Amherst College history program highlights refugee crisis

Associate professor of history Dr. Stephen R. Porter discusses his most recent publication


Courtesy Amherst College Facebook Page

By Nate Procter, Collegian Staff

Associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati Dr. Stephen R. Porter gave a lecture on his recent publication “Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism and the World’s Dispossessed” at Amherst College on Thursday.

The title of the lecture, “Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism and the Modern Refugee Crisis,” was a reworking of his book’s name. Amherst College History Professor Vanessa Walker and Porter himself acknowledged that the title of his book had been controversial among scholars. To begin, he examined the nation’s history of refugee policies from World War I to 2016.

“By the 20th century, the enterprise had begun to morph into something less overtly sacred, more diversified in its participants committed to the modern tenets of scientific charity and social work and, above all, tied to the project of promoting American authority not just abroad but at home, too,” Porter said.

He argued the United States’ history of refugee policy developed alongside the country’s rise to a global power. He said that overseas Americans and international Jewish people were highly influential to U.S. refugee policy during the first World War, rather than the popularly exampled World War II era. The government needs to consider all the actors affected by refugee affairs to establish effective and successful aid, Porter said.

“That history is dramatically incomplete and I think even skewed without understanding how both state and non-state actors work together, sometimes happily, sometimes not,” he said.

Porter then gave examples of people who were affected: James Becker and families seeking refuge from Latvia. Becker, a draftee unwillingly held back and stationed in Washington, D.C., during World War II, traveled to Europe as a Jewish advocate. Eventually, he joined the Polish army, defending against Soviet invasions and writing about anti-Jewish violence. Meanwhile, Latvian refugees coming into the southern states from their own Soviet attacks penned letters to newspapers, families and friends chronicling their experiences. Porter described how they were indefinitely in debt to plantation owners, living in shacks and occasionally beaten by their masters. The U.S. Displaced Persons program, the first American system specifically aiding refugees, resettled some people directly to places like this.

A few students among the crowd were students of Professor Walker’s “History and Politics of Human Rights” course. This week, the class focused on United States refugee policies. Sophomore history major Charlotte Blackman and freshman political science major Jake Montes-Adams described their class.

Montes-Adams said the class began “with the abolitionist movement in the 19th century” and continued “through modern times and the modern conceptualization of human rights.”

“Another big theme that I think is really central to the class is the name human rights, and what the phrase has come to mean throughout history,” Blackman said.

“A lot of it was how American humanitarian efforts have been constructed through lenses of nationalism, and this sort of ideological imperialism that the U.S. engaged in during the Cold War,” Montes-Adams added.

Porter also shared his thoughts about the current refugee crisis. He argued that the people should consider the positives and the negatives when weighing options in refugee situations.

“The political climate and demographics that have commonly informed American refugee affairs in recent decades, and even in recent months, seem to have ironically somewhat diluted the depth of advocacy that earlier generations of refugees enjoyed,” Porter said. “This observation should alarm refugee advocates trying to determine how to challenge the goals of the current U.S. presidential administration, but I think that alarms can be useful.”

Nate Procter can be reached at [email protected]