Nazis killed millions during the World War II Holocaust. But many believe some of those deaths could have been avoided if other nations had been willing to open their borders to those – especially Jews – who wished to flee. Some of those accusing fingers point at Breckinridge Long, who, as a U.S. state department official, worked hard to keep European Jews out. MPBN Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz talks with York resident Neil Rolde, who has written a biography of Long.
“I’ve read a number of books about the Holocaust, being Jewish myself,” says Neil Rolde (left), of York, a former state legislator, aide to Gov. Ken Curtis, and a historian. “And I would keep coming across this guy, Breckinridge Long, and he was, sort of, the villain of the piece.”
But Rolde says no one had written a biography of Long, so, working from papers and diaries at the Library of Congress, Rolde did.
Breckinridge Long was born in 1881. An ancestor, John Campbell Breckinridge, was vice president, and the southern candidate Abraham Lincoln defeated in the 1860 presidential election. His wife’s great-grandfather, Francis Preston Blair, was a newspaper publisher whose house in Washington, Blair House, is still used as guest quarters for visitors to the White House, just across the street.
Breckinridge Long first went to work at the State Department during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Rolde says in Washington, Long and his wife Christine made the connection that would be key to his future government service.
“There was an assistant secretary of the Navy by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was known as Frank Roosevelt in those days,” Rolde says. “And they were about the same age; Roosevelt had gone to Harvard, so they were both Ivy Leaguers. And so they became social friends.”
After Wilson, a string of Republican presidents kept Breckinridge Long out of government. But Roosevelt, now president, returned him to the State Department in 1939, just after the Second World War had begun in Europe.
Long now went to work, rigorously enforcing limits on visas to Europeans, especially European Jews, trying to flee from Adolph Hitler. Rolde says others in government were more sympathetic.
“Harold Ickes was one. He was secretary of the interior,” Rolde says. “He wanted to bring them to, particularly, the Virgin Islands, which were under his jurisdiction. There was a governor of the Virgin Islands and he was willing to do it. And Breckinridge Long went beserk over that idea.”
Labor Secretary Frances Perkins also tried to help fleeing Jews, only to have her authority over immigration taken away. Finally, in 1944, after a Sunday afternoon meeting at the White House with his treasury secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Roosevelt created a War Refugee Board, which may have saved 200,000 more people from winding up in the chambers that gassed millions.
Rolde’s sub-title wonders whether Long could be compared to Adolph Eichman, the man who headed the Gestapo Department of Jewish Affairs, and coordinated the arrest and deportation of Jews and oversaw the operation of the death camps. Rolde concludes some comparisons are apt.
“That he was a bureaucrat and he was a cog that didn’t really question too much what you were doing,” he says. “Now, in Eichman’s case, he believed in what he was doing, and I have the same feeling about Long. He thought that all the Jews that came here as refugees were Nazi spies – you know, that the Germans would threaten their relatives. Well, there were apparently three cases of that during the whole war.”
But there were differences. Rolde says Eichman believed in the goal of exterminating Jews; Long reflected anti-semetic sentiments common in the U.S. at that time, but also had many Jewish friends and aquaintances. Eichman escaped U.S. authorities after the war, was tracked down and captured by Israeli agents, convicted of war crimes, and hanged in 1962.
Breckinridge Long went on to participate in the founding of the United Nations, died in 1958 and is interred, with his wife, in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
Neil Rolde’s biolgraphy: “Breckinridge Long: American Eichman,” is published by Polar Bear books of Solon.
One other note: Neil Rolde is a former member of MPBN’s board of trustees.