Harry Bingham: Profile in Courage: U.S. Foreign Service Officer Ignored His Bosses at Foggy Bottom and Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis, at the Cost of His Career. Now State Is Honoring Him. (Nation: Diplomacy)

By Andersen, Martin Edwin | Insight on the News, July 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Harry Bingham: Profile in Courage: U.S. Foreign Service Officer Ignored His Bosses at Foggy Bottom and Saved Thousands of Jews from the Nazis, at the Cost of His Career. Now State Is Honoring Him. (Nation: Diplomacy)


Andersen, Martin Edwin, Insight on the News


To some he is the "American Wallenberg" to others "Salem's Schindler." Like Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg or German businessman Oskar Schindler, U.S. diplomat Hiram "Harry" Bingham IV, the son of a Republican former senator from Salem, Conn., was one of a righteous few who aided Jews and others fleeing Nazi

oppression in Europe. Now, six decades later, Bingham's heroism and acts of conscience are being recognized by a State Department whose rules he violated--at great personal risk and cost to his career--in order to save hundreds, and maybe thousands, of lives as well as a significant piece of European culture. "My father," recalls Robert "Kim" Bingham, a Justice Department lawyer, "placed humanity ahead of his career. He always told us, "Give the best you have to the best that you know.'"

Harry Bingham, whose explorer father also rediscovered the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes in 1915, arrived in 1937 to take up the position of vice consul at Marseille, France, after diplomatic postings in Poland, China and Great Britain. Despite the gathering clouds of war in Europe, the new posting--so close to the Riviera and the bucolic life in southern France--might have seemed an excellent conventional opportunity to the Harvard-educated scion of the Tiffany & Co. jewelry dynasty. "Here he was, an idealistic, wealthy young man, coming to what was normally a kind of social posting where you could have a good time," says Severin Hochberg, an historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

By mid-1940, however, the Germans had invaded and successfully occupied northern France. In the south the puppet Vichy government had agreed to surrender on demand certain kinds of people--in the beginning mostly German anti-Nazi activists--who were targeted by the Berlin regime. As the Nazi war machine advanced, many thousands of Germans, Central Europeans and other refugees found themselves stranded in southern France with no place to go. In Marseille, between 15,000 and 17,000 people, mostly Jews, woke with trepidation each new day. "Nineteen forty," notes Hochberg, "was also a bad year for American attitudes toward refugees."

Hochberg, who has studied Bingham's work as vice consul, says that the new decade coincided with a hardening of attitudes at the State Department toward immigration. During the Great Depression, anti-immigrant feeling had been fueled in part by concern for providing scarce jobs for native-born Americans, but also by varying degrees of prejudice against foreigners in general and German Jews in particular. As hostilities increased in Europe, Hochberg says, American worries grew to include fears that immigrants and refugees could in fact be German spies. "At the time," notes a release provided by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the diplomats' professional organization which is honoring Bingham's memory by recognizing his "constructive dissent" posthumously, "the official U.S. policy was that Jews were not to be granted American entry visas, as it would not be wise to upset any government that might become legitimate and important in Europe, and therefore a possibly valuable ally of the U.S."

Other historians have noted a thinly disguised anti-Semitism in some U.S. diplomatic circles as also being a problem. It was during this period, says Hochberg, that "every possible kind of obstacle to immigrants" was being thrown up by U.S. consular officials. These included requiring refugees to get certificates of good citizenship from the Nazi regime's police and making them prove they had sufficient material assets to keep them from becoming a "public charge."

Robert Bingham tells INSIGHT: "I remember my father becoming ashen-faced when he began to recall looking out his window and seeing lines of people who needed to be saved. He then frowned and quickly changed the subject. …

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