BRECKINRIDGE LONG American Eichmann???: An Inquiry into the Character of the Man Who Denied Visas to Jews, By Neil Rolde. Polar Bear and Co., 287 pages. $16.95.
Oak Bluffs seasonal resident Neil Rolde for 16 years was a representative in the Maine state legislature and the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from that state in 1990. He has long been concerned with what it means to be in governmental office.
Mr. Rolde’s Jewish wife of 52 years, Karla Florsheim Rolde, escaped with her parents from Germany in the 1930s. In his new book (he has written 11 others), Mr. Rolde, an American-born Jew, angrily questions the actions of Breckinridge Long, the State Department official responsible for refugees during the Roosevelt administration in World War II. Mr. Rolde is especially concerned with Mr. Long’s unwillingness to admit Jewish refugees.
Breckinridge Long had impeccable American lineage. One of his forebears, John Cabell Breckinridge, was vice president of the United States under James Buchanan. A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant from St. Louis, Mr. Long was a graduate of Princeton and a member of its board of trustees. He was also a dedicated Democrat, devoted in his allegiance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Long had first entered government service as a third assistant secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. He hoped to be elected to the Senate, but wasn’t. When Roosevelt ran for President, Mr. Long worked hard for him and was appointed ambassador to Italy in 1933 as a reward. He arrived at his post as Mussolini was coming to power. Mr. Long described him in correspondence with the President as “an astounding character.” He found Il Duce’s Fascist black shirts “dapper and well dressed . . . and lending an atmosphere of individuality and importance to their surroundings.” He had previously found Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf “eloquent in opposition to Jews as exponents of Communism and chaos,” and some began to think of Mr. Long as perhaps pro-Fascist. Yet in 1936, he returned to Washington and went to work for Roosevelt’s re-election.
Then in 1938, after Kristallnacht, the smashing of the windows of Jewish businesses in Germany, and Hitler’s takeover of Austria, Roosevelt recalled the U.S. ambassador to Germany and called for an international conference on refugees. After the full-scale outbreak of war in Europe. Breckinridge Long was put in charge of getting all Americans in dangerous war zones back home. He quickly managed the safe return of 75,000 of them.
His next role was as an assistant secretary of state. By 1940, in that position he began dealing with what he called “the influx of aliens.” He wanted to see less immigration so more U.S. citizens could come home. Concerned as he had been previously with the fate of Americans abroad, he wanted to see immigration legislation changed for their benefit. Americans were finding, when they sought to escape from tumultuous Europe, that the ships that could get them home had been fully booked by refugees. When Mr. Long asked questions about who they were and why they should be admitted, he was told by concerned Jewish religious leaders in America that many of those Europeans desperately seeking to come to the United States were “intellectuals and brave spirits, refugees from the tortures of dictators.” Mr. Long replied he was sure that some of the refugees were German agents and sympathizers.
As far as Jewish immigrant children seeking to come to America were concerned, Mr. Long wrote in his diary: “I have accepted a proposal to facilitate the reception here of 1,000 Jewish children from France. Another effort will be made to move 6,000 or 8,000 to this hemisphere. They are derelicts. Their elders are being herded like cattle and deported to Poland or to German workshops . . . The appeal for asylum is irresistible . . . but we cannot receive into our own midst all — or even a fraction of the oppressed — and no other country will receive them.” In the end, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s request, the number of Jewish children accepted from France was increased from 1,000 to 5,000. Author Nolde also praises Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor at the start of the war, a time when that department was in charge of immigration, for her humanitarian efforts.
But Mr. Long continued to insist that “many agents” — Jewish and non-Jewish — were being brought into the United States by the Germans in the guise of refugees. Clearly, Neil Rolde proves that Breckinridge Long worked hard to limit the number of refugees allowed into this country in the war years, and it seems likely from his book that Mr. Long was at least a “garden” anti-Semite who had grown up where few Jews were known and was uncertain about them. Seeking to equate him with the German SS officer, Otto Adolf Eichmann, responsible for six million Jewish deaths in the war, seems a long stretch however.
Breckinridge Long American Eichmann??? is a thought-provoking book, but it calls for close study by serious and informed readers and would have benefitted enormously from an index.