On April 19, 1943, representatives from the United States and Great Britain met on the island of Bermuda to discuss possible ways to assist wartime refugees. The delegation, coordinated by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, was headed by Harold W. Dodds. This international conference was the second organized by President Roosevelt. Five years earlier in the summer of 1938, he had called upon the world’s leaders to meet at the Evian Conference in the French resort town of Evian to discuss the growing international refugee crisis.
Inaccessible Bermuda was chosen as the conference’s venue in order to limit the number of reporters and private representatives attending. Members of the Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress were not permitted to attend. The issues that could be discussed was also severely limited by the organizers.
However, like the Evian Conference, the Bermuda Conference reached few solutions. Most observers agree that the Conference was a public relations sham to appease mostly Jewish groups, which had organized public protests about the situation in Europe, and to mask President Roosevelt’s true intentions of American inactivity. The reluctance to intervene resulted from the antisemitic and anti-immigration mood in the State Department. Regardless of President Roosevelt’s intentions and goals, the Bermuda Conference failed to propose any meaningful immediate rescue efforts. Not even reports confirming mass murders led to heightened governmental concern. The strategy continued to remain one of “rescue through victory.”
President Roosevelt’s paradoxical behavior remains a question. Why did he convene two international conferences while essentially closing American doors to refugees? It is important for us to explore these complex moral and ethical questions with our students, because they continue to be relevant today. When and why do political leaders get involved in foreign affairs? How can we as citizens help our own government assist people who are in need? To what extent are citizens responsible for the actions of their elected governments?