On the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the following words are inscribed:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
All my life, I have been taught and have believed that the words of “The New Colossus“ by Emma Lazarus embodied the spirit of the United States. Whether an immigrant came willingly to the United States through Ellis Island in the New York harbor or by some other path, the ethos of a new hope was still the same. My father’s Anabaptist ancestors came to America in the mid 19th century to flee religious persecution in what is now Germany. My mother’s ancestors came from poverty in England, Scotland, and Wales hoping for a better life. In essence, I am a byproduct of that tired and poor wretched refuse, and I strongly believe that others should have the same chances now that my ancestors did then. However, as anyone keeping track of American politics knows, this sentiment is not as widely shared as I might hope.
In many ways, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has become the rallying point for those who fear the influx of dangerous “foreigners” from Latin America or the Middle East, he is certainly not the originator of the hysteria. As can be seen from the July 2014 editor of this blog (“The Right Thing To Do”), there has been a rising concern about those crossing our borders. With the recent attacks in Paris and closer to home in San Bernardino, CA, the national focus of some has shifted to a panic about possible “radical Islamic terrorism.” Mr. Trump, who has turned into an amazing barometer for populist right-wing sentiment, has made his answer to the porous border with Mexico (i.e. build a wall and make Mexico pay for it), and fears of dangerous arrivals from the Middle East (i.e. ban all Muslim travel to the United States) into the basis of his appeal. Yet, for those who know American history, fear of “foreigners” is certainly not a new thing.
American history is filled with rhyming events to those we are experiencing now. To demonstrate this, let me present a part of a letter to the editor that was penned by a famous American from the past. In this letter, the author discusses a certain group of immigrants to the United States and why there were efforts to forbid these people from entering the country. In order to show how little some things change, I will replace a few key words with blanks. At the end, I will reveal who wrote the letter, when, and which group is his subject. Hopefully you will find this exercise as fascinating as I did.
Let us first examine that nightmare to many Americans, especially our friends in California, the growing population of _______ on the Pacific slope. It is undoubtedly true that in the past many thousands of _______ have legally or otherwise got into the United States, settled her and raised up children who became American citizens. Californians have properly objected on the sound basic ground that ________ immigrants are not capable of assimilation into the American population. If this had throughout the discussion been made the sole ground for the American attitude all would have been well, and the people of ______ would today understand and accept our decision.
Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of ______ blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results. There are throughout the ______ many thousands of so-called _____—men and women and children partly of ______ blood and partly of European or American blood. These ______ are, as a common thing, looked down on and despised, both by the European and American who reside there, and by the pure ______ who lives there.
The argument works both ways. I know a great many cultivated, highly educated and delightful ______. They have all told me that they would feel the same repugnance and objection to having thousands of Americans settle in _____ and intermarry with the ______ as I would feel in having large numbers of ______ come over here and intermarry with the American population.
In this question, then, of ______ exclusion from the United States, it is necessary only to advance the true reason—the undesirability of mixing the blood of the two peoples. This attitude would be fully understood in ______, as they would have the same objection to Americans migrating to ______ in large numbers.
Unfortunately, ______ exclusion has been urged for many other reasons—their ability to work for and live on much smaller wages than Americans—their willingness to work for longer hours, their driving out of native Americans from certain fruit growing or agricultural areas. The _____ themselves do not understand these arguments and are offended by them.
The author was none other than future president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The letter to the editor was printed in the Macon Telegraph on April 30, 1925. If we change 1925 to 2015 and fill in the the blanks from Japan/Japanese/Asian to Mexico/Mexican/Latino or ISIS/Islamic/Muslim, we would not notice a significant difference between this letter and more recent speeches, blogs, and letters to the editor.
Although history does not repeat itself and the future is unknown, this editorial (and especially who penned it) may give us a cautionary tale of a possible future. After all, it was written by the same man who penned these words who also placed Japanese-Americans into internments camps at the beginning of World War II. Hopefully, we will not head down that slippery slope – especially in regards to Muslims. At least one elected official has already suggested such a course of action so perhaps we are already starting to slide. If that is not the way we wish to go, we must use the lessons from the past to help make sense of these uncertain times. That is why the History Rhyme is here and why history is still important.