Trump dooms the US to repeat its more regrettable stands

There are eerie echoes of historic anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Semitism in latest travel ban

‘Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

– Franklin D Roosevelt, July 27th, 1936

US president Donald Trump's recent decision to impose a temporary ban on individuals travelling to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries and to shut America's doors to any refugees fleeing war-torn Syria has received worldwide condemnation. Sadly, this is not the first time that such xenophobia and nativism has reared its ugly head in America.


In1882, under pressure from the mostly Caucasian population of California, the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which blocked all immigration from China for a period of ten years. Renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, the Chinese Exclusion Act – which was finally overturned in 1943 – was the first law passed by Congress to ban the immigration of a specific ethnic group.

A few decades later, in response to the millions of mostly Catholic and Jewish immigrants that entered the US from Italy, Russia and other parts of southeastern Europe in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a new wave anti-immigrant sentiment gripped the country.

By the mid 1920s, this xenophobia had reached a fever pitch, thanks in part to the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rise of an international anarchist movement marked by intermittent acts of political violence.

The “Red Scare” and anti-immigrant hysteria fueled by these developments helped to precipitate the re-emergence of the Klu Klux Klan as a major force within the American body politic; this time with a focus not only on the perpetration of violence and bigotry against African-Americans, but also against Jews and Catholics.

The most important nativist development in the 1920s, however, came with the passage of the 1924 National Origins Act – the most restrictive immigration law in American history.

This law attempted to restore the white Protestant character of America by establishing immigration quotas linked to the ethnic make-up of the country based on the 1890 census.

It also banned Asian immigration into the US entirely. In place with only minor modifications until the mid 1960s, this highly nativist piece of legislation had tragic consequences in the 1930s and 1940s.

The ban on Asian immigration helped initiate the increasingly anti-Western, ultranationalist militaristic policies that emerged in Japan in the years that followed.

Strict limits

Equally tragically, the National Origins Act set strict limits on the number of immigrants admitted from Germany and Austria at the very time when Nazi persecution was intensifying.

It also placed refugees at the bottom of the list of those eligible for entry, which made it nearly impossible for German Jewish refugees to move to the US in the years immediately following Hitler’s assumption of power.

Unable to go around the limits set by Congress, and strongly advised not to attempt to change the law as the end result might lead to even greater restrictions on immigration, Roosevelt quietly issued an order in the mid-1930s that reversed the classification of refugees.

As a result, virtually all of the immigrants who arrived from Germany and Austria between 1936 and 1940 were Jewish. Thanks to this change, the US took in more German and Austrian Jewish refugees than any other country in the world between those years.

But the demand for entry to the US among Jews was significantly higher than the quota’s allowed, and far greater numbers might have been admitted if a change in the law had occurred.

One would have thought that the outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1939 would have led to greater American sympathy for the Jews in central and eastern Europe. But this was not the case.

Driven by fear and latent anti-Semitism, assistant secretary of state Breckenridge Long and other officials within the US State Department publically argued that German Jewish immigration should be curtailed based on the specious argument that some of these individuals might be spies for the Nazis.

As a result of this fear mongering – eerily reminiscent of the anti-Muslim rhetoric propagated by the Trump administration – the number of German Jewish refugees admitted to the US declined in the wake of the invasion of France in 1940, and was cut even further in 1941, leaving thousands of potential places under the quota system unfulfill in the period leading up to the Holocaust.

Tragic fate

The monstorous violence of the second World War and tragic fate of the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s taught the world some terrible lessons about the human costs of fear-driven xenophobia.

The millions of Americans and others around the world who have taken to the streets or signed petitions protesting the unjust, unlawful and discriminatory nature of Trump’s executive order understand this lesson.

As was the case in 1940, the Trump administration’s absurd insistence that they could not “telegraph” the order in advance but had to act before a wave of terrorists “flooded” into the country must be seen for what it is – a bald-faced attempt to scare the American people into supporting an immoral and untenable policy that in the long run will render the US less secure.

If Trump is truly interested in national security and his own and America’s standing in the world, he should admit his mistake and rescind the order immediately.

History has a way of catching up with those who ignore the lessons of the past.

David B Woolner is senior fellow of the Roosevelt Institute, professor of history at Marist College, and the 2016-17 Mary Ball Washington visiting professor of American history at University College Dublin