Rob Christensen

Christensen: NC politicians have long tapped into foreign fears

The most dangerous place to stand during the past few days has been between a politician and a TV camera, as they try to one-up each other in showing how opposed they are to admitting Syrian refugees.

North Carolina politicians have joined the national clamor to stop the trickle of Syrian refugees – many of them women and children fleeing war and terrorism – citing the possibility of terrorists sneaking in.

(North Carolina has so far taken in 59 Syrian refugees and it is proposed that the state take in 270 more.)

There has been loose talk about registering American Muslims and canards about Muslims cheering in New Jersey after the World Trade Center was attacked.

We have seen this all before in North Carolina – only before it was Jews and the Japanese who were the targets.

The master of this was U.S. Sen. Robert Reynolds, a two-term Democrat from Asheville who served from December 1932 to January 1945.

Reynolds was a leading critic of Jewish immigration, claiming Jews were “systematically building a Jewish empire in this country,” and often argued that Jews were alien to American culture, writes journalist Lew Powell in his blog North Carolina Miscellany.

“We cannot care for our own, to saying nothing of importing more to care for,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds disseminated his views through a publication he founded called the Vindicator, which published March 1939 to December 1942. His publication carried headlines warning about “the alien menace” such as “Jewish Refugees Find Work,” or “Rabbi Seeks Admission of One Million War Refugees,” and “New Rules Hit Immigration of German Jews.”

The Vindicator urged boys to join a “Border Patrol” where they could earn badges by catching “alien crooks.”

Reynolds castigated the Asheville papers for advocating the admission of 20,000 European refugee children, most of them Jews, into the country. Reynolds thought such a move would open up the floodgates.

The House Un-American Activities Committee found that the German American Bund, the American branch of the German Nazi Party, had been instructed by the Nazis to subscribe to and distribute copies of the Vindicator. The head of the American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, attended a Reynolds rally.

Reynolds found himself allied with the fascist right, and was called “The Tar Heel Fuhrer” by a leading national columnist.

But he was not the only one in North Carolina involved in antisemitic politics. William Dudley Pelley founded the Silver Legion of America in 1933 in Asheville. Patterned after the Nazi Brown Shirts, the Silver Shirts wore silver shirts with a tie and blue trousers with leggings and an “L” embroidered across their heart.

The Silver Legion claimed that Jewish migration was part of a Jewish-Communist conspiracy to seize control of the United States. The group had 50,000 members in 1934. Pelley ran for president in 1936. The group went into a steep decline after World War II broke out.

The Japanese were also the targets of prejudice.

In one of its most infamous actions during World War II, the U.S. ordered Japanese-Americans living on the west coast deported to inland relocation camps, viewing them as security risks after Japan invaded Pearl Harbor.

In order to carry out the order, the War Department needed congressional approval of a bill that would establish criminal penalties necessary to punish any violators of military orders.

Reynolds, as chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, held a hearing on the bill. Only two senators participated in the debate, with Sen. Robert Taft, the conservative Republican from Ohio, voicing reservations about possible violations of individual rights.

Without any proof, Reynolds delivered a speech denouncing Japanese Americans as “fifth column” agents and saboteurs, wrote historian Julian M. Pleasants in his biography “Buncombe Bob.”

The North Carolina senator said that in Hawaii “cane fields were cut in the form of arrows pointing to military objectives” and that Japanese Americans had “wrecked cars and obstructed traffic” near Pearl Harbor. He said that “Japanese pilots shot down above Pearl Harbor were found to be wearing Honolulu high school insignia and United States college rings.” All such charges were proven false by the FBI.

After the Japanese internment camps were set up, Reynolds in 1943 directed Sen. Elbert D. Thomas of Utah to head a subcommittee to investigate reported demonstrations at the camps.

Reynolds had read reports claiming that Japanese “enemy-aliens” were being pampered by the War Relocation Authority and getting food, clothes and housing while Americans received nothing.

“The Japanese Americans correctly responded that they were not pampered,” Pleasants wrote. “They invited Reynolds to come see for himself the barbed wire, sentries, rationed mess, outdoor toilets, and the other indignities that 112,000 loyal Japanese-Americans had to suffer. Other than appointing a subcommittee to investigate, Reynolds ignored the situation except to say that the evacuees could not be pampered any longer.”

No doubt, publicly berating Jewish refugees and Japanese-Americans was good politics at the time.