So this is doing the rounds on Facebook these days and within the online community, for me this is a perfect example of why context is so critical to properly understanding history. Let’s start with the immediate, the facts as listed on the meme are correct, the MS St. Louis did indeed sail to Florida as part of its trip, it was technically turned away from Florida, and up to half those on board might have died in the Holocaust. However between these facts are some key tidbits that need to be considered.
First the ship was originally traveling to Cuba, with its load of Jewish refugees, who were planning to enter Cuba under legally acquired tourist visas. These visas had been provided by Cuban diplomatic officials in Germany, however the Cuban government changed its mind and rejected the visas during the ships trip over the ocean. There are several reasons for the Cuban change of heart, mainly though it was most likely due to concerns about the impact waves of European Jewish immigrants would have on Cuba’s economy. Most of the immigrants had no intentions of staying in Cuba but saw it as a step on a longer path to gaining entry to the United States.
Upon departing Cuba the MS St. Louis departed Cuba and sailed nearly to Florida, reportedly within sight of the lights of Miami. The MS St. Louis was escorted by two United States Coast Guard vessels, and their purpose there is ambiguous. Some historians contend they were there to prevent the ship attempting to land or beaching so that the Jewish refugees could then climb onto U.S. soil. The U.S. Coast Guard contends that the ships were there to ensure safety for those on board. The truth probably contains both. The MS St. Louis then attempted to land in Canada, but was turned back.
Returning to Europe its captain, Gustav Schroder, along with others was able to negotiate non-German points of departure for his passengers into four European nations, Great Britain, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands.
This is where the first point of context becomes important – these events took place between May to June 1939. World War II had not yet broken out, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. In fact the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 wouldn’t be signed until August 1939, so France and Great Britain in June 1939 anticipated that in the event of a war the Soviet Union could be swayed to their side, which would make a German triggered war unlikely. (A view backed up by Hitler’s reluctance to invade Poland until the Soviet Union was brought to their side.)
So in June 1939 the events of the MS St. Louis looked like a win for the Jewish refugees aboard. They hadn’t had to go back to Germany, they all had safe homes, and the crisis had been averted. It wasn’t until 1940 that three of the four nations taking them in were conquered by Germany and not until 1942 that most of the refugees on the MS St. Louis died.
Furthermore the restrictions against Jewish immigration into the United States were based on a 1924 Immigration Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by Calvin Coolidge with the racial theory goal of keeping the United States a mono-racial nation. (Specifically on the idea that Nordic Europeans were key.) The law was based around quotas of immigration assigned based on the U.S. population in 1890. It was a solidly racist law but it also set up the barriers that impacted the refugees in 1939.
Key issue though, Germans were actually on the preferred list of immigrants. In 1939 the problem was that the United States has a list with a multi-year waiting period for immigration visas from Germany, the list had both German Jews and non-German desperate to enter the United States. Allowing in the refugees on the MS St. Louis would have bumped others further up in the list back. The U.S. administration under Roosevelt was also opposed to allowing Jewish refugees into the country and put up unofficial barriers, for racist/ethnic reasons.
Even United States President Franklin Roosevelt was unwilling to waive the rules and allow the passengers of the MS St. Louis to land, he was considering his pending run for a third term in 1940 as President and the strong domestic concerns about immigration. The U.S. was still in the Great Depression in 1939 and although the economy was recovering the citizens of the U.S. were not ready to welcome masses of immigrants who they feared would compete for scare jobs.
Which was an issue, as appeared in the Evian Conference of 1938 at which no real resolution appeared to the growing potential Jewish refugee crisis due to Nazi policies in Germany. The Dominican Republic at that conference had agreed to take on 100,000 Jewish refugees but the MS St. Louis for unknown reasons made no attempt to avail itself of that offer in 1939. More critically, Hitler when speaking on the conference stated:
“I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”
In other words had the United States taken in the refugees it would have invited a potential flood of Jewish refugees from Germany, shipped over by the Nazi government, on the assumption that if the U.S. would bow to taking in one shipment, they would take in more.
Now the Syrian Refugee Crisis is its own unique situation – it is due to a multi-part war, persecution, and desperation. Using an analogy to the Jewish refugee crisis of 1939 makes for a fine emotional “sound bite” but it doesn’t really link, and more critically, the meme at the top does not really teach a valid lesson on a very complex issue.
Sources: Wikipedia entries on the MS St. Louis, the Evian Conference, and US Immigration Act of 1924, a BBC article on the voyage of the MS St. Louis, entries in the United States Holocaust Museum on the MS St. Louis and the US Policy towards Jewish Refugees