Hiram Bingham IV: US Diplomat who saved thousands in WWII
Hiram Bingham IV
Scott No. 4076c, 2006
Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV (1903-1988) saved thousands of Jews and other "enemies" of Germany during the early years of WWII by using arcane diplomatic procedures to allow refugees to sidestep traditional immigration procedures to escape to the U.S.
The son of the Connecticut Governor and US Senator (as well as the discoverer of Machu Picchu), Hiram Bingham III, Hiram Bingham IV was a diplomat in the US Foreign Service, serving in Beijing, Warsaw, and London before being transferred to Marseille, France in 1939 as a Vice Consul.
From his post in Marseille, Bingham watched as Europe started to move towards the catastrophe of World War II. In 1940 Hitler invaded France and by June had taken Paris, instituting “Vichy” France under the control of Germany. Thousands of refugees flooded into Marseille with hundreds lined up at the U.S. Consulate begging for visas to allow them to leave the country.
But, at the time, the U.S. policy was to delay. Washington's official attitude was the fear that German agents would be among those seeking visas. However, there was also the feeling that the Germans were going to win the war so don't do anything to upset them. As a result the official policy was to delay in every way the granting of visas. Hiram however was sympathetic toward the refugees and granted visas to as many people as he could, all in direct opposition to official U.S. policy. This policy was to not interfere with refugee claims, "however well meaning [the sympathizing agent's] motives may be." (See telegram below, 10/18/1940). Regardless of directive, Bingham worked with U.S. Journalist, Varian Fry - the “American Schindler” - to rescue as many as 2,500 evacuees through diplomatic channels, often using Nansen passports to grant non-state refugee status to immigrants.
Bingham was directly responsible for hiding German novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, and his wife Marta, at his house in France. He then gave them documents to cross over into Spain by way of the Pyrenees Mountains. Of their escape, Marta later recounted,
"[Before the war], Lion was writing some American ballads, he signed them J. L. Wetcheek. That was the American translation of Feuchtwanger. This enabled the U. S. Consulate to issue him his visa under the unobtrusive name, Wetcheek. Everything necessary was prepared by Bingham ... [To escape into Spain] we had to climb over the mountain where there was no path and to avoid the road. We were both good mountain climbers and from skiing I knew how to find my way. I memorized everything because a map could not be found on us."
In addition to aiding the Feuchtwangers, Bingham was also responsible for evacuating Heinrich Mann (the brother of German novelist Thomas Mann), political thinker Hannah Arendt, and painter Marc Chagall, with whom he maintained a close relationship long after the war.
In April of 1941, a telegram arrived from Washington transferring Hiram to Lisbon. The wire also read: "This transfer not made at his request nor for his convenience.” He was shortly thereafter reassigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he spent the remainder of the war. In 1945, he requested to be posted to Nazi-hunting operations in South America and was turned down. At this point he resigned from the service and spent the rest of his life in retirement.
After Hiram’s death in 1988, one of his sons found a bundle of documents hidden in a cupboard behind a chimney in the family home. Bingham's accomplishments during the war weren't known until 1995 when his son William brought those documents to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel. In 2002 the American Foreign Service Association designated him a "Courageous Diplomat," and Secretary of State Colon Powell said, "He risked his life and his career, put his life on the line, to help over 2500 Jews and others who were on Nazi death lists to leave France." Afterward the State Department revised Bingham's entry in the official history highlighting his service.
Resident philatelist, Herbert Wignall
and Dana Rovang
Bingham's Diplomatic Papers
Escape routes from
France to Spain.
Hiram Bingham, IV
Department of State Telegram, 10/18/1940
Robert Kim Bingham, Sr., Courageous Dissent: How Hiram Bingham defied his government to save lives (Triune Books, 2007).
Donna F. Ryan, The Holocaust & the Jews of Marseille: The Enforcement of Anti-Semitic Policies in Vichy France (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).
Telegram laying out official US position on refugees from German occupied France. 10/18/1940