SCOTT SIMON, host:
Michael Chabon's latest book, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," is a comic rift on an alternative history that might have happened if a little publicized plan to try to save Jewish refugees who were desperate to escape Nazi Germany had actually come to pass.
In 1939, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and a few other officials in Washington were eager to find a way to help the growing number of Jews who were appealing to enter the United States from Europe. Their idea was to try to resettle them on the Alaskan frontier and promote economic development.
Richard Breitman is a professor of history at American University and co-author of a forthcoming book on refugee policy under President Roosevelt. He joins us in our studios. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.
Professor RICHARD BREITMAN (History, American University; Co-Editor, "Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald"): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Was this a serious plan?
Prof. BREITMAN: It was quite serious on the part of a few key officials who drew it up. President Roosevelt had some interest in it.
SIMON: How would it have work?
Prof. BREITMAN: Jews would have been brought in along with non-Jewish refugees into Alaska extensively for development purposes and there was to be private money raised to employ them in various industrial and, perhaps, even agricultural capacities. And the private money would get them started until they became self-sustaining.
SIMON: So the idea would have been given some of the Jewish families, who were desperate to escape Nazi Germany, a place to come to without, I guess, risking the reaction of populated areas in the United States.
Prof. BREITMAN: That's right. There were several problems about bringing them into the United States. One, of course, had to do with general concern about immigration. Second issue was, of course, anti-Semitism. And the third issue was kind of technical legal issue, but it added to the political difficulty.
We had an immigration law that was based on a quota system, and although in earlier years, the quota from Germany had never been filled by the middle of 1938 and well into, in fact through 1939, it was entirely filled. And so the notion was that Alaska as a U.S. territory, but not part of the U.S. might be somehow set apart from the quota and Jews brought in there in addition to the regular quota.
SIMON: Why didn't the plan take off, or I guess - as they would say in Washington these days - have any traction?
Prof. BREITMAN: The Alaska plan ran into both local opposition - Alaskan Chambers of Commerce objecting to bringing in immigrants and Jews. Also, the appointed governor for Alaska, a man by the name of Earnest Gruening, was opposed to it. He happened to be an opponent of secretary of the interior, Ickes. They did not get along well.
SIMON: Wasn't - I have to ask. Wasn't Earnest Gruening Jewish?
Prof. BREITMAN: He was of Jewish descent. So the fact that Ickes wanted something along these lines and that his department signed off an a report called the Slattery Report, advocating this plan didn't cut any ice with Gruening.
SIMON: Professor, I'm just guessing that over the years that you've studied this, you've let your mind play over how the world might be different today if this plan had come about.
Prof. BREITMAN: Well, this was one of many plans that failed. And I've been working on this recently in connection with the diary and papers of James G. McDonald, who, from 1933 on, was trying one option after another to get Jews out of Germany and safely into places abroad. And it was possible for people who had enough knowledge and perception to see a disaster coming, and the world would have been very, very different had more people responded to McDonald's efforts and those of others.
SIMON: Richard Breitman, a professor of history at American University and co-editor of "Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald."
Prof. Breitman, thank you so much.
Prof. BREITMAN: Thank you for having me.