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TESTIMONY ON ADMITTING DISPLACED PERSONS TO THE UNITED STATES 1
July 16, 1947
I appreciate the courtesy of this committee in convening especially to hear statements by some of the Cabinet officials in support of H.R. 2910. I speak with a good deal of personal feeling on the subject of displaced persons. As Chief of Staff during the war years I naturally followed the subject very closely. I saw the first authentic and detailed reports on conditions in the concentration camps overrun by our armies. Some of you may recall that, at the request of General Eisenhower, I invited a group of representative congressional leaders to visit the concentration camps at that time. I commend their report to you as an historic document. In the realm of foreign affairs, I have also had a direct association with the problem, as I shall later describe. I believe that the outcome of the discussion on this bill will have an important bearing on our foreign policy. That is why I am here today.
There are about a million displaced persons in and around the displaced persons camps. Most of them are people who were uprooted primarily from the Baltic States, from the part of Poland east of the Curzon line, now within the Russian borders, and from Yugoslavia. They were forcibly transferred into Germany by the Nazi armies before the end of hostilities. A much smaller group includes the remnants of the Jewish population of Germany and Austria, and also Jewish people, primarily from Poland who fled into Germany and Austria after the close of hostilities. All of these million individuals are now under the control of the western Allied armies in the occupied areas of Germany and Austria and in Italy. It is they who present the problem we are discussing.
From 80 to 90 percent of these people now in Germany were there before the close of hostilities. The remainder were Jewish refugees who entered since that time.
I desire to emphasize at the outset that by supporting this bill, we are not asking Congress to take on a new problem. The problem of the disposition of these displaced persons is one that Congress already has on its hands. It is a problem that is ours as a result of our armies fighting their way into Germany and Austria and taking governmental control of our zones and with it the fate of these captives of the Nazis. Congress is at present the ultimate governmental authority for the 600,000 of these victims of the war now located in the American zones.
Assistant Secretary Hilldring and other witnesses have already described the character of these displaced persons, their present situation, and the four alternatives that appear to confront the Congress in determining their disposition. These alternatives are:
First, forcible repatriation;
Second, closing the camps and turning these victims of the Germans back to the Germans and the German economy;
Third, indefinite separate maintenance in Germany of these displaced persons in assembly centers; or
Fourth, their resettlement in other countries, including the United States.
I wish to make certain observations on each of these alternatives.
As to repatriation: Very speedily after the end of hostilities the western Allied armies repatriated to their countries of origin 7,000,000 persons who had been brought into Germany by the Germans. For the most part, they were western Europeans—French, Belgian, Dutch—and citizens of prewar Russia. We have aided and will continue to aid all others willing to return. A substantial but diminishing number of Poles and a small number of others have gone back to eastern Europe during the past year. But it has now become clear that practically all of the displaced persons now remaining in our hands are definitely and finally unwilling to return. We are therefore confronted with the question as to whether we should return them forcibly against their will. They are, as I have said, primarily people from the Baltic States, from that part of Poland east of the Curzon line which is now under Russian authority, and from Yugoslavia. In these areas there has been a change in the political and economic system which these displaced persons are unwilling to accept.
There is a sharp divergence of viewpoint between the Soviet Government and our own as to what course should be pursued. The Soviet viewpoint has been vigorously presented in every possible forum—the Control Councils of Germany and Austria, the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the Council of Foreign Ministers, to mention a few. The Soviet viewpoint is that those persons born in areas now subject to the Soviet governmental authority are Russian subjects and under obligation to return to such territory. They demand that we forcibly repatriate the displaced persons. Our view is that it is against American tradition for us to compel these persons, who are now under our authority, to return against their will to those areas or other areas under governments whose political and economic systems they are unwilling to accept.
I have felt that the position which we have taken is in accord with the views of Congress. I earnestly hope that the Congress will reject the alternative of forcible repatriation as a solution of this problem. But this very difference of opinion has been a constant source of international friction. It will remain such a source of conflict and friction so long as these displaced persons remain in Germany and until they can strike new roots elsewhere in friendly soil.
We could eliminate this friction by abandoning our principles: But the principles which we have been upholding are not only our own. They have been adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. To adopt the alternative of forcible repatriation would therefore be violating not only our American traditions but also standards of international conduct.
As to the second alternative—that is, abandoning the displaced persons to the German economy: There is, quite naturally, a fierce resentment between the displaced persons and Germans. The displaced persons know that the Germans are responsible for their present plight. The Germans regard the displaced persons as an uncomfortable burden and a constant source of annoyance. To turn them back to the Germans would be to perpetuate grave tensions and an ever-present threat of internal conflict. It would increase the present difficulty of our occupation and prolong the necessity for it. It would not lessen the international tension over the displaced persons. Further, from an economic standpoint this alternative is impracticable. The western zones of Germany are already overcrowded with the millions of Germans and people of German stock who have fled or have been transferred into Germany since the end of the war. If we should in addition throw these displaced persons onto the German economy, we would have to continue our contributions to their support, though indirectly, as an alternative to their starvation.
The third alternative is to continue indefinitely the segregation and maintenance of these displaced persons in Germany with a prolonged contribution from the American taxpayer for their support indirectly or indirectly through the International Refugee Organization. Quite apart from the dollars-and-cents burden that this country would thus saddle itself with, I feel profoundly that it is an alternative we should not adopt. So far these people have done well in making the best of their situation. They have been active in such work as it is possible for us to find for them and indeed, for them to find for themselves. They have created much which is excellent in the life of their small communities. But men and women cannot be cut off indefinitely from any opportunity to help themselves or to plan for their own lives and the lives of their children without an inevitable deterioration. That deterioration would have disastrous effects on these people. That demoralization also would have disastrous effects on the larger problem of the reconstruction of the Europe that will alone make possible a peaceful world. The fundamental American tradition as to all people under our governmental authority is the opportunity to help oneself. To continue to hold these people where there is no opportunity to help themselves and without hope of such opportunity is contrary to that American tradition.
The fourth alternative is the resettlement of these people in the various countries of the world who will be willing to receive them. Determined efforts have been made in that direction. Helpful results have already been accomplished. Belgium is taking substantial numbers. So is France. England has assumed responsibility for the care of the several hundred thousands of the Anders Polish Army and is receiving currently substantial numbers of displaced persons.2 Norway has admitted some.
I might say, gentlemen, this is the root of my principal difficulty in relation to this and in relation to related matters.
The question is naturally asked: Why is it not better for these displaced persons to participate in and contribute to the reconstruction of Europe?
The answer must be: So far as this is practicable, it is desirable. However, for the reasons already outlined, the return of these people from the eastern European areas to those eastern areas for this purpose is not one we can urge. It would take force to do it and a surrender of our principles. On the other hand the western areas of Europe, which are already making arrangements for taking several hundred thousand of these displaced persons, are now densely populated. Their needs, economists tell me, are not primarily for additional manpower. Certain of these areas are on or across the border line of overpopulation. Their need is primarily to replace and bring up to date capital equipment, with the necessary working capital of raw material and subsistence and a restored fabric of trade and commerce, so that available manpower can again effectively produce and the product be effectively distributed. Some expert and experienced top-level technical assistance from the outside might be helpful to them but so far as it might be drawn from displaced persons it would not be numerically important.
I have received from a member of your committee a suggestion that in the plans now being formulated by these countries for their economic-reconstruction provision be made for increasing the number of displaced persons they have agreed to admit. As you know, we have suggested to the European countries that they initiate their own survey of their own needs and of steps which might be taken in reconstruction. These countries may well find it possible as part of these new reconstruction plans to convert a larger part of this burden into an asset by the more extensive use of this manpower than they have so far found it practicable to plan. Such efforts will certainly have our support. But the problem is of such magnitude that both we and the South American countries must also take steps to aid in its solution.
We had hoped a year ago that admission of displaced persons into Latin America and other countries outside of Europe would solve the whole problem but we now know that it will not. Shiploads have moved to Paraguay and Brazil and some are now on their way to Venezuela. Other plans are in the making. But we cannot, I feel, sit back ourselves and expect other countries to make all the positive efforts to solve this problem in which we are so directly concerned.
In our discussions with other countries we are constantly met with the question, “What is the United States, which is urging others to accept these people as useful and desirable immigrants, doing about accepting a part of them itself?” If we practice what we preach, if we admit a substantial number of these people as immigrants, then with what others are already doing and will do we can actually bring an end to this tragic situation. In so doing, we will also confirm our moral leadership and demonstrate that we are not retreating behind the Atlantic Ocean.
If we practice what we preach, if we admit a substantial number of these people as immigrants, then with what others are already doing and will do we can actually bring an end to this tragic situation. In so doing, we will also confirm our moral leadership and demonstrate that we are not retreating behind the Atlantic Ocean.
I repeated that because it is the kernel of the whole business. You cannot assert leadership and then not exercise it.
Although we have left it to other countries to take the lead in active measures to alleviate this tragic situation, yet we are actually in a better position to receive a substantial number of these people than any other nation. We have numbers of the stock already in this country who know their language and who have the resources and interest to assume the task of fitting a relatively small number of their kinsmen into our vast economy, without expense to this Nation in their resettlement, and with a reasonable assurance that they will not become public charges.
I am, it goes without saying, deeply concerned with the readjustment of our veterans into the tasks of peace. Already it has proceeded at a pace far more rapid than anyone believed possible. I do not believe that the great rank and file of our veterans, aware of the facts, would want this relative handful of our allies and victims of the Nazi armies to be forcibly returned to areas where economic and political systems alien to our own prevail and which they are unwilling to accept. Nor do I believe that they would desire them to be turned over again to the people who uprooted them and enslaved them or kept them hopeless in these camps.
I urge prompt decision and action by Congress on this question. We must not continue these allies of ours, these captives of the Germans, indefinitely in the camps—prolonging their abnormal existence and killing their hope.
The tasks that are imposed by a declaration of war are not completed when the guns ceased fire. This is one of the tasks which we have not completed. It is for you to determine how it is to be completed. 3
House, Admission of 400,000 Displaced Persons, pp. 503–7
1. Hearings on a bill to admit displaced persons in Europe to the United States had been going on for eight days before Secretary Marshall was called to testify. His remarks are in US Congress, House of Representatives, Permitting Admission of 400,000 Displaced Persons into the United States: Hearings before Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, First Session on HR 2910, a bill to authorize the United States during an emergency period to undertake its fair share in the resettlement of displaced persons in Germany, Austria, and Italy, including relatives of citizens or members of our armed forces, by permitting their admission into the United States in a number equivalent to a part of the total quota numbers unused during the war years [Washington: GPO, 1947], pp. 503–21.)
2. The Polish Second Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Wladyslaw Anders, had fought in Italy. All but about 14,000 of the 112,000 in the corps refused repatriation to communist-dominated Poland in 1945 and 1946. The remainder were transferred to Great Britain and demobilized in 1946.
3. Five-term Texas Democrat Ed Lee Gossett, an opponent of the displaced persons bill, dominated the question and answer period. He asserted that the problem was not so large as Marshall had stated and sought, unsuccessfully, to get him to agree that the refugees would be better off staying in Europe. The secretary likewise continued to insist that the United States needed to take the lead on the issue. (Ibid., pp. 509–21.)
Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Mark A. Stoler, Sharon Ritenour Stevens and Daniel D. Holt (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 2013- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 6, “The Whole World Hangs in the Balance,” January 8, 1947-September 30, 1949 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), pp. 176-181.
Digital DownloadsTestimony on Admitting Displaced Person to the US, July 16, 1947
CollectionPapers of George Catlett Marshall, Volume 6: The Whole World Hangs in the Balance