Imagine that you are a consular officer in the middle of a diplomatic career that you hope will lead to an ambassadorship. There are two rubber stamps on your desk. Using the one that says "APPROVED" would allow the desperate person sitting in front of you to travel to your country legally. Using the other stamp, which says "REJECTED," could mean consigning that person to prison or even death.

It sounds like a simple choice, but there is a catch -- a very big one. The person in front of you is Jewish, and your boss has told you to devise ways not to use the "APPROVED" stamp. Your government does not want these people -- these people waiting outside your office, milling around in the street, hiding in their houses -- in your country. Approve too many visas and your career will be in danger. Follow your instructions and people will probably die.

What would you have done if you had been faced with this situation in 1940? Or if you faced a version of the same situation today featuring, say, refugees from Iraq?

In a movie, the hero would stare out the window, the music would swell, and he would do the right thing (like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with the famous "letters of transit"). But in the real world, there are few heroes in such situations. Government service is based on the well-founded principle that career officials must follow instructions, lest anarchy prevail. But what happens if those instructions have horrible, or even fatal, consequences -- and not heeding them means jeopardizing your career?

We mocked the defense of many Germans after World War II when they said that they were just following orders or did not know about the death camps. But a similar rationale was used by an overwhelming majority of non-German diplomats in Europe during the 1930s to deny Jews entry into their countries. For every diplomatic hero, there were hundreds of consular officials who played it safe by following orders to restrict Jewish immigration. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Jews whose lives could have been saved were left to fend for themselves; most later died in concentration camps. And this was not just a case of officials passively following instructions. Some were enthusiastic in their rejection of Jewish visa applications. Take, for example, the Brazilian consul in Lyon, France, in 1940, who proudly wrote to his foreign minister that the people swarming around his office were "almost all Jewish or of Semitic origin, and only a few of them may be of interest to us. I therefore believe that by my categorical refusal to grant the visas they request, I will have done Brazil a great service."

Yet a handful of Brazilian, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swiss, Turkish, Vatican, Yugoslav, and even Japanese and German diplomats risked their careers, their reputations, and sometimes even their lives to save those who were endangered, mostly Jews whom they did not know, because they believed that their instructions were immoral. Tens of thousands of lives were saved by these heroes. Were it not for the careful investigations carried out by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem), we would probably not even know most of their names.


As Mordecai Paldiel points out in his new book, it was not the Germans who punished these brave men and women. It was often their own governments. Yet in the face of such risk, a few diplomats showed great moral courage, knowing full well that they might pay dearly for it.

The most famous of these was Raoul Wallenberg, whose courage and creativity are now legendary. He paid with his life, not at the hands of the Nazis but at the hands of the Soviets, who thought that he was a U.S. spy. Wallenberg, a member of an aristocratic Swedish family, had been sent to Budapest on a special humanitarian mission by President Franklin Roosevelt, which he expanded to include an unauthorized crusade to save Jews.

Most of those in Paldiel's narrative had been given more routine consular or diplomatic assignments, only to find themselves in an unexpected moral dilemma of historic dimensions. Consider, for example, the astonishing story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux. After the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar prohibited the issuance of transit visas to stranded Jewish refugees, Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, visited the stranded Jewish refugees on the streets, then retreated to his house and tossed and turned in his bed for three nights, sweating profusely. Then he emerged and, according to Paldiel, "flung open the doors to the chancellery, and announced in a loud voice, 'From now on I'm giving everyone visas.'" Sousa Mendes later told his sons that he had "heard a voice, that of his conscience or of God." For a few weeks in June 1940, Sousa Mendes was in a frenzy, issuing visas as fast as he could, even going to the Spanish border to make sure that skeptical border police would honor them. He knew that he was racing against his own government. In July, he was removed from his post and subjected to a nasty investigation personally supervised by Salazar. But Sousa Mendes was unrepentant. "My desire is to be with God against man rather than with man against God," he told his superiors, one of whom later told the investigating tribunal that Sousa Mendes had gone crazy. He was dismissed from government service and, although supported by the Jewish community in Lisbon, died in poverty. Not until after the fall of the Salazar regime did the Portuguese restore his good name and honor to him. Today, there are schools and streets named after him in Portugal. Sousa Mendes' story is typical of those remembered in Paldiel's book -- but these are so few.

So far, Yad Vashem has not honored any U.S. officials as Righteous Among the Nations (although it has recognized a small number of private American citizens, led by Varian Fry). Only one, Hiram Bingham IV, appears to be under serious consideration, and he deserves to be honored. Bingham defied the infamous Breckinridge Long, who headed the European Bureau of the State Department in the late 1930s and outmaneuvered Eleanor Roosevelt when she tried to get more visas issued to Jews. He instructed his consuls "to put every obstacle in the way and ... postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas." Long removed Bingham from his post in Marseille and replaced him with an officer who enthusiastically carried out Long's anti-Semitic policies.

The situations brave men such as Wallenberg, Sousa Mendes, and Bingham faced are not just ancient history. They are similar to what is happening now in Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion, the U.S. government has allowed only 466 Iraqi refugees to enter the United States, even though more than two million have fled the country (mostly to Jordan and Syria). Among those desperately seeking safety are thousands of Iraqis who worked with or supported U.S. personnel in Iraq. They are at the greatest possible risk. In an embarrassing interview recently, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, told 60 Minutes that the small number and slow processing is the result of new, post-9/11 security requirements. Even Iraqis who were given security clearances to work with U.S. troops in sensitive positions in Iraq have to wait several years to get approved. Sauerbrey boasted about increasing this year's Iraqi refugee quota to 7,000 -- still a pathetically small number given U.S. responsibility for the desperate plight of fleeing Iraqis. Under similar circumstances, between 1975 and 1980, Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter took in over 500,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. Those refugees were initially put into camps of "first asylum" for security screening before being permitted to settle in the United States, where today they are a vibrant part of American life.

In fact, if it were not for Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has made refugees a prime concern for over 40 years, the Bush administration would probably still be ignoring the issue; President George W. Bush has yet to mention it in public. That the sorry story of the 1930s is being repeated -- with so little public outrage -- is more than disturbing; it is shameful. Why is the White House doing so little? And where are the Binghams and Sousa Mendeses of 2007?

Every age will present people in positions of authority with similar difficult dilemmas. The details will vary, but the challenge will be the same. If you were in such a situation, would you realize it? And if you did, what would you do?

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  • Richard Holbrooke is Vice Chair of Perseus LLC and was U.S. Ambassador
    to the United Nations from 1999 to 2001 and Chair of Refugees International from
    1996 to 1999. This article was adapted from his introduction to Diplomat Heroes
    of the Holocaust, by Mordecai Paldiel.
  • More By Richard Holbrooke