The King-Havenner Bill of 1940
Dashed Hopes for a Jewish Immigration Haven in Alaska
On the one hand, refugees; on the other, places of asylum, of refuge. Permit me to suggest that there exists a place of refuge so obvious, so beckoning I am thrilled even to think of it. That asylum, that wonderful new promised land is Alaska. Alaska, a territory that can be a state, a state that can and may yet be the brightest star in our firmament of states.
- Saul Silverstein
One poignant episode in the tragic history of Jewish refugees during World War II was played out in Washington, D.C. and the Territory of Alaska between 1938 and 1940. It centered around a Congressional proposal to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe into Alaska, known to historians as the King-Havenner bill or Alaska Development Plan.
This paper examines key factors that contributed to the demise of the King-Havenner bill, and why the proposal failed to gain support from Congress in general and from Alaskans in particular. Background information is presented on Jewish immigration patterns from colonial times to World War II, key European events that were driving Jewish immigration in the 1930s, and restrictive United States laws and policies that severely limited these immigration efforts at the time of greatest need. Provisions of the King-Havenner Bill are described, together with a summary of reactions toward the proposal and an analysis of the factors that contributed to its tragic defeat.
The main argument is that while nativism, anti-semitism and economic insecurity all contributed to the proposal's demise, another critical factor was the failure of the bill's supporters to recognize the extent to which the residents and representatives of Territorial Alaska would oppose any measure that substantially differentiated them from the rest of the United States. When all was said and done, the heart-breaking needs of Jewish refugees, trying to flee Nazi persecution in Europe and immigrate to Alaska, never had any real hope of overcoming parochial concerns that dominated politics in the Territory of Alaska in the years immediately prior to statehood.
Before World War II, there were three major waves of Jewish immigration from Europe to America. As described by Friedman, the first wave occurred in the 1650s when, driven from their homelands by religious intolerance, large numbers of Spanish and Portuguese Jews joined other Europeans in their journey to the New World. The second wave dates from the early to middle nineteenth century (1820-1860) when, after Napoleon's defeat, German Jews lost all social and political gains of the Napoleonic period and immigrated to America in mass to obtain political freedom. The third wave spans the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It began when Tsarist Russia imposed such severe restrictions on Jews that their very existence was threatened. Until about 1920, Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe streamed to America by the hundreds of thousands, seeking asylum from severe oppression and the promise of new economic opportunities (Friedman 6-8).
When Hitler's National Socialist Party took control of Germany in 1933, new waves of anti-semitic hate and destruction were set off that for the next decade would be driving forces in attempts to push Jews out of Germany and, eventually, out of most of Nazi-dominated Europe. Terrorism swept over the Jewish population, followed by their expulsion from professional positions and boycotts of their businesses (Brody 322). By 1938 the position of Jews, not only in Germany but throughout Europe, was rapidly deteriorating. Germany's takeover of Austria in March 1938 triggered new waves of mass arrests, widespread destruction of Jewish property and bloody riots. By August 1938 it was estimated that almost a half million persons of Jewish or mixed Jewish-Christian ancestry in Germany and Austria were in immediate need of immigration visas (Morse 199-218).
Then in November 1938 massive violence against Jews erupted across Germany. In what came to be called Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, 195 synagogues were burned, 7,500 Jewish shops were looted, 800 businesses were destroyed, and more than 20,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald (Morse 222-224). Anthony Biddle, United States Ambassador to Poland, notified the State Department that Nazi-influenced anti-semitism was fast spreading to other countries as well, posing immediate threats to 445,000 Hungarian Jews, 900,000 Rumanian Jews, and 3.5 million Polish Jews (Morse 232).
For almost three centuries, Jewish immigrants had benefited greatly from America's tradition as an asylum for the oppressed. But by the 1930s this picture had changed drastically. Negative reactions to years of massive immigration, together with the economic depression and rampant unemployment that plagued the United States after 1929, triggered strong anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiments, and gave rise to restrictive immigration policies that proved disastrous for Jews seeking to escape Hitler's Third Reich and find safe haven in America.
Wyman describes one of the most crippling policies-President Hoover's executive order in 1930 to reduce immigration by excluding persons "likely to become a public charge." Known as the LPC stipulation, the policy assumed that immigrants would not be able to find employment because of the depression. American consulates were directed to deny immigration requests, even when sufficient immigration quotas were available, unless persons could prove they had enough money to live without a job, or had relatives or friends to support them if they could not find work. This restriction had immediate and drastic effects. Immigration soon fell 78-85 percent below levels that otherwise would have been allowed under existing immigration quotas (Wyman 3-4).
President Roosevelt, who took office in 1933, initially continued Hoover's policy to use the LPC stipulation to minimize immigration. But in 1938, when Nazi persecution of Jews increased dramatically, Roosevelt attempted to ease the LPC restriction for European Jews and make full use of immigration quotas. Immigration restrictionists inside and outside Congress strongly resisted the effort, noting that there were still as many as 8-10 million unemployed in the United States. Through 1941, when it was too late for most Jewish refugees to escape Nazi-dominated Europe, restrictionists continued to argue that every refugee who immigrated to the United States, and found employment, kept an American out of work (Wyman 4-5).
Reluctant to confront immigration restrictionists, Roosevelt's administration began to explore the alternative of settling refugees in sparsely populated territories around the world (Wyman 99-100). In November 1938, two weeks after the infamous German Kristallnacht, United States Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes told the press that he thought the Territory of Alaska had room for immigration and that a plan for refugees to go there deserved study (Ickes; New York Times). Soon after, the Department of Interior began an inquiry into the potential development of Alaska and the possibility of refugee immigration into the Territory. In August 1939, the Department's findings were released in a report entitled The Problem of Alaskan Development, commonly known as the Slatterly Report (Wyman 103; Feingold Politics 94-95).
The report outlined Alaska's richness in undeveloped natural resources and their potential for development. Noting that Alaska's "future well-being depends on new immigration" it also set the stage for potential settlement in the Territory of up to 10,000 people, including non quota immigrants. By February 1940, the Department of the Interior had completed the work of translating the report's key ideas into a proposed bill to be submitted to Congress (Wyman 103; Feingold Politics 94-95).
On March 13, 1940, Senator Robert F. Wagner (New York), acting on behalf of Senator William H. King (Utah), introduced the bill to the United States Senate. The next day Representative Frank Havenner (California) submitted the same measure to the House of Representatives. The King-Havenner bill, also called the Alaska Development Plan, had three stated purposes: "…to enlist private capital in the development of Alaska resources …to encourage the settlement in Alaska of men and women who want to make Alaska their home …and to provide an adequate mechanism of federal control over such development and settlement so as to guard against the dangers of unrestricted exploitation of natural and human resources" (Cong. Rec. 2762-2763).
The bill provided for the formation of private corporations, to be known as Alaska Development Corporations, that would be eligible to settle people in Alaska and put them to work developing the Territory. Each corporation would operate under the administrative oversight of the United States Department of the Interior, be required to raise $2.5 million in capital before it could do business in the Territory, and be eligible to resettle workers who were United States citizens, quota immigrants, or non-quota immigrants who were generally eligible for admission to the United States but who were not being admitted because of quota limitations. Under the proposal, non quota immigrants would receive special visas that would allow them to reside only in Alaska until they could obtain quota immigrant status (Cong. Rec.2762-2763).
The King-Havenner bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs, chaired by Senator Millard E. Tydings. Senator Tydings immediately wrote to Anthony J. Dimond, Alaska's only delegate to Congress, asking for his views on the proposal (Cong. Rec. 4067). Within the week, Delegate Dimond returned a hard-hitting reply, strongly criticizing the proposal and stating that the settlement of non quota immigrants in Alaska was "opposed by practically every one of the present residents of the Territory" and was totally unacceptable:
Eager as I am to see the settlement and development of Alaska go forward at a much more rapid rate than anything heretofore known, there is one feature of the bill to which I cannot give assent …before I could give consent to the passage of the bill, or even its serious consideration, it would be necessary to exclude therefrom all those parts of the bill which permit settlement in Alaska of aliens who would be simultaneously barred from the remainder of the United States. To my mind this is fundamental. (Cong. Rec. 4067)
For the next three months, the King-Havenner bill would encounter intense opposition from Alaskans and their sympathizers in Congress. On May 6, 1940, Senator Vandenberg (California), noting that "Alaska has no representation in the Senate … " but that " …the citizens of Alaska apparently have very profound objection to the program embodied in this particular bill," entered into the Congressional Record a statement from the Juneau Chamber of Commerce that was typical of criticisms being voiced throughout the Territory:
…if the many thousands of European refugees were brought here in large groups, it would not be many years until the Territorial culture and economy would be transferred from American to alien, a transformation that Alaskans do not want …Mr. Dimond has announced his opposition to the measure. He should have the united support of civic and commercial organizations throughout the Territory, and of all Alaskans regardless of party. (Cong. Rec. 5520)
Dimond did in fact continue to spearhead Alaskan opposition to the King-Havenner bill. In May 1940, when a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs held public hearings on the proposal, Dimond presented testimony in strong opposition to the bill, based largely on objections to non quota immigration into Alaska (Subcommittee 228-237). Dimond was joined at the hearings by Don Carlos Brownell, mayor of Seward and senator-elect of the Alaska Territorial Legislature. Dimond and Brownell both testified that Alaskans would also stand firmly against any proposal that further increased bureaucratic control of the Territory by the United States Department of the Interior (Subcommittee 19-25, 236).
In addition to the testimony of Dimond and Brownell, the subcommittee received written statements of strong opposition from the Chambers of Commerce of Juneau, Fairbanks, Wrangell, Cordova, Ketchikan, Valdez and Kodiak, the Alaska Miners Association, and the Pioneers of Alaska (Subcommittee 237-249). Described by Dimond as "the old-timers of Alaska" and "perhaps the one organization of Alaska that should be listened to above all others," the Pioneers of Alaska took the position that "…these foreigners cannot be assimilated in Alaska, and will constitute a threat to our American civilization." (Subcommittee 249)
On June 17, 1940, Delegate Dimond addressed the House of Representatives to reiterate the testimony he had presented to the Senate subcommittee and to underscore his objections to the King-Havenner bill. Dimond stated that he and others were:
…ardently desirous of relieving, so far as we can in justice to our own people, the miseries and agonies of those of our European brethren who are now being forced into concentration camps or into exile, and many of them murdered, because they happen to belong to a particular race or adhere to a particular form of worship of our Creator. (Cong. Rec. 4068)
Nonetheless, Dimond proceeded to hammer the King-Havenner proposal, listing objections that were based primarily on opposition to the settlement of non quota immigrants in Alaska:
The whole bill is really written around the provision for bringing into Alaska, and simultaneously barring from the United States, non quota immigrants … practically all the settlers will be aliens of the proscribed classes of several of the countries of Europe now under dictatorship … following the admission of non quota aliens … they are all too likely to enter the cities of Alaska and there subject to additional competition the present residents, who are in business of one kind or another, or add to the unemployment problem … it may be terribly harmful to Alaska and to the present residents of Alaska through the admission of non quota aliens, who will form a separate society or caste in our present casteless Territory … the overwhelming majority of Alaskans at the present time do not approve of the plan of settlement embraced in the bill and particularly are they opposed to the settlement in Alaska of non quota aliens … (Cong. Rec. 4068-4070).
Despite adamant opposition to the bill, Delegate Dimond emphasized that he and other Alaskans possessed "…an active, intense, and ardent desire to see Alaska settled, and I agree wholly that Alaska is capable of supporting a much larger population than it is at the present time" (Cong. Rec. 4069). But if the real desire was to increase Alaska's population and promote its development, nothing more was needed than the construction of transportation facilities:
…our principal requirement for the settlement and the increase in population and the development of Alaska lies in roads …It would be helpful, of course, and greatly helpful, if a way could be found to complete the highway to Alaska from the States…Airfields, too, are necessary, and air transportation facilities; but for the permanent settlement and development of Alaska, the first and most important thing needed is roads (Cong. Rec. 4069).
In closing, Dimond noted that the King-Havenner bill could do little more than " …arouse false hopes in some of the oppressed who expect to be admitted to Alaska upon the enactment of the legislation. I have received several pitiful letters of that nature. It would be better and more in harmony with humanitarian sentiments to say now and here that the bill is not being seriously considered for passage …" (Cong. Rec. 4070).
Although no letters from Jewish refugees were found in the archive of Dimond's personal papers, there are several in the files of the Department of the Interior, Division of Territories, which was headed at the time by Ernest Gruening, future Governor of Alaska and a close associate. Perhaps the most poignant is one written in late 1938 to Edward Griffith, Acting Territorial Governor, by Austrian refugee Emil Schächter. Schächter wrote on behalf of himself , wife, teenage son and four relatives:
In March of this year our country was annexed by Germany. Because of our religion we were placed beyond all laws, and we were deprived of our rights, of our dignity and of our existence. We fled to France where we have had a refuge in a gesture of noble humanity. Our time of stay is limited. In a very short time we shall be obliged to leave the country. Our reserves shall be spent and we shall be cast to starvation. No country wants to receive and to shelter us … Your Excellency! In this last moment of greatest danger we appeal to your power and to your heart. Save us, Sir, by a noble-minded gesture of humanity and give us the permission of immigrating into your country (Schächter).
Similarly wrenching letters have been documented elsewhere from Bruno Rosenthal of Neustadt, Germany, who was attempting to gain permission for himself, his wife and a number of others to emigrate to Alaska under the non-quota provisions of the King-Havenner bill. Rosenthal wrote
"…Neither coldness nor other nature-forces shall prevent us to do our duty …give us not charity, but assistance that will be the very thing for us Alaska new-pioneers" (Berman 75).
Despite the avalanche of criticism of the King-Havenner bill that was flowing in from many Alaskans, some support and true sympathy for the plight of Jewish refugees did exist. Scores of letters from around the country were sent or forwarded to the Department of Interior, Division of Territories, pleading for humanitarianism and advocating sensible solutions to address refugees' needs and Alaskans' opposition. Typical of these are letters from the Rt. Reverend Antonin, Russian Orthodox Bishop of Alaska, who advocated as early as 1935 for the settlement of skilled Russian refugees in Alaska (Antonin), and from H.L. Heinsheimer of New York whose company was trying to put together a project in Alaska based on "…my idea that a good number of refugees would gladly work to build roads and highways" (Heinsheimer).
But by the end of June 1940, Senator Tydings, chairman of the Committee on Territories and Insular Affairs, concluded that the King-Havenner bill would probably never be reported out of committee for debate on the Senate floor because Alaskans' opposition was so strong. Representative Lex Green, Chairman of the House Committee on Territories, also told reporters that his committee would not hold any hearings on the House version of the bill and that "enactment was very unlikely" (Wyman 110). In fact, Congress took no action on the King-Havenner bill after June 1940, and the proposal died without further consideration or debate.
In July 1940, Delegate Dimond once again addressed the United States House of Representatives, this time to summarize legislation adopted or considered by the 76th Congress that impacted the Territory of Alaska. Noting that his work on behalf of Alaska not only embraced support for desirable legislation, but also the defeat of unfavorable measures, Dimond highlighted three measures whose passage he was pleased to have been able to prevent: (1) a proposal to protect the bald eagle that might have added to "burdens and difficulties of Alaska fox ranchers"; (2) a proposal to enable the Secretary of the Interior to control land use along navigable or other waters of Alaska; and (3) the proposal to permit the immigration of non quota immigrants into Alaska. With regard to the King-Havenner bill, Dimond said:
It was called a bill for the development of Alaska, although it might more accurately have been called a bill for the relief of some of the persecuted peoples of Europe. Acting, I believe, in harmony with the overwhelming sentiment of the people of Alaska, I felt obliged to oppose the bill because it would have established in Alaska a unique class of alien residents who would have been authorized and encouraged to settle and live in Alaska but who would have been barred from entry to the States …Under this plan Alaska would have taken on some of the aspects of a concentration camp (Cong. Rec. 4599).
The needs of European Jews like Emil Schächter, Bruno Rosenthal and their families for a safe haven and the chance to rebuild shattered lives were perhaps never greater than in the years immediately before America's entry into World War II. But for a variety of reasons, these needs were largely ignored, ultimately contributing to the loss of millions of Jewish lives under the devastating extermination policy of Hitler's Third Reich. There is wide agreement among historians that three factors limited America's response to the needs of Jewish refugees attempting to flee Europe during World War II-nativism, anti-semitism and economic insecurity.
David Wyman describes these factors in his book Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941. According to Wyman, nativistic nationalism refers to an attitude held in this period by most patriotic and veterans groups-a pride in being "100% American" that carried with it a strong strain of anti-alienism. The ultimate goal of nativistic nationalists was to eliminate foreigners from American society, stemming from a concern to preserve America's resources for American citizens, and the fear that aliens posed a threat to American culture (Wyman 10).
From 1938 to 1945, anti-semitism in America also reached a peak as prejudice against Jews was widely promoted by Father Charles E. Coughlin and the Social Justice movement, William Dudley Pelly's Silver Shirts organization, and the German-American Bund (Wyman 14-17). Prejudice against Jews was widespread, evidenced by five national polls taken from 1938 to 1940 which consistently found that about three-fifths of the respondents believed that Jews had objectionable qualities (Wyman 21-22).
Strong negative feelings toward Jewish refugees as job competitors also developed during this period. Nine surveys taken from 1938 through 1942 showed that between one-third and one-half of the respondents held the belief that Jews already had too much power in the United States. Reflective of these attitudes, the fear of competition for employment continued to lead to agitation against immigrants as an economic threat (Wyman 6-9).
Nativism, anti-semitism and economic insecurity were all major factors in the downfall of the King-Havenner bill, or Alaska Development Plan. The consistent theme that ran through opposing testimony was that neither Alaska, nor the country in general, welcomed the idea of admitting more Jewish refugees. Why? Because, argued the Pioneers of Alaska, the refugees would "constitute a threat to our American civilization." Because, argued Delegate Dimond, the refugees would likely "form a separate society or caste in our present casteless Territory," they would only present "additional competition to present residents," they would "add to the unemployment problem."
But the final straw for Alaskans was that the proposal would set the Territory apart from the rest of the nation, in the words of Delegate Dimond "as a sort of special land where people may reside who are not citizens and who are not permitted to be in the remainder of the United States." This was an outcome that was entirely unacceptable to Territorial residents and their delegate to Congress. Yes, Alaska needed and had room for more settlers, but it had neither heart nor home for non-quota immigrants. Yes, Alaska needed and welcomed help to build Territorial roads, a highway link to the States and airfields, but not if these were to be financed by private corporations that might sponsor the resettlement of non quota immigrants. Yes, Alaska needed assistance to promote its development, but not if it meant more bureaucratic control or oversight by the Department of the Interior.
At a critical historical crossroad, the Territory of Alaska proved to be a parochial rather than a promised land, less committed to humanitarianism than to its aspirations to be part of an all-American society, built by and for Americans only. And what of the heart-breaking needs of Jewish refugees trying to flee the persecutions of the Third Reich? In the final analysis, their needs were a poor match to the overwhelming forces of nativism, anti-semitism, economic insecurity and parochialism, even in the vast, unpopulated expanses of America's Last Frontier, the Territory of Alaska.