“Never Again” and the “Lessons” of History


The tragedy of Aleppo, the annual commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the recent executive order on refugees had social media abuzz with expressions of “Never Again.” Widespread disdain accompanied those stories, conveying a feeling that we have somehow failed to internalize the correct “lessons of history,” assuming for now that such lessons even exist. With those sentiments came a lot of hand-wringing about humanity’s seeming inability to learn properly from the manifest horrors of the past. Speaking out, “liking” a post, or retweeting a thoughtful article may help raise awareness, especially for a generation of young people who may never get the chance to meet Holocaust survivors. But if “Never Again” only means that modern states should never again allow genocide, then social media is only good for the expression of a sentiment with which it is impossible to disagree. If “Never Again” means that states should always intervene to prevent humanitarian disasters or should always open their borders to refugees, then the sentiment runs against the experiences of the past, however painful facing up to that conclusion may be.

The tragedy of the Syrian refugees today now spans two presidential administrations, and its effects have touched the interests of several Western countries. It is unlikely to be resolved soon, nor is it likely to be the last refugee crisis with which the world community will have to contend. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees recently estimated that there are 64,000,000 refugees worldwide, easily the most ever on record. We tend to focus on Syria for justifiable reasons, but there are peoples who have been refugees for much longer. The Palestinian refugee crisis will soon enter its 70th year. It is long past time for strategists and policymakers to acknowledge the long-term, global instability that refugee crises can create. The time to plan for these crises is before they happen. And to do that, one needs to think deeply and analytically about some pretty ugly history.

That well-meaning observers could be shocked to discover that the civil war in Syria produced a refugee crisis shows how difficult it can be to face up to the real lessons of the past. Second only to expressions of “Never Again” on social media were expressions of surprise that the world could somehow have allowed Syria to collapse, given all that we supposedly know from history. Surely the United Nations, the United States, and the international community had learned the lessons of history, right? But what we “know” from history is often wrong, or, to put it slightly more gently, the version of history we tell ourselves is neither complete nor particularly useful for dealing with crises. The “Never Again” version of history comforts, but it does not help us really understand problems like Aleppo or provide decision-makers with the tools they need to ameliorate the suffering.

The coincidence in timing between Holocaust Remembrance Day and the recent executive order on immigration gave yet another meaning to “Never Again.” This one posited that America can never again turn away refugees like those Jews banned from coming to America because of restrictions put in place in the 1924 Immigration Act. A gut-wrenching Twitter account, @Stl_Manifest, tracks the fates of Jews on the SS St. Louis, a ship containing 970 Jewish refugees turned back to Europe in 1939 after Cuban, American, and Canadian officials all denied them entry. Hundreds of them later died in Nazi death camps.

The St. Louis is, however, only half the story. Even after the war, when Americans fully knew about the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, the United States still kept its doors closed to what were then known as Jewish “displaced persons.” Their home countries, most notably Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, did not want them back because they were destitute. Non-Jews had taken their property, raising tricky legal and political issues no post-war government wanted to tackle. The British, then in control of Palestine through an increasingly unsteady international mandate, would not allow the Jews go to Palestine for fear of upsetting the delicate Arab-Jewish balance there. A 1939 White Paper banning Jewish migration remained in force in spite of the crisis of “displaced persons.”

As a result, the vast majority of the displaced Jews went back into camps, complete with armed guards (some of them German) and barbed wire. Former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Earl Harrison went to Germany and reported to President Truman, “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” Still, the doors to America remained tightly closed, and no one seriously suggested opening them. America’s ambiguity toward the few refugees who did get to the United States later became a theme of American gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Displaced Person,” a tale based on real anti-refugee sentiment she observed near her mother’s dairy farm.

Unwilling to risk the political fallout of admitting displaced persons into the United States, American politicians instead pressed the British to lift the White Paper restrictions and open Palestine. Part of American support for Jewish migration to Palestine and eventual Israeli statehood stemmed from America’s unwillingness to let the desperately needy refugees come to the United States. One American envoy tried to convince Jordanian leaders that letting 400,000 Jews into Palestine was the humane way to solve Europe’s refugee crisis. When the Jordanian asked the American why the United States, the richest and most enlightened country in the world, did not just open its own doors, the American said, “There are limits to kindness.” A British observer at the meeting noted that “The cynicism of this answer infuriated the Jordanians.”

If “Never Again” is to have any meaning, particularly for policymakers, NGOs, and strategists, it has to mean something more than “no more ovens” and “no more inhumane refugee policies.” The true “lesson” might be something as depressing as acknowledging that the American envoy was right: States do not naturally or easily accept refugees merely because of the desperation of their plight. Or the lesson might be that we cannot contrast our present condition to some imagined enlightened past when America gleefully took in the tired and poor huddled masses. Instead, we need to recognize that immigration has been a consistently contentious issue in politics everywhere, with the outcome determined by factors as varied as the state of race relations, the strength of the economy, and global shifts in political ideology. Nations have had entire political parties in their past whose identity was based on anti-immigrant platforms. Another global lesson might be that refugee crises cause ripple effects worldwide that policymakers and strategists must account for as part of their planning in crises like the one in Syria.

In any case, as with most of history, we can never accept the simplest or most comforting lesson. Worse still, we cannot look to the one that best fits our own political ideology. To do so invites disaster when a crisis like Syria strikes. If the history of refugees (or any history) is to have meaning for policymaking and for helping those in need, we must face up to the real and often unpleasant lessons from past refugee crises. Let me offer three tentative conclusions for policymakers and strategists based on this admittedly cursory overview.

First, as the case of the Jewish displaced persons shows, the nature of the tragedy or the suffering of the victims does not alone tend to determine the response of the international community. Geopolitics, although less compelling, offers a much better explanation. In the Aleppo case, the geopolitical situation made Western intervention less likely, with one great power (Russia) having interests that seemed to outweigh those of at least two others (the United States and the European Union). The situation in Syria touches too many conflicting state interests from Moscow to Ankara to Tehran for the international community to be effective, especially through a multilateral organization such as the United Nations. There is no agreed-upon political endstate to work toward, and that makes outsiders wary of intervention unless their core interests are at stake. However one feels about it on a policy level, the Western failure to intervene created a refugee crisis that policymakers and strategists should have seen coming, and perhaps even planned for, had they had their eyes on the right lessons of history.

The displaced persons case provides another example, albeit a quite different one. In that case, the geopolitical environment provided the Americans and Europeans with the seemingly obvious solution of pressuring the British to change their policy on Palestine, even if doing so might create new problems in the long run. Such a policy required the Americans to look the other way at the probable second- and third-order effects of the mass migration of Jews to Palestine. Thus did Americans make statements akin to presidential candidate Wendell Willkie’s observation that “The Arabs have a good case in Palestine. There is only one thing wrong with it. The Jews have a better case.” America’s professional diplomats thought otherwise, setting up a showdown with the White House and leaving legacies for the region that endure to this day.

Second, in the Aleppo case, no group in the United States pressured the Obama administration to make a major international effort on an issue it preferred to treat lightly. Here Aleppo contrasts with the case of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in South Sudan. In that case, a bipartisan and international movement known as KONY2012 emerged after a YouTube video called “Invisible Children” went viral. We could also note Western attitudes toward the Ethiopia famine of the 1980s, a response made famous by the celebrity-driven movement that gave us the songs “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas.”

The Truman administration’s policy toward the Jewish refugees of 1945 to 1948 might be the exception that proves the rule. In this case, there was a broad bipartisan and national consensus that the United States had to help the displaced Jews, but the American people and government did not initially react by opening their doors, as noted above. Instead, senior American officials put pressure on the British to allow the Jews to go to Palestine. European Jews themselves largely supported this option, easing the pressure on American politicians to allow more Jews to come to the United States. When surveyed, Jews in the European camps said their first choice was to go to Palestine, where they could live and defend themselves among other Jews. When asked for their second choice, the most common response was “the ovens.”

American popular opinion produced ambiguous effects, pressuring American officials to help the Jews while simultaneously insisting that America’s own immigration policies not change. Both parties therefore had planks in their 1944 platforms demanding that Palestine become a homeland or refuge for Jews. President Roosevelt himself had to intervene to prevent Sen. Robert Taft (R-OH) and Sen. Robert Wagner (R-NY) from introducing a bipartisan measure to that effect in Congress in 1945. Roosevelt wanted to wait until the war was over before pressing America’s British allies on an issue tangential to the defeat of Germany and Japan. Neither political party, in 1944 or in 1948, suggested changing the 1924 Immigration Act as a solution.

This history suggests a second lesson, namely that popular responses to global humanitarian and refugee crises do matter. When the American people make it clear that they want action, politicians are more likely to provide it, no matter the level of actual urgency, the impact on core American interests, or the fact that other groups might be suffering more. On the other hand, when the American people don’t speak out, the politicians have less incentive to act, no matter how awful the tragedy. The work of political scientist Clifford Bob suggests that support for causes (such as the crusade to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army) may also depend on factors like charismatic celebrity endorsements, the perceived likelihood of success, and the nature of media coverage.

Third, unless geopolitics and political opinion work to keep an issue in the spotlight, it is likely to fade from public consciousness. That the victorious powers of World War II could for a single moment have tolerated putting liberated concentration camp Jews back into camps proves that point quite clearly. That they did so for almost three years further proves not that they were terrible regimes or that their leaders were uncaring, but that the geopolitical turmoil of the postwar years and the shift of public attention to other matters meant that public attention to the crisis had a short shelf-life. Had world leaders been aware of this lesson for Syria, they might have planned and resourced for a long refugee crisis with many second- and third-order effects instead of putting their faith in a temporary ceasefire or a short-term political arrangement to ease the crisis.

The larger “lesson” for today’s Facebook and Twitter users is not that the West has somehow uniquely failed to uphold its values in Aleppo. The world has, unfortunately, failed to stop atrocities before and will, I imagine, fail to do so again. From the first inklings of the Holocaust in 1942 to Rwanda and now to Aleppo, the great powers prefer inaction to meaningful action unless: (a) the geopolitical context is favorable to action; (b) there is domestic political pressure to act; and (c) the actions in question are consistent with, or at least do not interfere with, the state’s pursuit of its core interests.

Finally, we need to recognize that history — and our collective understanding of it — plays a role in our responses. We need to develop a healthy skepticism about any discussion of historical lessons ultimately intended to make us feel satisfied or angry or self-righteous. We must instead study history as an oncologist studies cancer: not to be entertained, but to understand it and keep it from killing where and when we can, with the knowledge that we can never save everyone.


Michael S. Neiberg is Chair of War Studies at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His latest book is The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2016). He is currently working on a history of American attitudes toward Israel/Palestine, 1942-1950.

Image: Public Domain, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, College Park