During his first term, Franklin Delano Roosevelt condemned Hitler's persecution of German Jews (Words are cheap). As the Jewish exodus from Germany increased after 1937, Roosevelt was asked by American Jewish organizations and Congressmen to allow these refugees to settle in the U.S., but FDR suggested that the Jewish refugees should be "resettled" elsewhere, and suggested Venezuela, Ethiopia or West Africa — anywhere but the U.S. fearing he would provoke men such as Charles Lindbergh who exploited anti-Semitism as a means of attacking Roosevelt's policies.

By 1940, only 22,000 German refugees were admitted. The State Department official in charge of refugee issues, Breckinridge Long, insisted on following the highly restrictive immigration laws to the letter. As one example, in 1939, the State Department under Roosevelt did not allow a boat of Jews fleeing from the Nazis into the United States. When the passenger ship St. Louis approached the coast of Florida with nearly a thousand German Jews fleeing persecution by Hitler, Roosevelt did not respond to telegrams from passengers requesting asylum, and the State Department refused entry to the ship. Forced to return to Antwerp, many of the passengers eventually died in concentration camps.