Harry shared his father's wanderlust. After graduating from Yale University in 1925, he went to China as a civilian U.S. Embassy employee, attended Harvard Law School and then joined the State Department, which posted him to Japan, London (where he met Rose Morrison, a Georgia debutante, whom he soon married) and Warsaw before transferring him, at age 34, to Marseille in 1937.
Europe was careering toward war, but the first few years of Bingham's assignment seem to have been routine enough—other than a chilling visit he paid to Berlin after Hitler rose to power in 1933. In a rare reminiscence recorded by a teenage granddaughter for a school project in the 1980s, Bingham said he and Rose had been repulsed when they "had seen the broken windows where the Jewish stores had all been smashed and there were signs in the restaurants, 'No Jews or Dogs Allowed.' "
In June 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded France by land and air. Bingham sent his pregnant wife and their four children back to the United States, but he himself seemed aloof from the danger. "Two more air raids," he wrote on June 2 as he watched Luftwaffe attacks on Marseille. "Thrilling dive bombing over port...several hangars damaged and two other ships hit." Everyone at the embassy was "very excited about the raids," he noted. Then he headed off to his club for three sets of tennis, only to be disappointed when one match was "called off as my opponent did not show up."
But over the course of a week—as more bombs fell, as he read news of the Germans' overrunning of Belgium and Holland, as refugees poured into Marseille—Bingham's jottings took on a more urgent tone: "Long talk with a Belgian refugee from Brussels who told pitiful story of harrowing experiences during the last days in Brussels and flight to France," he wrote on June 7. "Noise of sirens and diving planes terrorized them...men crying Heil Hitler made human bridges for advancing troops, piles of corpses 5 feet high."
Bingham also worried that "the young Nazis [were] warped and infected with a fanaticism which may make them impossible to deal with for years." He added: "Hitler has all the virtues of the devil—courage, persistence, stamina, cunning, perseverance."
After taking Paris on June 14, 1940, Hitler divided France into an occupied zone and a state to the south that became known for its new capital, Vichy. Tens of thousands of European refugees had been corralled in squalid internment camps throughout southern France; Hitler obliged the Vichy government to hold the refugees until German intelligence units could investigate them. As more refugees streamed into southern France, thousands got as far as Marseille and hundreds lined up at the U.S. Consulate at Place Félix-Baret to beg for documents that would allow them to leave. But the de facto U.S. policy was to stall.
In Washington, James G. McDonald, head of the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, supported pleas from Jewish leaders and others that the United States admit refugees in large numbers. But Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state and head of the Special War Problems Division, opposed that view. Xenophobic and quite possibly anti-Semitic, Long shared a widespread if unfounded fear that German agents would be infiltrated among the visa applicants. In a 1940 memorandum, he wrote that the State Department could delay approvals "by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way...which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas."
As a result, most American consulates in Europe interpreted immigration rules strictly. In Lisbon, "they are very reluctant to grant what they call 'political visas,' that is, visas to refugees who are in danger because of their past political activities," wrote Morris C. Troper, chairman of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in 1940. "Pretty much the same situation prevails in the American Consulate in Marseille," he went on, "although one of the vice-consuls there, Mr. Hiram Bingham, is most liberal, sympathetic and understanding."
Bingham had, in fact, silently broken ranks. "[I] was getting as many visas as I could to as many people," he told his granddaughter—in a conversation that most family members would hear only years later. "My boss, who was the consul general at that time, said, 'The Germans are going to win the war. Why should we do anything to offend them?' And he didn't want to give any visas to these Jewish people."
The case of Lion Feuchtwanger, Bingham's first rescue operation, had come about because the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked the State Department to issue him an exit visa after Feuchtwanger's editor in the United States informed her of his plight. But while staying at Bingham's villa, the novelist overheard his host arguing over the telephone with his superiors and realized that in hiding him, Bingham had acted on his own. As Bingham searched for a way to get Feuchtwanger safely out of the country, he hid him all through the summer of 1940. By August, an organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee had been established in New York City; once again Feuchtwanger benefited from Eleanor Roosevelt's patronage. In meetings with her, Rescue Committee members developed a list of prominent exiles to be helped. They then sent American journalist Varian Fry to Marseille as their representative. Fry, whose efforts to help some 2,000 refugees escape from France would eventually be well chronicled and widely honored, quickly contacted Bingham.