We all have our heroes and heroines. One of mine is Hiram Bingham, a courageous American diplomat who defied the U.S. State Department three quarters of a century ago in order to rescue more than 2,000 French refugees from the Nazis, among them an artist named Marc Chagall.
Bingham taught his children to “do what is right despite the potential consequences.” In doing so himself, he sacrificed a promising career in government and lived in relative obscurity until his death more than four decades later.
In the early 1940s, Bingham had been posted as vice consul to Marseille, which was occupied by the Germans from November 1942 to August 1944. There, he was confronted by French citizens who pleaded for exit visas in order to leave their homeland for the United States and freedom. Despite orders from Secretary of State Cordell Hull to stop issuing visas, Bingham persisted in carrying out his personal humanitarian mission. He worked from his office during the day and from his personal residence after hours.
Eventually, he was reassigned to Portugal.
A close friend later confided that Bingham had been the one man at the American consulate who always seemed to understand that his job was not just to apply bureaucratic rules rigidly but to save lives whenever he could.
“His behavior was always in sharp contrast to that of other American consuls in France,” added another colleague, Varian Fry, who was a leader of the rescue campaign with Bingham. The two worked together on securing the freedom for many distinguished refugees, including Chagall, political theorist Hannah Arendt, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, and many other distinguished refugees.
After a second posting in Argentina, Bingham became frustrated that the American government had not taken a harder line against the fascists in that nation. Furthermore, he continually was bypassed for promotion. Consequently, there was no alternative except to resign; he left the Foreign Service in 1945. He died at age 85 in 1988.
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell, on behalf of the State Department, posthumously honored the former diplomat with the Courageous Dissent Award. Powell noted that Bingham “risked his life and his career, and put it on the line to help over 2,000 French citizens who were on the Nazi death lists.” In May 2006, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in Bingham’s memory, referring to him as a “Distinguished American Diplomat.”
Hiram Bingham quietly accomplished what he felt needed to be done. He put into practice what he told his children to do. With the world in turmoil, antagonism and war in the Middle East, and anti-Semitism on the increase throughout Europe, perhaps our elected officials and high-ranking bureaucrats in Washington and elsewhere might benefit from what Hiram Bingham taught us about commitment. They, and we as Americans and as Jews, must commit ourselves to do the right thing despite the possible consequences.