Oral History Interview with
George L. Warren
Long career dealing with problems of refugees and displaced persons starting in 1928, including service during the Truman administration as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Sessions of the Council of UNRRA, 1944-46; U.S. representative, U.N. special Committee on Refugees and Displaced Persons, 1946; adviser to the U.S. representative, U.N. Economic and Social Council, 1946; U.S. representative, Preparatory Commission, International Refugee Organization, 1947-48; adviser to U.S. delegates, U.N. General Assembly, 1948, 1949, and 1950; and U.S. representative, General Council and Executive Committee, International Refugee Organization, 1948-52
November 10, 1972
by Richard D. McKinzie
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened January, 1976
Harry S. Truman Library
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Oral History Interview with
George L. Warren
November 10, 1972
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Mr. Warren, many students of history would be interested to know how one becomes an expert in the subject of refugees. You had a long career dealing with refugee problems dating from the First World War. What motivated you? Is there any particular reason that you became interested in the problems of refugees and indigent aliens?
WARREN: I think it was a matter of gradual development. When I was in Harvard from 1906 to 1910, I spent three hours a day the last two years, 1909 and 1910, working with the Associated Charities in Boston dealing with homeless men -- wanderers. Later when I was in Bridgeport,
Connecticut in 1919 to 1928 -- that was the time of World War I, Bridgeport was just chaos, it was a war production city. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Connecticut, Honorable George W. Wheeler was also Chairman of the Draft Board, and wouldn't let me go to war. I was Chairman of the Home Service Committee of the American Red Cross. And one of the cases that came to my attention was a woman whose husband was a GI and was killed in the war. She was left with only a few hundred dollars, and I had to take care of her.
Then I had another case. It was an Italian woman with six or eight children whose husband just got up and left one Friday afternoon and went to Italy and joined the army -- the U.S. Army. And she was left with six or eight children.
Well, these two cases got me interested in problems of families that were created by separation between countries. After I left Warner Brothers in 1928, I was offered the
position of Director of the International Migration Service, which dealt with just this kind of problem. It is now called the International Social Service. And that’s how I got interested in families whose problems were created by migration -- where the families were separated.
In 1938 when the refugees began to increase, President Roosevelt (prior to his calling the Evian Conference) organized the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. And members of the committee, like Hamilton Fish Armstrong, James G. McDonald, Paul Baerwald, Basil Harris, Rabbi Stephen Wise, and Joseph P. Chamberlain all knew me and named me secretary of that Committee. And that’s how I happened to be asked by Sumner Welles, Under Secretary of State, to go to Evian to be adviser to Myron Taylor, who was the U.S. Representative at the Evian Conference, and unfamiliar with the problem.
MCKINZIE: You weren't completely satisfied with the outcome of the Evian Conference?
WARREN: No. But there were reasons for that and it wasn't a complete failure. It was toward the end of the depression. All the Latin-American countries, which might have been reception countries of resource, were having trouble by movements from the rural areas into cities -- and serious unemployment. Our own Congress was very hostile to the idea of admitting any refugees. We tried to get the United Kingdom to provide some place of resettlement on the land. Everybody at that time thought that the only thing to do was to colonize them in agriculture.
MCKINZIE: Did you also believe that, at that time?
WARREN: I did at the time, but I realized later that it was completely impractical. President Roosevelt himself, was very much interested in such colonization. And incidentally, in 1939 he
predicted remarkably closely the problem of the refugees and displaced persons at the end of the war -- it's amazing. He was constantly working with the president of John Hopkins University at that time, Isaiah Bowman. Roosevelt during that period had Isaiah Bowman exploring every uninhabited land where these people might be placed. And Bowman had more reality about problems of settlement than Roosevelt had. He [Bowman] knew every square foot in Latin America. He finally came up with the only solution -- that you had to introduce these refugees and displaced persons to existing rural areas and set them up in suburban areas to existing urban areas. But nothing ever came of that. We tried it out in a special mission that we sent to British Guiana, which the British very reluctantly agreed to. It was a joint British-U.S. mission under the auspices of this President's Advisory Committee.
Well, they got down there to Georgetown and there was an American flyer with a seaplane
and he flew them over the rain forest, up to the plateau behind all the Guianas -- very fertile lands. There were refugees from our Civil War populating this area married to the Indians. The problem was, how would you get the refugees over the rain forest, because it was a hundred miles deep. You could bring them up through Brazil -- approach it that way or you could fly them in. Well, war broke out in 1939 and that was the end of that. And that was the end of any further efforts of colonization. From then on it was entirely an individual movement.
MCKINZIE: There was, after the war, some considerable guilt feeling, don't you think, on the part of some people in the administration for their failure to take in Jewish refugees from Hitler's Germany?
WARREN: I don't think so. I think Roosevelt's hands were completely tied by an overwhelming unwillingness in the Congress to admit refugees based
partly on fear that the refugees would be fifth columnists. I don’t think that fear was real, but there was no question about the attitude of Congress. Roosevelt's hands were tied. He did all he could in the situation. Later, he just arbitrarily brought a thousand refugees from Italy and put them up in a camp in New York State, Oswego. And was terribly criticized in Congress for doing that, but that is proof of his concern. Actually, he called the Evian Conference in July '38, because he felt he had to do something to react to the Anschluss in Austria. He didn't know what else to do. He was terribly embarrassed because, having called the conference, he couldn't do anything about taking refugees into the United States himself. And all he could do was to exhaust the quotas, which they did. But he did that with Congress growling at him every day of the week.
MCKINZIE: Then there was little that your own organization could do to change the situation?
WARREN: Only for these intellectuals, that's all we could do. And otherwise we tried to work through the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which resulted from the Evian Conference. That was a futile effort by George Rublee to get some kind of a financial deal with the Nazis to let the refugees out with some of their own property. That failed completely. And when that happened Rublee resigned and it just got down to a refugee placement job. The Intergovernmental Committee -- which only had financial support from the U.S. and the U.K., all the other members simply paid their dues -- was the first organization that actually put up some money to buy a boat to move some refugees without charge out of Germany. That was their big contribution. They put up the first money to support refugees in the occupied countries, and they put up the first boat that started moving refugees out of Europe. Nobody has ever given them credit for that.
Later, as the Congress became more involved, and that brings me to this report. [See “The Development of United States Participation in Intergovernmental Efforts to Resolve Refugee Problems,” in George L. Warren Papers, Harry S. Truman Library.] In UNRRA and IRO the U.S. was paying 70 to 75 and 80 percent of the cost. We were paying for the support of the refugees in Germany. We were feeding them through our subsidization to the German economy. That's where Congressman [Francis E.] Walter comes in. He was just as opposed to having refugees enter the United States as every other Congressman, and that's why he was interested in creating IRO, International Refugee Organization, in an effort to divert the pressure on the United States to get refugees off to other countries. It wasn't all so glorious as this report.
MCKINZIE: Once the war was underway -- once the United States got into the war, the War Refugee Board began to consider those kinds of problems. What was your relationship with that, and can you assess their work?
WARREN: I was the liaison officer in the State Department to the War Refugee Board. All their messages came to me, and I had to get the messages cleared through the Department, because otherwise they wouldn't go out. I thought they were very aggressive. They certainly took advantage of every opportunity that was available. They saved a lot of people -- I can't put figures on it, although they produced a report somewhere.