Through a Historian’s Eyes: The Wagner-Rogers Bill

June 30, 2016

July 1st, 2016 marks the 77th anniversary of the death of the Wagner-Rogers bill in the Senate. In remembrance of this anniversary, we are beginning our first community-wide research sprint on newspaper articles about the failure of the Wagner-Rogers bill. The goal is to bring our total number of articles on this event to 150 by July 31st. We need your help to make this possible!

After you read this article, join us by researching your local community newspaper collections for coverage on the bill from February to July 1939. Then, upload your article findings to the History Unfolded website. Finally, share your findings on social media and with your friends.

Calling on the Doctor
To help guide those participating in this research sprint, I asked one of our museum historians to share some additional background on the Wagner-Rogers bill. Dr. Rebecca Erbelding has been an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for twelve years, overseeing new paper collections donated by survivors, liberators, and their families. She graduated with her PhD in history from George Mason University in the spring of 2015, where she wrote her dissertation on the War Refugee Board, and is preparing a book on the subject for publication. She is currently detailed to work on the Museum’s upcoming exhibition, which will examine the role of Americans during the Holocaust.

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Museum Historian Dr. Rebecca Erbelding (left) conducts research as Museum curator Kyra Schuster looks on.

Here’s Dr. Erbelding:

The Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have allowed 20,000 German children under the age of 14 to come to the United States outside of the immigration quotas, was clearly doomed by early July 1939. The Citizens History blog moderators have allowed me the opportunity to share with you a little more about what it was like 77 years ago, when the bill never even came up for a vote.

Immigration Anxieties

The most important thing to remember is that many members of Congress–and a majority of the American people–were against increasing immigration to the United States, even for German-Jewish refugees. The economy was still recovering from the Great Depression, and unemployment in 1938 was around 20%.  Many people felt that immigrants would compete with Americans for jobs. Many areas of the country were segregated, and racism, nativism, and antisemitism certainly played a role in the anti-immigration movement.

So the Wagner-Rogers bill was introduced very carefully. It was a bipartisan bill, introduced in February 1939 by Senator Robert Wagner, a Democrat from New York, and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts.  Neither of them were Jewish. (In fact, a group of Jewish Congressmen got together in April 1938 and decided that they would not introduce any legislation trying to expand immigration, since they feared bills would be introduced to cut immigration instead.)  The bill was introduced with the encouragement of private relief organizations.  It had the support of the Children’s Bureau (part of the Labor Department) and of the American Federation of Labor–so opponents of the bill theoretically couldn’t argue that the children would take jobs from Americans. But as citizen historian Charles S. found in the Des Moines Register, the American Legion (and other patriotic groups, like the Daughters of the American Revolution) opposed the bill, arguing it would break down immigration laws.

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Legion Leader Testifies–Fights Child Refugee Bill. Des Moines Register. 1939-06-01.

A Promising Start

At first–as many of you have found in articles from the spring of 1939–the bill’s chances looked good. But by June, opponents to immigration had gathered strength, and introduced bills calling for a cut in immigration.  Finally, on June 30, as one Senate committee passed the Wagner-Rogers bill, another committee passed a bill to end all quota immigration to the United States for the next five years.  The only way the Wagner-Rogers bill was going to pass in the full Senate and become law was to combine the two bills.  The 20,000 children could have come, but it would have meant that the United States was closing its’ doors to most of the Jews still trying to get out of Europe. Citizen historian Charles S. also found this article, from the Arizona Republic.  It’s got an optimistic headline, but if you keep reading, you’ll see the terrible problem.

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Child Refugee Bill Approved. Arizona Republic. 1939-07-01.

A Quiet End

On July 1, Robert Wagner pulled his support from the bill after realizing that if it went to a vote, tens of thousands of adults and children would not be able to escape Europe.  There isn’t a lot of press coverage of the failure of the bill–mainly because it died a slow death in committee. I’ve been impressed by the hard work all the citizen historians have put in, trying to help us figure out how the story was reported. Citizen historian Erika H. even found an article from August 1939, about Hollywood film stars supporting the Wagner-Rogers Bill.  In the article, actress Helen Hayes says, “Adjournment of Congress was the only reason for lack of favorable action on the bill.”  

Film Workers to Support Bill Admitting Refugee Children. Los Angeles Times. 1939-08-04.

Helen Hayes was wrong. The Wagner-Rogers bill failed 77 years ago this summer, because many Americans and their Congressional representatives weren’t in favor of increasing immigration, even if the immigrants were children.

P.S. from Eric: We’d love to know more about how your newspaper covered the Wagner-Rogers bill and its failure in committee, and how people in your hometown reacted to it. Read the Wagner-Rogers bill event page, then seek out articles published between February and July, 1939. With your help, we can reach our goal of having 81 more articles–a total of 150–on the Wagner-Rogers bill in our database by the end of July. Go forth and research!