Dr. Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950) was a key adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on population settlement issues and strongly influenced the president’s view of the Jewish refugee problem. He was widely known as “Roosevelt’s geographer.”
As chief territorial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles peace conference of 1919, director of the American Geographical Society from 1915 to 1935, and president of Johns Hopkins University from 1935 to 1948, Bowman arguably was the most prominent and respected American geographer of his time.
Bowman’s antisemitism was an important part of his worldview. His Hopkins colleague Owen Lattimore remembered Bowman as “profoundly anti-Semitic.” In 1939, Bowman fired one of the most promising young historians on the Hopkins faculty, Eric Goldman, on the grounds that “there are already too many Jews at Hopkins.” While searching for candidates to teach in the geography department, Bowman expressed interest in candidate Henry Bruman only after confirming “that Bruman is not a Jew.
One of the new men could be…but I do not want two of them in the same department.” Bowman was convinced that “Jews don’t come to Hopkins to make the world better or anything like that. They came for two things: to make money and to marry non-Jewish women.” Worried that Hopkins was “becoming a practically Jewish organization,” Bowman in 1942 instituted a quota on the admission of Jewish students.
“THE DANGER OF JEWISH CONTROL”
Bowman’s influential 1937 study, Limits of Land Settlement, with which President Roosevelt was familiar, made the case that there were virtually no places left in the world to which large populations could feasibly migrate.
FDR first turned to Bowman in 1938 for information on the feasibility of settling European Jewish refugees in the Orinoco River valley of Venezuela. Bowman quickly shot down the idea as too complicated and expensive.
In the wake of the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Germany’s Jews, Roosevelt enlisted Bowman to undertake a two-year examination of settlement possibilities for Jewish refugees in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Bowman and his team found virtually every country they studied to be unsuitable for “a large foreign immigrant group.” He warned that if the U.S. undertook “the importation of European population elements” to Latin America, then “we are likely to be charged with the importation of a European quarrel into America.” A better idea would be to “keep the European elements within the framework of the Old World,” he urged the president.
In Bowman’s many private memos to FDR, he recommended that Jewish refugees be settled only “in limited numbers here, there, and elsewhere…The absorption must be on such a limited scale in any one area that the people already established in the area will welcome the new settlers.” He wrote of what he called “the danger [of] Jewish control…if too many are allowed into the country and particularly the cities.”
Bowman also warned the president that Jewish refugees admitted to regions in the Western hemisphere would be “constantly looking around for escape to the cities and particularly to the United States.”
A STUDY OF RACE-MIXING
In 1942, the State Department established an Office of Post-War Planning together with an advisory council. FDR chose Bowman to chair both. Housed in the Library of Congress, with a permanent staff of eight to ten and twenty to thirty researchers and consultants, Bowman undertook, at the president’s behest, a series of studies known as the “M [for Migration] Specifically, Roosevelt wanted Bowman to determine “what will happen when various kinds of Europeans—Scandinavian, Germanic, French-Belgian, North Italian,etc.—are mixed with the South American base stock.
The President specifically asked [Bowman’s] committee to consider such questions as the following: Is the South Italian stock—say, Sicilian—as good as the North Italian stock—say, Milanese—if given equal social and economic opportunity? Thus, in a given case, where 10,000 Italians were to be offered settlement facilities, what proportion of the 10,000 should be Northern Italians and what Southern Italians?’”
The M Project studies generally reinforced Bowman’s view that there were no places left in the world for mass settlement, that mixing races was ill-advised, and that the admission of significant numbers of foreigners would endanger America’s racial well-being. “Our civilization will decline unless we improve our human breed. To support the genetically unfit and also allow them to breed is to degrade our society,” Bowman believed. “A people having staked out a territory as we have done in America certainly has the right to look after itself from the eugenic standpoint.” He also strongly defended America’s right to take preventive action “if it decides that its character will be improved by excluding certain populations.”
In its three years of work, the M Project produced hundreds of reports and memoranda, which it distributed to officials in various branches of the Roosevelt administration and positioned Bowman to wield considerable influence. He figured prominently in wartime discussions in both the White House and State Department regarding Jewish refugee settlement issues and Zionism. Bowman strongly opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
FDR remarked to Bowman on more than one occasion “that U.S. policy on Palestine followed [Bowman’s] lead,” although it is more likely that Bowman simply helped reinforce Roosevelt’s preexisting skepticism regarding Jewish statehood.
When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt seemed receptive to a 1943 report by the Agriculture Department’s Walter Clay Lowdermilk which found there was room in Palestine for several million immigrants, the president asked Bowman to have a talk with her. Bowman was uneasy about FDR’s request. He regarded Eleanor as “mischievous” for meddling in “questions beyond her understanding,” and even suspected that she might be “trying to get my ideas” so that she could “disseminate them in Jewish quarters” and thereby stimulate attacks on him. Nonetheless, heeding Roosevelt’s wishes, he explained to the First Lady about what he claimed was Palestine’s limited ability to absorb Jewish refugees, the danger of angering the Arab world, and the risks of America being drawn into a Mideast conflict. He went so far as to characterize Zionism as no different “from Hitler’s Lebensraum.” Bowman’s warnings to FDR about Arab opposition also helped sabotage a British proposal to the U.S. to temporarily settle some European Jewish refugees in Allied-occupied Libya in 1943.
“SPREAD THE JEWS THIN”
Remarks made by President Roosevelt at a private White House luncheon with Prime Minister Winston Churchill in May 1943 illustrate the extent to which FDR was influenced by Bowman. Vice President Henry Wallace, who took part in the discussion, later wrote in his diary that when the two leaders began speaking of the postwar status of the Jews, Roosevelt spoke to Churchill, with obvious sympathy, about Bowman’s plan. FDR explained that he had commissioned Bowman to study “the problem of working out the best way to settle the Jewish question.” Bowman’s recommendation “essentially is to spread the Jews thin all over the world. The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”
As a U.S. representative to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, Bowman played a key role in undermining Jewish groups’ attempts to insert strong human rights provisions in the UN charter. Those groups sought not only to include language requiring UN member-states to observe human rights, but also to create a mechanism to enforce it.
Bowman helped choreograph a ‘compromise’ in which the charter obligated countries to respect human rights, but created no mechanism to enforce it, thus effectively gutting the requirement.
Medoff, FDR and the Holocaust, pp.27-31.