The Legacy of the M.S. Saint Louis

William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
George Marshall Conference Center, Department of State
Washington, DC
September 24, 2012

Date: 09/24/2012 Description: Deputy Secretary Burns delivers remarks on the legacy of the M.S. Saint Louis, Washington, DC. - State Dept Image

Thank you, Special Envoy Rosenthal, and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.

And to the survivors of the M.S. Saint Louis, on behalf of the President and Secretary of State, I am honored to say what we should have said so long ago: welcome.

We who did not live it can never understand the experience of those 937 Jews who boarded the M.S. Saint Louis in the spring of 1939. Behind them, shattered windows and lives, loved ones in danger, crimes already underway and those crimes to come. Ahead, the hope of a new life in this country.

We all know how this journey ends. The ship was turned away. Its passengers returned to a Europe that fell, country by country, to the cruelty they set sail to escape. Having made it so close to the safety of our shores, nearly one-third of the men, women and children of the M.S. Saint Louis perished, half a world away, in Auschwitz and other camps.

In the spring of 1939, the dangers were visible to those clear-eyed enough to see them. The warnings were already clear for those who cared to listen to the voices of Steven Wise and many others. And yet the United States did not welcome these tired, poor and huddled passengers as we had so many before and would so many since. Our government did not live up to its ideals. We were wrong. And so we made a commitment that the next time the world confronts us with another M.S. Saint Louis—whether the warning signs are refugees in flight or ancient hatreds resurfacing—we will have learned the lessons of the M.S. Saint Louis and be ready to rise to the occasion. What does that mean in practice?

First, we are vigilant in the face of anti-Semitism. Jews once struggled to have their voices heard within government. Today we have the voice of State Department Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal who brings passion and purpose to her work. She has invited Muslim religious leaders who denied the Holocaust to Auschwitz and Dachau, and they have returned home prepared to speak out against not just Holocaust denial, but all forms of anti-Semitism. We call out and fight twenty-first century anti-Semitism from Eastern Europe to Durban to the classrooms of the Middle East. Under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, as under their predecessors, the fight against anti-Semitism remains a moral commitment and a constant effort.

Second, around the world, we work to prevent mass atrocities like those the passengers of the M.S. Saint Louis were fleeing. We look forward to the day when “never again” need never be invoked. We are a long way from there. To bring us closer, President Obama launched the Atrocities Prevention Board, acknowledging in a Presidential directive that: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” We are putting a new emphasis on detecting the warning signs of genocide, enhancing our surge capacity to send civilians into at-risk areas, sharpening our sanctions toolkit, making clear that those who perpetrate these crimes are held accountable and expanding the circle of people and leaders and groups who share these commitments.

Preventing atrocities is hard and humbling work. Its successes are often invisible, its failures all too visible and the right answers can be elusive. But as we saw last year—when Qadhafi threatened to hunt down the Libyan people like rats—America and our allies can and do come together to prevent atrocities.

The third and final lesson is that refugees and migrants deserve better.

It was tragedies like that of the M.S. Saint Louis that prompted the international community to create the 1951 Refugee Convention, defining the rights of refugees and the duty to protect them. Americans have welcomed almost three million refugees from every region of the world into our communities since 1980. In fact, more than half of all refugees resettled to third countries now come to America, more than all other resettlement countries combined. A photo of the M.S. Saint Louis hangs in the front office of the State Department’s refugee bureau as a powerful reminder and source of motivation. Our actions since the Saint Louis, we hope, speak more eloquently than any words could to our dedication and commitment to shelter and to protect.

The hard lessons of the M.S. Saint Louis are with us always. They are with us in the heavy and humbling knowledge that we are the most powerful nation in a still dangerous world. That our role comes with special responsibilities. That anti-Semitism, genocide and mass displacement are – sadly – all-too-alive in 2012. That there are other M.S. Saint Louises setting sail right now. That there is always more we can and must do.

Thank you all for coming today, especially those who took this terrible journey. Your resilience truly inspires us. Your story challenges us to act faster, do more and do better—to deliver comfort to those in need, safety to those in danger, and—for all people, everywhere—a more peaceful, secure world.

Thank you.