In 1939, the United States refused entry to the SS St. Louis, a passenger liner filled with 908 Jewish refugees escaping Hitler’s Germany.

In what became known as “The Voyage of the Damned,” the ship turned around and delivered innocent victims back to Europe, where many of them perished in the Holocaust.

It is one of the most shameful moments in American history, and refusing entry to the St. Louis is a decision that no one would reasonably try to defend today. But while we can recognize that error in the past, too many of us seem bent on making the same kind of horrible mistake again.

On Friday, Gov. LePage announced that he has sent a letter to the White House saying that Maine would no longer participate in the refugee resettlement program. Like so much of what the governor says, they were empty words.

Refugee resettlement is a federal program, and state governors have no more authority to deny entry to new residents from Syria or Iraq than they do to shut the door to people from New Jersey and Connecticut. But even if the governor has no actual authority, he has great moral authority, and it is disappointing to again see him use it to grab cheap headlines that turn Mainers against each other.

The decision to turn away the St. Louis was really made not in 1939, but 15 years earlier, when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924. In the wake of World War I, Americans were shocked by the communist revolution in Russia and a series of leftist-terrorist bombings aimed at American government and industry. There was fear of “foreign ideologies” and – because some prominent European revolutionaries had been Jewish – a strange religion.

The law set strict quotas on immigration from Africa and Asia as well as the countries of southern and eastern Europe – where most Jews lived. That eventually made accepting refugees from the Nazis illegal.

Gov. LePage says that he is a student of history. There’s a lesson he could learn from this chapter: It might be good short-term politics to play on the public’s fear of outsiders, but there is no honor for the memory of those who cowered when persecuted people needed their help.

Real leaders are the ones who call on us to rise above our fear. Maybe after this election is over and the politics of the moment dies away, he will think about how he wants to be remembered.