodied in our quota system have met with no success. Other legislation to relax the immigration laws has been proposed from time to time but has not been enacted.

15. The contribution which the Government of the United States may be called upon to make in the form of funds of foodstuffs and other vital supplies must be considered in the lights of the present demands and commitments of this Government with respect to our military and civilian requirements, which have necessitated the institution of a food rationing system in the United States.

16. For the further information and guidance of the American Delegation there are attached hereto a copy of the note of January 20, 1943, and its enclosure, and a copy of the note of March 20, 1943, from the British Embassy, and copies of the replies of the Department dated February 25, 1943 and March 18, 1943 on the subjects to be discussed at the conference.


Source: PBS