NEWCASTLE — In 1980, the United States issued a postage stamp marking the centennial of the birth of Frances Perkins and named a new Labor Department headquarters after her. Perkins was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s labor secretary, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet and one of the most influential Cabinet members in history. The title of Kirstin Downey’s 2009 biography indicates some of Perkins’ contributions: “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins– Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage.” April 10 marks the 140th birthday of this outstanding New Englander who regarded the old family homestead in Newcastle as her one true home.

A 1930s photo of U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, a Maine native. United States Government photo

The efforts of Frances Perkins met with significant success. A Maine-based and national revival of interest in Perkins is taking place. A key aspect of her life now becoming better known are her initiatives to welcome to America Jews and other refugees from Nazi terror. This campaign was opposed from many directions, even by the U.S. Department of State.

For example, between 1933 and 1937, some 50,000 immigrants were given permanent residency in the United States. Two-thirds of these arrivals were Jews.  Moreover, some 250,000 foreign “visitors” of indistinct status were present throughout the country. In 1938, responding to the terrifying Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany, Perkins extended indefinitely the visas of some 12,000 German Jews already in America. While these actions were not always done strictly by the book, what matters in the long run is that numerous lives were saved.

Another federal official who acted to save many refugees at this time was Hiram Bingham IV. A New Englander like Perkins, he graduated from Groton and Yale, entered the Foreign Service and after other postings, was sent to Marseille in 1937.

Once the Germans overran France and established the Vichy puppet state in the south, thousands of refugees headed to Marseille. The State Department, wanting to maintain neutrality with Germany, instructed Bingham to minimize the number of visas issued, but he chose to risk his life and career by signing visas and other travel documents, many of them blatantly fraudulent. He also provided a meeting place and shelter in his home, funding rescue efforts out of his own pocket. A colleague said that Bingham “broke every rule in the book” in order to help where he could.  Over 2,500 – perhaps 5,000 – people escaped because of his efforts.

Upon learning of these activities, the Nazis complained to the State Department. Bingham was transferred, first to Lisbon, then to Argentina. After the war, he found out that the Argentine government was protecting Nazi war criminals. When the State Department closed off his investigations, he resigned in protest.

“What turned this man’s hair white within the period of a year and carved ineradicable furrows on his brow,” wrote a member of his family, ”was the knowledge of those he could NOT save.” Returning home to Connecticut, Bingham struggled for years as a small-businessman, never speaking about the events that had cost him his career.

Three years after his death, his family came upon papers concealed in their home that revealed his story. In 2002, Bingham received a posthumous “constructive dissent” award from the State Department, recognizing how he had exemplified a tradition of costly service deeply rooted in American history.

Our society today stands in need of more leaders like Frances Perkins and Hiram Bingham IV. Concern for the common good is frequently eclipsed by an unwillingness to take risks except for private gain. Readers of American history can find similar causes for disappointment. But against this dark sky appear stars that can be noticed if we search for them. What people in today’s America are taking risks for the right reasons and will become the bright stars noticed by future readers of our national history?


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