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America and the Holocaust | Article

Breckinridge Long (1881 -1958)

Breckinridge Long

During the horrifying years of the Holocaust, while the Nazis were killing thousands of Jews a day, the U.S. State Department official in charge of matters concerning European refugees was Breckinridge Long, an extreme nativist with a particular suspicion of Eastern Europeans. To make matters worse, Long's views were shared by many of his subordinates, most of whom showed themselves to be indifferent to the tragedy unfolding in Europe. One Treasury Department official would later call them an American "underground movement...to let the Jews be killed." Long himself was extremely paranoid and came to believe not only that he was constantly under attack from "the communists, extreme radicals, Jewish professional agitators, [and] refugee enthusiasts," but that his colleagues were conspiring against him as well. It's not surprising that with men like Long in control, very little would be done to help the Jews in Europe. 

Long's political career had begun during World War I when he had served as an assistant secretary of state to President Woodrow Wilson. In 1920 he left the State Department to run for the Senate, but like many other Democratic candidates, he was defeated in an election that turned into a landslide Republican victory. In 1933, in return for Long's election campaign support, the newly-elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Long as his ambassador to Italy, a position Long held for three years, but not without controversy. Many observers felt Long was overtly pro-Mussolini, and they criticized him for advising the president against imposing an embargo on oil shipments to Italy in retaliation for Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. 

In 1940 Long was back at the State Department, this time as assistant secretary in charge of the Visa Division. By the middle of the year, Long had managed to reverse a 1938 Roosevelt initiative that had somewhat eased the extremely restrictive immigration policies of the Great Depression years. Under the pretext that Nazi spies were hiding among the refugees seeking admission to the U.S., Long designed a secret policy to tighten the immigration requirements, effectively slashing admissions by half. A year later, Long's department cut refugee immigration once more, this time reducing admission to about a quarter of the relevant quotas. A regulation known as the "relatives rule" was responsible for the reductions. It required any applicant with relatives in German, Russian, or Italian territory to pass an extremely arduous security test. At the same time, all would-be immigrants were required to undergo a very thorough security review by inter-departmental committees. If the committees gave an applicant an unfavorable review, a visa was refused. 

Perhaps the most appalling contribution Long made to the restrictive immigration policy during the war was an intra-department memo he circulated in June 1940. He wrote: "We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas." The effects of Long's delaying tactics made refugee aid workers despair. One of them wrote: "We cannot continue to let these tragic people [German Jews] go on hoping that if they comply with every requirement, if they get all the special documents required...if they nerve themselves for the final interview at the Consulate, they may just possibly be the lucky ones to get visas when we know that practically no one is granted visas in Germany today." Ultimately, the effect of the immigration policies set by Long's department was that, during American involvement in the war, 90 percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German and Italian control were never filled. If they had been, an additional 190,000 people could have escaped the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. 

Various other initiatives to save Europe's Jews met with obstruction from Long. For example, in April 1943, Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Geneva, suggested a plan to save thousands of French and Rumanian Jews. Even after the proposal had the support of the president, Long and his subordinates delayed acting on it for eight months. Long obstructed rescue efforts again in November 1943, when the House was considering a resolution that would establish a separate government agency charged with rescuing refugees. In a closed hearing on the matter, Long gave testimony that was peppered with inaccuracies. He greatly exaggerated the number of refugees to have reached the U.S. since Hitler came to power. He also claimed that everything that could be done to save the Jews was being done. Long's presentation effectively crippled support for the measure, but only for a time. Eventually publication of his testimony revealed the apathy and even callous attitude of Long and his associates. 

In January 1944 before the resolution for a rescue agency came to a vote, President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, which relieved the State Department of responsibility for rescue efforts. The Board had some success in rescuing Jews and may have been responsible for saving as many as 200,000 lives. Long left the State Department at the end of 1944. He devoted much of the rest of his life to breeding race horses and died 14 years later at his luxurious home in Laurel, Maryland. 

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