When Harry Truman Singled out ‘Ethnic German’ Refugees

Harry S. Truman (Hulton Archive / Getty)
Hulton Archive / Getty

The left and the media continue to hit Republicans over the idea that the government ought to pay special attention to Muslim refugees. Last week President Barack Obama slammed the idea: “That’s not American. That’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

In fact, under President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. singled out refugees by ethnicity–and for good reason. Specifically, Truman ordered that refugees of German ethnic origin be investigated for their eligibility for asylum.

The justification was obvious: the U.S. did not want to give refuge to Nazis on the run, to people who had committed war crimes, or to those who might pose a security risk. To prevent that from happening, Truman issued Executive Order #10131 in 1950:


By virtue of the authority vested in me by section 10 of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, approved June 25, 1948 (62 Stat. 1009), as amended and extended by Public Law 555, 81st Congress, Second Session, approved June 16, 1950, and as President of the United States, it is ordered as follows:

1. The Displaced Persons Commission is hereby designated as the agency which shall, subject to the provisions of paragraph 2 hereof, make or prepare the investigations and written reports required by sections 10 and 12 of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, as amended, regarding the character, history, and eligibility under the said Act of eligible displaced persons and persons of German ethnic origin seeking admission into the United States.

2. The Department of State, the Department of the Army, and such other agencies of the Government as the Displaced Persons Commission may request, shall, in accordance with arrangements agreed upon between the Commission and any such department or agency, furnish the Commission such assistance as it may need in carrying out its responsibilities under paragraph 1 of this order.

3. This order shall take effect immediately and shall supersede Executive Order No. 10003 of October 4, 1948, (1) entitled “Providing for the Investigation of and Report on Displaced Persons Seeking Admission into the United States.”

Truman also insisted that Jewish refugees from the war be given priority. His “Truman Directive” of 1945 was designed to help Jewish “Displaced Persons.” When Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948, Truman blasted it for not going far enough to help Jews: “The bill discriminates in callous fashion against displaced persons of the Jewish faith,” he said. He praised a later amendment, which he signed in 1950–on the same day that he signed the above executive order singling out ethnic Germans.

There are parallels to the dilemma America faces today regarding Muslim refugees. We know that terrorists have pretended to be refugees in the past. We also know that many Muslims in the Middle East, including some who have sought refuge in the West, support Islamic terrorism, at least in theory. It is an urgent national security matter to keep such people out of the United States.

It is wrong to single people out by religion once they are U.S. citizens–and Donald Trump deserves criticism for not making that clear, even though the controversy over a “Muslim database” is largely a media creation.

But it is constitutional–and wise–to distinguish among refugees by religion, and to be more vigilant regarding Muslim refugees. Harry Truman would have agreed.