Harry Bingham: profile in courage: U.S.

Foreign Service officer ignored his boss es at Foggy Bottom and saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, at the cost of hi s career. Now State is honoring him by Martin Edwin Andersen To some he is the "American Wallenberg" to others "Salem's Schindler." Like Swed ish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg or German businessman Oskar Schindler, U.S. diplom at 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 cons cience are being recognized by a State Department whose rules he violated--at gr eat personal risk and cost to his career--in order to save hundreds, and maybe t housands, of lives as well as a significant piece of European culture. "My fathe r," 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 posit ion of vice consul at Marseille, France, after diplomatic postings in Poland, Ch ina and Great Britain. Despite the gathering clouds of war in Europe, the new po sting--so close to the Riviera and the bucolic life in southern France--might ha ve seemed an excellent conventional opportunity to the Harvard-educated scion of the Tiffany & Co. jewelry dynasty. "Here he was, an idealistic, wealthy young m an, 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 dem and 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 stra nded 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 decad e coincided with a hardening of attitudes at the State Department toward immigra tion. During the Great Depression, anti-immigrant feeling had been fueled in par t by concern for providing scarce jobs for native-born Americans, but also by va rying degrees of prejudice against foreigners in general and German Jews in part icular. As hostilities increased in Europe, Hochberg says, American worries grew to include fears that immigrants and refugees could in fact be German spies. "A t the time," notes a release provided by the American Foreign Service Associatio n (AFSA), the diplomats' professional organization which is honoring Bingham's m emory 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 n ot 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. diplom atic 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 go od citizenship from the Nazi regime's police and making them prove they had suff icient 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." Other Bingham child ren recall feeling their father's sadness at not being able to do even more. But Harry Bingham's central role in the Marseilles rescue drama was only vaguely understood by his 11 children as they were growing up. True, there were a few g rateful references in inscriptions in books written by famous German authors for the help provided by the one-time consul, and artist Marc Chagall sent cards at Christmas. But rather than regaling his children with tales of saving between 5 00 and 2,500 lives between 1939 and 1941 by defying his State Department superio rs and signing hundreds of visas for European Jews and enemies of Adolf Hitler, Bingham kept his own counsel. Even disparaging remarks from Bingham's extended family about how his foreign se rvice came to an inglorious end were met with silence from the man his children remember as having the family's "missionary zeal as well as a tremendous moral f iber." According to diplomatic historian Ellen Rafshoon, it wasn't until Harry Bingham died in 1988 (to be followed by his wife Rose in 1996) that the family read Bing ham's personal papers that included his wartime journal, photos and other corres pondence documenting his mostly unheralded crusade. Among the papers was evidenc e of how Bingham brandished before the Vichy police Chagall's American Carnegie Prize diploma in order to get the painter released from prison. (According to Ch agall biographer Franz Meyer, earlier efforts by Bingham and others to convince the Russian-born maestro to leave the village of Gordes, in Provence, received a n unenthusiastic reception. "Are there trees and cows in America, too?" Chagall is quoted as asking.) Later Bingham and his close coworker in the refugee effort , writer Varian Fry of the underground Emergency Rescue Committee, were able to help Chagall and his wife to escape, together with numerous art works, to the Un ited States. Among the others that Bingham had helped were painters Marcel Duchamp and Max Er nst, writer Lion Feuchtwanger, poet Andre Breton and the Nobel laureate in chemi stry Otto Meyerhoff. Bingham, Rafshoon wrote in the June 2002 edition of the For eign Service Journal, did not limit himself to issuing visas. "He undertook extr aordinary measures to save his charges, including hiding people in his villa, pr oviding disguises, passing some off as members of his own family and purchasing fake documents. His principled defiance of State's refugee policies destroyed hi s good standing with the department, along with his dreams of someday becoming a n ambassador." Bingham's acts of courage stood in marked contrast to the behavior of many of hi s peers. As Hochberg points out, at the time when the "Final Solution" was being prepared in death camps around occupied Europe, most refugees were faced, as Ro bert Bingham noted, with "the feeling that there was no human being on the face of the earth who cared--in the U.S. government, for example--about their plight. " As Hochberg says, "Time was of the essence." In contrast to the official indifference or outright hostility faced by other re fugees, Feuchtwanger, the novelist and vocal anti-Hitler critic interred as an e nemy alien at a Vichy camp, personally was rescued outside the site by Bingham. The American diplomat told curious police along the escape route that the writer , disguised in women's clothing provided by Bingham, actually was the diplomat's mother-in-law visiting from Georgia. Feuchtwanger was on the Gestapo's most-wan ted list, and he and his wife, together with the brother, sister-in-law and son of novelist Thomas Mann, later spent several months hiding out at Bingham's vill a. The group, along with Alma Mahler, the widow of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, personally was assisted by Bingham in their escape to Spain and eventual

freedom. Although records are sketchy, Bingham's family members say they believe the envo y spent his own money to finance the various rescue schemes. According to several accounts, it was the State Department's growing awareness o f Bingham's activities on behalf of the refugees, brought about in part by compl aints from the Germans, that caused him to be transferred out of Marseille, firs t to Lisbon and then to Buenos Aires. Among the documents retrieved by his child ren are cables he sent to Washington from Argentina alerting the department abou t the growing numbers of Nazis taking refuge in southern South America, bringing with them large quantities of gold and other treasure. These reports, the AFSA noted, formed part of Bingham's "tradition of dissent." Bingham resigned from the Foreign Service in 1946 after having been offered a fi rst-secretary's post in Havana, the burden of raising what became a brood of 11 children abroad weighing heavily upon the diplomat and his wife. His son Robert, who was born in Buenos Aires, recalls: "He regretted that his children were gro wing up without knowing what a great country America is." In addition to the AFSA special dissent award, presented to family members on Ju ne 27, the State Department has announced plans to revise Bing ham's biographic entry in the official department history so that it includes his humanitarian se rvice, under the heading of "Courageous Diplomat." Bingham, who died nearly penn iless at the age of 84, also has been honored posthumously by the state of Israe l, one of 11 diplomats from around the world who were recognized by an exhibit a t the Yad Vashem National Holocaust Museum for helping to save some 200,000 live s during World War II. Thirty-six U.S. senators and a like number of U.S. repres entatives, together with the entire Connecticut Legislature, have endorsed a pro posal to honor Bingham by placing his likeness on a U.S. postage stamp. Supporte rs point out that, if such a proposal were honored next year, it would mark the centennial of Bingham's birth. The posthumous award given to humanitarian diplomat Hiram "Harry" Bingham is par t of a 34-year-old American Foreign Service Association tradition of recognizing "constructive dissent" by members of the diplomatic corps. Award winners are th ose "who have demonstrated the courage to challenge the system from within, no m atter the issue or the consequences of their actions." The annual awards ceremony, however, is only part of a generation-old State Depa rtment effort to open up channels of communication with employees who disagree w ith official policy. Since 1971, Foreign Service officers have been allowed to u se the department's "Dissent Channel" to make their case directly to the secreta ry of state and other senior officials. No other major agency within the federal government allows its personnel to make their views heard--without retaliation or restriction--through such direct access to high-ranking policymakers. Thirty-one years ago the Foreign Affairs Manual, holy writ for U.S. diplomats, w as revised to give Foreign Service officers the explicit freedom to dissent. Sin ce that time, the Dissent Channel has been used some 250 times. The dissenting o pinions sometimes have been expressed using embassy telegrams, at other times by messages sent directly to the secretary of state or by appending a footnote on interagency intelligence assessments. Once the channel has been used, the secret ary of state or other senior policymakers have to provide a prompt written respo nse to the dissenting cable or opinion that includes an honest assessment of whe ther the views expressed by the staff member deserve to be incorporated into U.S . policy. If it is determined that they do not, the response must include a refu tation of the dissent expressed. About three-quarters of the messages sent through the Dissent Channel have addre

ssed substantive policy. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the seventh-floor offic es at Foggy Bottom have received nearly three-dozen dissenting messages, many hi ghly classified, by diplomats concerned about evolving U.S. policy. Senior policymakers most familiar with the process say that, by giving Foreign S ervice officers a chance to express their views openly, a wide variety of polici es has been reviewed. Among these have been department positions on the war in V ietnam; the role of European communist parties; relations with Cambodia's bloody Marxist regime; Central America policy during the 1980s, particularly concernin g the region's "proxy" wars; and in-house disenchantment with the slowness of th e United States to respond to the 1990s humanitarian crisis in the Balkans. When the channel works best, advocates say, it enriches the diversity of views c ontained in regular embassy reporting. The very existence of the Dissent Channel , says one official familiar with how the process works, helps ensure the canvas sing of a wider range of opinions before policy is made. Other practical benefits were cited as resulting from the availability of the Di ssent Channel. Being able to float alternative ideas, one diplomat told INSIGHT, promotes a more collegial environment where there is less temptation to leak po licy differences to the press, or undercut policy once it is being implemented, or "wink and nod" to foreign governments with messages contrary to the official department line. Because the channel allows dissenters the ability to buttress t heir arguments with classified information, the likelihood of senior managers re ading those arguments in the newspaper, complete with the department's secrets, is somewhat diminished. "It serves as a practical way to help avoid leaks and high-profile resignations over policy," one source says. "Of course, that does not mean leaks won't occur or that people who really disagree won't resign." The department's openness to d issent, he adds, also helps to counteract another tendency in the Foreign Servic e--the unwillingness of some to rock the boat. Strongly held opinions sometimes are viewed as rough edges that get softened as one moves up the career ladder. Allowing those holding such views to express the m without fear of reprisal helps remove the incentive for otherwise conscientiou s employees to remain silent witnesses to bureaucratic errors en route to becomi ng policy. COPYRIGHT 2002 News World Communications, Inc. Insight on the News / July 22, 2002