Vol. 19 No. 4 (April, 2009) pp.221-223
AMERICANS AT THE GATE, THE UNITED STATES AND REFUGEES DURING THE COLD WAR, by Carl J. Bon Tempo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008. Cloth. 280pp. $35.00/£24.95. ISBN: 9780691123325.
Reviewed by Samuel S. Stanton, Jr. Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Grove City College, ssstanton [at] gcc.edu
Carl J. Bon Tempo’s work is designed to examine the intermingled domestic and international contexts of US refugee policy during the Cold War and into the post Cold War eras. This design is carried out by examining the existing state of US refugee policy entering the Cold War and highlighting different periods of the Cold War era. Included in this work are three distinct case studies regarding refugees admitted into the US; Hungarians in the 1950s, Cubans in the 1960s, and Indochinese in the 1970s and 1980s. Bon Tempo carefully considers domestic sources of policy and international political realities that have been important to the shaping of US refugee policy.
In explaining refugee policy in the first half of the 1900s, Bon Tempo claims that indifference and concerns for national interests combined with economic concerns and cultural biases led to opposition to immigrant admission, and the possibility of refugee admission was quite stymied. In fact, refugees were defined by both the League of Nations and the US Senate as either Russian or Armenian, and people who were without the protection of government or refugees from Turkish policies toward Armenians (pp.15-16). US Policy did not distinguish for most Europeans the difference between refugee and immigrant and required refugees to apply through the same process as normal immigrants. Bon Tempo also points out the restrictive nature of US immigration policy, including crippling quotas for the Eastern Hemisphere and focus on accepting the “correct type” (predominantly Anglo-Saxon) of Europeans. Readers will be disappointed in this first section of the work if they expect great detail, as Bon Tempo rushes to put out a large amount of information in a short space.
More detail is given to the post-WWII period, 1945-1949. Bon Tempo presents a lengthy exposition of President Truman’s 1946 proposal to accept European refugees outside of the normal quotas leading to the 1948 Displaced Persons Act. Particularly important for students and researchers to note is that the acceptance was not without limiting criteria – often based on political decisions about the quality of the regime from which the refugees were fleeing. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 led to the entry of over 400,000 European refugees into the US prior to the closure of the displaced persons program in 1952 (p.25). Bon Tempo explains in detail the early 1950s cultural issues that led to legislation from a primarily restrictionist stance. Led by politicians such as Senator McCarran (D-NV) much of the immigration and refugee related policy was fed by disapproval of New Deal and Fair Deal liberalism and [*222] growing anticommunism associated with this point of view. The fight between proponents of progressive refugee policy and restrictionists led to the passage over Truman’s veto of the McCarran-Walter Act, which was just as restrictive as immigration laws of the 1920s, and to Truman’s Emergency Migration Program – which proposed to admit 300,000 Europeans, including 21,000 “religious and political refugees from communism in eastern Europe” (p.33). This section of the work is Bon Tempo’s strongest written treatment of pre-Cold War policy and serves to build the point of departure for his primary focus, which is refugee policy during the Cold War.
Bon Tempo’s examination of the 1950s era Refugee Relief Program and the 1953 Refugee Relief Act is interesting for two primary reasons. One, it does a quality job of explaining the anxiety of the US population over communist infiltration of the country by immigrants and refugees. Two, it highlights that the primary concern of refugee policy was not political persecution, but overcrowding of Western Europe during a period of economic hardship and redevelopment following WWII. The explanation of the provisions and requirements of the Refugee Relief Act (RRA) are accurate, but Bon Tempo’s examination does not offer a glimpse at how refugee is defined within this act, nor of how this obvious attempt at simply resettling Europeans in need of homes and jobs would meet a standard of refugee resettlement. It is however, an accurate history of the RRA.
Bon Tempo claims the late 1950s to mid 1960s was a period of failure in refugee policy reform (as he titles a subsection of Chapter 4). He points out that general country quotas were abandoned, that more visas were made available for immigration, and that refugee status was more firmly defined, make this a dubious claim. Such a claim rests only on accepting the idea of “refugee” being improperly defined as a political status. Only if the term is not properly defined as based on political persecution or a well-founded fear of such persecution can it be argued that refugee policy was a failure during this time period.
Whether one readily agrees with Bon Tempo’s assertion regarding how the US government has politically defined refugee based on popular demands, his examination of the three cases of refugee entry into the US is well done and represents a thorough assessment of the processes and political decisions regarding admission of Hungarian, Cuban, and Indochinese refugees. Particularly important in his discussion of Hungarians and Cubans is the presidential use of the parole power to allow entry into the country with speed rather than security as the primary focus. In examining the Cold War period, it is impossible to overlook the burdensome security protocols of the immigrant and refugee admissions process. Bon Tempo points out that the use of parole allowed an end run around the cumbersome nature and implementation of policies through the bureaucratic agencies.
Indeed, the case studies of Hungarian (Chapter 3), Cuban (Chapter 5), and Indochinese refugees (Chapter 6) are wonderful illustrations of the interplay of domestic attitudes and foreign policy concerns in the practices regarding refugee admissions into the US. Bon Tempo argues that refugees are admitted historically only on consideration of [*223] foreign policy issues, and that getting the American public to accept the influx is done only if necessary to allay domestic fears. The domestic fears are based on the current social climate when the refugee influx occurs. While refugee policy is usually designed to allay security fears, speed of entry can be used but requires massive public relations efforts on the part of the government (as noted in both the case study of Hungarian refugees and Cuban refugees).
Particularly, when one considers the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocols dealing with refugees and the status of refugees, it is still important to note that agreeing to what constitutes refugees is not the same as taking action to help them. Consider that the 1951 Convention (affirmed in the 1967 Protocols) grants refugee status for people based on persecution or possible persecution in their home state based on five factors – race, religion, nationality, social group membership, and political opinion – why is it still difficult for states to decide to admit refugees? Bon Tempo’s work points to domestic public opinion and how it shapes the political behaviors of the country, and to foreign policy considerations of the government.
Carl J. Bon Tempo has done a solid overall job of examining the acceptance of refugees into the US during the Cold War. His book is concise and historically accurate. While it may disappoint some for failing to consider the overall political and social implications of granting refugee status, and others for its lack of concern for whether the definition of refugee is outdated or was ever correctly conceived, it deserves consideration by scholars of human rights, migration, and foreign policy. It provides a good base for dispersing information and facts to students as well and should be useful in undergraduate courses for this purpose.
© Copyright 2009 by the author, Samuel S. Stanton, Jr.