The Nazi buildup to war and the Holocaust came at a bad time for America. During the recovery from the Great Depression, a traumatized United States displayed an uncharacteristic propensity for isolationism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Those sentiments instigated one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history, when, in 1939, the country rejected legislative efforts to save Jewish children from devastation in Europe.

In the 1930s, at the height of America’s turn inward, any suggestion of raising immigration quotas to aid those fleeing from Nazism was considered politically dangerous. As Senator Lewis Schwellenbach, of Washington state, explained, fighting immigration was “the best vote-getting argument” in the politics of his day. “The politician can beat his breast and proclaim his loyalty to America.” Even better, “He can tell the unemployed man that he is out of work because some alien has a job.”

Anti-immigration legislation was passed in 1921, and by 1924 restrictive quotas had reduced the flow of Europeans to the United States. Prospective Americans were technically required to demonstrate that they would not become public charges, but, as the historian David Wyman has noted, this “presented virtually no obstacle to immigrants” because American consular officials assumed that anyone who had resources to travel and sufficient health to hold a job fulfilled this criterion. At the start of the Depression, however, politicians made a concerted effort to reduce immigration even further. President Herbert Hoover instructed the State Department to turn away immigrants without significant resources. The result was that immigration flows came in 20 percent short of what the already reduced quotas allowed.

After Kristallnacht, things changed. On November 9, 1938, mobs smashed and looted Jewish properties in Germany and Austria. Synagogues burned while firemen stood by. Gangs invaded Jewish hospitals, old-age homes, and schools, where they beat residents and threw them into the night. Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

Americans hoping to spare German Jews from further horrors seized on these events. Recognizing that nativists would block any attempt to increase immigration overall, pro-immigration legislators focused exclusively on saving German boys and girls. In 1939, Senator Robert Wagner, of New York, and Representative Edith Rogers, of Massachusetts, introduced a bill granting entrance to 20,000 German refugee children, age 14 or younger, over the course of two years, outside of the quotas then in place. The bill stipulated that the newcomers must be “supported and properly cared for” by organizations or individuals, so that they would not become public charges. This represented the first major effort to mitigate the Immigration Act of 1924, which had effectively stopped most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The bill, nevertheless, was a weak response to a great horror. Twenty thousand was a large figure in itself, but very small compared with the number of Jews endangered in Germany. Moreover, the bill would present families with a terrible dilemma. Saving the next generation meant tearing homes apart, wrenching children from parents, and sending those children alone to a foreign land. Meanwhile Jewish mothers and fathers were left to kiss their offspring goodbye and then face their own precarious fates. Yet the Wagner-Rogers bill was the best the country could muster at the time.

At first the bill’s prospects seemed good. Labor leaders and politicians supported it, the latter coming from both sides of the aisle and including both Herbert Hoover and Fiorello La Guardia. Religious and women’s groups generally backed it, as did the Federal Council of Churches and the YMCA. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge led a group of Massachusetts women who would accept responsibility for 25 refugees. The New York State Senate passed a resolution of approval. Actors spoke out approvingly, including Helen Hayes, Don Ameche, and Henry Fonda. Editorial support was widespread and nearly unanimous. In 30 states, 85 newspapers endorsed it—even 26 Southern newspapers, from every state in that region except Arkansas and Mississippi.

Opponents mobilized quickly. John Trevor, head of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies (and parent of the national-origins principle of the Immigration Restriction Acts), released a statement rebuking Wagner and Rogers for authoring their bill while the country was already home to “a mountain million of neglected boys and girls, descendants of American pioneers, undernourished, ragged and ill.” He declared that Congress must “protect the youth of America from this foreign invasion.” Led by the American Legion, a panoply of patriotic organizations came out against the bill, including the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Patriotic Order Sons of America.

These were formidable enemies, and their strength gives an indication of how widespread the opposition to immigration truly was. The American Legion was one of the largest organizations in the country, and the Daughters of the American Revolution enjoyed legendary status. The Junior Order of United American Mechanics boasted a membership of 200,000—five of whom were congressmen. And the organization was especially influential in powerhouse states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. In sheer numbers, the strongest foes of the Wagner-Rogers bill were the shared clearinghouses such as the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, whose board coordinated the work of 115 different societies with a combined membership of two and a half million. The Allied Patriotic Societies, another coalition, brought a further 30 associations into the fray.

The main argument adduced was nationalism. American children, these groups said, must be cared for before the country could begin to worry about the well-being of non-Americans. And as the United States was just recovering from unprecedented financial catastrophe, the claim found purchase. A handbill issued by the American Immigration Conference Board, a nativist organization, announced, “America’s Children are America’s Problem! Refugee Children in Europe are Europe’s Problem!” It articulated what became the standard argument, noting that “American Children Have First Claim to America’s Charity” and that “if homes are available for the adoption of alien children, Americanism demands that needy American children be adopted into them.” Despite remarks by leading child-welfare workers such as Katherine Lenroot, head of the United States Children’s Bureau, pointing out that the German refugee children “would not lessen in the slightest degree the care and protection afforded a single American child,” the claim that the Wagner-Rogers bill was depriving American children took on great persuasive power in the minds of the American public.

In March 1939 a poll of all U.S. senators found that only 45 were willing to give their opinion of the bill; of these, 24 opposed and 21 supported it. Other senators said the issue was “too hot to handle,” which offered a clear sense of how they would vote. Of those who revealed their thoughts on the issue, only 15 percent of Southern senators supported the measure. More surprising, only 25 percent of senators from the Northeast and Far West were in favor. In fact, the Midwest, characteristically the most isolationist region in the country, gave the greatest support, but even that amounted to a meager one-third of its senators. Only 25 percent of senate Democrats and 10 percent of senate Republicans stood behind the bill. Given all this, the survey’s authors concluded that the bill was doomed.

In April, a joint subcommittee of the immigration committees held four days of hearings; the vast majority of handpicked members supported the bills. Witnesses testifying in favor included Quaker and Unitarian social workers and former Wisconsin governor Phillip La Follette, recently returned from Germany, who explained why conditions required the immediate immigration of children to ensure their safety. Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy all spoke. Helen Hayes put on the biggest show of the proceedings, presenting herself as a mother of two, and fervidly urging passage.

Opponents from restrictionist organizations disingenuously expressed concern that the bill would tear apart German families. They asked if the bill’s advocates also spoke for dispossessed children in other war-torn countries, such as Spain and China. If we did not let all these children in, so the logic went, we should not single out one country. And since such a comprehensive move was unthinkable, none should enter. Furthermore, they argued that letting in 20,000 German youth was merely a first step in a larger plan to break down barriers and let in millions.

While there were no blatantly anti-Semitic remarks, an undercurrent of resentment toward Jews was unmistakable. Many perceived Wagner-Rogers as “a Jewish bill,” observed the Nation. “The implication is that all the children are Jewish,” and that perception was clearly a negative. John Trevor, of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, raised old fears when he claimed, “the American-born child…must yield to the foreign-born refugee because of race affinity.” Beyond the official halls of power, Jew-hatred was on naked display. The week of the hearing, the United Daughters of 1812 held their convention in Washington D.C. The organization’s president in her address argued against the bill because most of the children it would save were Jewish, and as this was a Christian nation, we should care for our own before letting in such foreigners.

In May, the subcommittees reported favorably to their respective committees, voting unanimously for passage. In response, opponents stepped up their work. The American Legion called on its 58 departments and 11,580 posts to fight the bill, asking members to reach out by telephone, telegraph, and letter to their representatives. An editorial in the New York Herald Tribune reported its surprise over “how much bad and bitter argument has been evoked by the Wagner bill,” and how it was being fought “with as fiercely narrow sincerity as if they [the potential 20,000 children] were an invading host.”

The House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization now decided to hold a second hearing on its own. Although much of the testimony was similar to that expressed previously, James Wilmeth, of the Junior Order United American Mechanics, provided the clearest statement of the opponents’ position yet delivered. “We are afraid to lift the quota,” he explained. “We are afraid to see it lifted. We don’t know where it will end.”

In June, the full Senate Immigration Committee voted in favor of the Wagner-Rogers bill, but not before effectively amending it to death. The 20,000 children would be given preference, but only among those allowed in under the existing German quota numbers. At the news of this change, Senator Wagner claimed the bill was now “totally unacceptable,” and preferred “to have no bill at all” to one that did so little and that only knocked adults off an already overflowing list. The bill soon died.

America, at its best, is the most generous nation in history. But the 1930s was a time of national doubt and disillusion, with lingering high unemployment, pervasive isolationism engendered by a costly intervention abroad, and the dollop of prejudice that can accompany large-scale uncertainty. Jewish children in Germany paid the price for these attitudes. As for the significance of this sad tale on the nation’s current immigration woes, the reader may draw his own conclusions.