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Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 by David S. Wyman (101,000 words)

Paper Walls was the first scholarly book to deal with the question of America’s response to the Nazi assault on the European Jews. A revised version of my Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University, it was originally published in 1968... Those times were very different from these. There was little public receptivity to Holocaust studies then, and only limited academic interest... The scholarly reviews, of which there were several, were favorable. But the general press paid little attention to the book...

A pioneer in its field,
Paper Walls first established the thesis that three features of American society in the 1930’s and 1940’s were key to understanding the nation’s inadequate response to the refugee crisis. They were anti-Semitism, nativistic nationalism, and the unemployment problem of the Great Depression. This basic concept has been followed in all the succeeding scholarly literature on the topic. This concept is also the main legacy from Paper Walls to my more recent book, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (1984). Although Abandonment stands as a complete study in its own right, it is in fact the sequel to Paper Walls. It is a continuation of the history of America’s reaction to the plight of the European Jews in the Nazi era.” — David S. Wyman, Preface to the 1985 paperback edition of Paper Walls

“[A] thorough study of American refugee policy from 1938 to 1941... On the basis of Wyman’s book, the United States stands indicted for a tragic failure to live up to its nineteenth-century ideal of asylum... Though Wyman makes no effort to disguise his strong sympathy for the refugees, his book... gives a careful and well-documented history of American refugee policy... The state department — above all Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long — emerges from his pages as the primary culprit... The attitude displayed by... the foreign service... led to the creation of the paper walls that Wyman so honestly and tragically describes in this important book.” — Robert A. Divine,
Journal of American History

“The first scholarly examination of American refugee policy between 1938 and 1941... What Wyman sets out to do he does extremely well.
Paper Walls is a worthwhile addition to our growing knowledge of the policy of those who bore witness to the Holocaust.” — Henry L. Feingold, American Jewish Historical Quarterly

“No one who reads this book will be able to ignore the fact that blatant antisemitism in the United States — from the public, from Congress, and from within the State Department — prevented our government from giving more than minimal assistance to the Jewish refugees... Professor Wyman has done an immense amount of research in primary and secondary sources and Paper Walls is extraordinarily sound and superbly documented. It is tightly written, well-organized, and logically presented.” — Leonard Dinnerstein, Jewish Social Studies

“The conclusions of the book are stark and simple: ‘The half-filled quotas of mid-1940 to mid-1941, when refugee rescue remained entirely feasible, symbolize 20,000 to 25,000 lives lost...’ In the eight years from 1933 to 1941, about 250,000 refugees found safety here. The total is not small, but neither is the country which received them.” — Raul Hilberg, Political Science Quarterly

“Generally [President Roosevelt] left refugee policy to the disposition of a hostile Congress and the State Department. Yet, as the author points out, neither Roosevelt, the State Department, nor Congress can be blamed entirely for what happened. ‘Viewed within the context of its times, United States refugee policy from 1938 to the end of 1941 was essentially what the American people wanted.’ In December 1938 only 8.7 per cent of the respondents to a Roper poll favored entry of a larger number of European refugees than the quota law allowed; fully 83 per cent were flatly opposed. This book tells a dismal story. While it is dear where the author’s sympathies lie, he tells the story with restraint; if anything, his approach and writing style underplay the pathos involved... Wyman has given us a scholarly description and analysis of the first act of the tragedy, which he promises to carry on through the war and postwar years.” — J. Joseph Huthmacher, The American Historical Review

“This thoroughly documented study of the United States policies in regard to the refugee crisis of 1938-1941 is the best available source in this field and on that period. Drawing on material from some well known as well as several previously untapped sources, Wyman discusses both the ambiguous role of particular figures and organizations and the underlying forces at work in American society which influenced governmental policy and practices; anti-semitism, nativism, fear of unemployment and of Nazi subversives are shown as the major pressure to which America’s people and leaders succumbed.” — Joseph S. Roucek, The International Migration Review

“This is a depressing topic impressively researched. Professor Wyman has investigated almost all the relevant primary and secondary materials in order to recount the tragic story of America’s indifference to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe... Over two-thirds of Americans desired to keep the Jewish refugees out of the United Stales. Wyman argues that this sentiment was due to three sources: ‘nativism, anti-Semitism, and economic insecurity’... There is enough evidence in Wyman’s book to cause the Statue of Liberty to collapse for lack of moral foundation.” — John P. Diggins, The Historian

“Professor Wyman skillfully investigates and thoughtfully analyzes the complexities of the crisis and the reasons why more was not done to aid the refugees in the crucial period between 1938 and 1941... The author examines the problem thoroughly from a number of standpoints... The State Department, the Congress, and the President really were reflecting the attitudes of the American people, who, Wyman asserts, were indifferent and even antagonistic to the refugees [because of] the economic insecurity engendered by the depression, nativistic nationalism, and anti-Semitism. A well-researched and lucidly, if not dispassionately, written book, Paper Walls is a sound, workmanlike study of a significant episode in our nation’s recent past.” — E. Berkeley Tompkins, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science