Looking to find one emblemmatic villain behind America’s decision to slam its doors against immigrant refugees in the early 1920s — especially Jewish people from Eastern Europe like my grandparents for whom failure to escape would mean death in the Holocaust? Look no further than this man: Brigadeer General Marlborough Churchill, head of American Military Intelligence (MID) from 1918 through 1920. During this time, Churchill’s MID generated a parade of reports painting Jews as undesirables, subversives, and Reds, as slanted as any Anti-Semitic propagrada of the era.
These became the chief ammunition xenophobic Congressmen used to justify imposing quotas in 1921 and 1924 designed to block all but a tiny trickle of immigrants, aimed primarily at Jews and Italians. Italy, which sent over 270,000 to Ellis Island in 1913, was restricted after 1924 to 3,845 per year. Poland, which had sent 174,000 — including about 100,000 Jews — was cut to 5,982 per year.
The American public backed restrictive quotas by a large margin. And for his part, General Churchill was probably not even a bigoted man. A distant relative of England’s Winston Churchill, product of Andover Academy and Harvard, he was a rigorous professional and brilliant staff officer. His job demanded that he protect the United States, which in 1919/1920 included two key points:
- First, America was committed to supporting the new country of Poland, created in 1918 at the close of World War I and thrown immidiately into a life-or-death military struggle against Bolshevik Russia. Saving Poland was critical to stabilizing Europe after the War.
- Second, Americans demanded safety against saboteurs and subversives, primarily leftists and Socialists who in 1919 had driven the country into the deliriums of the First Red Scare. The large majority of leftists were Eastern European immigrants.
Both these missions led Churchill and MID to focus on The Jews. It is alarming that today there survives a thick file of memos written by MID under General Churchill containing a barriage of slanders against Jews people as a group. They focus on Eastern Europeans but include surveillance of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, financiers Paul Warburg and Jacob Schiff, and western Zionist leaders Chiam Weizman and Theoodore Herzl. The reports finger Jews as instigators of the Bolshevik Revolution and rulers of the Western Press, a secret conspiracy ready to subvert any country. They describe Jewish people as personally filthy and non-hygenic and, if allowed into the US, “a serious menace to our civilization.”
To Churchill’s MID, stories of violent anti-Jewish riots — pogroms — in Poland and the nearby Ukraine in 1919 were simply slanders spread by Jews to undermine Polish independence.
Think I’m exaggerating? Make a visit some time to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and ask them to show you Record Group 165 (Military Intelligence), file 245-15. That’s the Jewish File. Hold on to your socks while you read it!
Having recently discovered how the restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s almost cost the lives of my own grandpatents and family, I’ve now spent time studying these old archive records trying to figure out how intelligent and well-meaning professionals like General Churchill could do so much damage in the world. More on this to come….