Published September 26, 2022 by Tom Porter

Historian Peter Hayes ’68 Featured on PBS’s "The US and the Holocaust" by Ken Burns H’91

“I think Americans have a very hard time deciding what kind of country they want to have,” commented historian Peter Hayes ’68. Americans tend to think of the US as a nation that has always welcomed immigrants, he explained. “But in fact, exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.”

peter hayes '68

Hayes, who is professor emeritus of history at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Northwestern University, was featured in The US and the Holocaust on PBS television. He is among several historians whose expertise is tapped in the new three-part, six-hour documentary series by Ken Burns H’91, which examines the response of the US to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the last century.

The opening episode delves into the historical background, both in the US and in Europe, and explores the rise of global antisemitism and the xenophobic backlash in the US that occurred as large waves of immigrants started arriving in the late nineteenth century—many of them Jews from central and eastern Europe.  

“Anxieties about urbanization, about unlettered, untutored, relatively uneducated people coming in in large numbers, the sense that disease was a problem—all of these worries were amalgamated into a belief that immigrants caused these problems and thus immigration should be held down,” said Hayes. These beliefs, we are told, led to the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, which limited immigration into the US and set quotas on immigrants from certain parts of the world.

Another disturbing fact highlighted by Hayes was the admiration shown by a young Adolf Hitler for the way America treated its indigenous populations: “Hitler saw the expansion of Germany into Eastern Europe as foreshadowed by what we had done in North America—the expansion of the white people of the United States across the continent from east to west, brushing aside the people who were already here and confining them to reservations."

The US and the Holocaust is available to stream via the PBS website.