Child-Saving During World War II

The following is an excerpt from Suffer the Little Children: Child Migration and the Geopolitics of Compassion in the United States by Anita Casavantes Bradfordavailable everywhere books and e-books are sold.

Collateral Humanitarianism

Child-Saving during World War II

Between 1940 and 1945, concerned Americans continued to improvise child evacuation programs to safeguard endangered children across the Atlantic. The nonsectarian coalition brought together to promote the Wagner-Rogers Bill regrouped and rebranded as the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM) to manage spontaneous efforts to bring British children to the United States following their nation’s entry into the war. Buoyed by overwhelming public sympathy for the white Christian children endangered by Nazi air raids on London during the 1940–41 Blitz, USCOM’s leaders established a new working relationship with the federal government to facilitate the children’s admission. In doing so, they expanded on the corporate affidavit process pioneered by the German-Jewish Children’s Aid (GJCA) and forged a new relationship between the Children’s Bureau and voluntary organizations involved in caring for unaccompanied refugee minors. At the same time, USCOM’s leaders remained deeply concerned with imperiled European Jewish children. Adopting a strategy of principled opportunism, they sought to use new policies, programs, and procedures developed by the state to accommodate British children to continue bringing a limited number of “continental” Jewish children to the United States.

After the British government halted the overseas evacuation of children, USCOM continued its efforts whenever and wherever possible. This required the committee to take a delicate approach to public relations, underlining the nonsectarian nature of its work to appeal to generalized sympathy for child victims of the war—and its new association with white British children—while obscuring the specific religious and ethnic origins of the rescued children. To maintain its privileged relationship with the U.S. government, USCOM also had to work within the confines of an extraordinarily strict immigration policy—sometimes having to publicly obscure its injustice and operate in ways that served foreign policy and domestic political interests at the expense of children’s needs.

The British government prepared for fighting on its soil by hastily organizing a program to evacuate children from English cities to the countryside.

In order to harmonize their interests with the geopolitics of compassion underlying the FDR administration’s approach to the burgeoning European refugee crisis, USCOM ended up practicing a kind of “collateral humanitarianism” that produced, in most cases, an ambivalent good for a small number of children, while excluding many of the most desperately needy children from the benefits of shelter and care in the United States. When contrasted with the hundreds of thousands of European Jewish children who died in death camps, the story of the small number of children USCOM brought to the country highlights the extent to which decisions about the fate of refugee minors continued during the war years to be decided in terms of geopolitical and domestic political objectives rather than humanitarian concern for boys and girls whose lives were imperiled by war.

After Nazi forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and the United Kingdom and France declared war against Germany, the British government prepared for fighting on its soil by hastily organizing a program to evacuate children from English cities to the countryside. By the end of the war, as many as 4 million young people—47 percent of all British school age children, along with hundreds or perhaps thousands of European Jewish refugee children who had been granted temporary asylum in Britain through the Kindertransport—had been relocated for some period of time to rural foster homes. Forcing millions of young people into a jarringly intimate encounter with the intertwined religious and class-based prejudices rampant in prewar British society, the evacuation compounded the homesickness, loneliness, and pain of separation for working-class children and their parents. At the same time, more privileged urban Britons arranged privately to send their children to live with relatives or friends among the rural landed gentry. This emergence of a two-tier evacuation system further added to the latent class-based bitterness and resentment stirred up by the removal of children from their homes. During the first few months following the declaration of war, as the anxiously anticipated outbreak of hostilities on British soil failed to arrive, as many as 80 percent of the first wave of child evacuees returned home.

Businesses and labor unions, fraternal organizations, and private schools also offered to provide shelter and safety for the children.

After the fall of Dunkirk in May 1940, when the evacuation of British troops from the European continent opened the way for a German invasion of France, England found itself newly vulnerable to a land-based invasion. Geoffrey Shakespeare, MP, was appointed head of the newly formed Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), tasked with coordinating and facilitating the government-sponsored evacuation of children to British overseas dominions and the United States. In the next two weeks, British parents registered more than 200,000 children for emigration, and 32,000 of those families expressed a preference to evacuate their children to the United States. In response, U.S. ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy called for the establishment of an American Committee for the Evacuation of British Children, composed of American businessmen residing in London and chaired by Lawrence L. Tweedy, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in London, to facilitate the selection and processing of children for departure for the United States.

In the United States, Britain’s entry into the war was quickly followed by public expressions of concern for the island’s young people. As early as September 1939, letters and telegrams offering temporary American homes to British children began pouring into the British Foreign Office in Washington, D.C. Businesses and labor unions, fraternal organizations, and private schools also offered to provide shelter and safety for the children. In Rochester, New York, the Eastman Kodak Company prepared homes for 150 “Kodakids,” the children of workers from the company’s London factory. Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer offered to open his Virginia farm to a group of British nursery school students. By June 1940, a Gallup Poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans believed that (white and Christian) British women and children should be permitted to seek asylum in the United States until the end of the war.

Anita Casavantes Bradford is the author of The Revolution Is for the Children: The Politics of Childhood in Havana and Miami, 1959-1962 and is associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies and history at the University of California, Irvine.