Shadow Diplomats: Constructing a Humanitarian Network during the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Andrew J. Falk, Christopher Newport University
“Shadow Diplomats” examines the extensive efforts by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to provide humanitarian assistance and other services for displaced persons, war refugees, and Jewish communities in Europe, Latin America, and Shanghai, during the 1930s – especially when the State Department and official American foreign policy proved unwilling or unable to provide that assistance.

Making use of sources from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, and the JDC archives in New York City, the paper looks at how the JDC pressured the Roosevelt administration to form a tenuous partnership and to hold international conferences for humanitarian causes.  As the more dominant partner, JDC members built a complex international network of relief centers to aid victims of repression.  Often through extralegal means, the JDC coordinated the mass migration and resettlement of refugees. Working as “shadow diplomats,” members of the organization served as proxies for the U.S. State Department overseas and, perhaps ironically, negotiated directly with authoritarian regimes around the world, including Francoist Spain, the Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic, and the Japanese occupational authorities in Shanghai.

More broadly, the pre-war activism of the JDC contributed to wartime discourses promoting international human rights and helped emphasize individuals’ responsibilities in a postwar civil society. By analyzing the methods the JDC used to carve out spaces for international activism, this paper seeks to focus more scholarly attention on the roles unofficial forces have played in shaping American foreign relations and world affairs in the last half of the twentieth century.

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