Tribune Editorial: Herbert shows the best of Utah in welcoming refugees

FILE - In this March 14, 2019, file photo, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during an interview on the final day of the legislative session at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. .(Francisco Kjholseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP, File)

In October of 1962, during a bit of unpleasantness that came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the general secretary of the Soviet Union wrote a long and rambling but, on balance, rather conciliatory letter to the president of the United States.

It was so friendly, in fact, that the Soviet Politburo quickly issued another, more formal and much more bellicose letter of its own.

In an act that, to oversimplify things quite a bit, averted global thermonuclear war, John Fitzgerald Kennedy just pretended that he hadn’t seen the Politburo’s letter and answered the one from Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev.

That became the basis for rapid negotiations, much of it in secret, that ended the threat of war over the Soviets’ placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Gary Herbert has not averted the deaths of millions in a nuclear conflagration. But a letter the Utah governor sent last week in answer to a communication from the current president is likely to save the lives of thousands of desperate people from around the world.

The administration had announced that it will set a limit on the number of refugees that the United States -- a nation of refugees -- will accept next year at a minuscule 18,000. That’s 12,000 fewer than the U.S. accepted last year, far below the 110,000 accepted during the last year of Barack Obama’s administration and, as Herbert noted, on a planet that has maybe 70 million displaced souls.

The president further ordered that any state that does not want to accept any refugees just has to say so. And, in a masterful bit of domestic diplomacy, it was that part of the president’s policy that Herbert addressed.

As a good Republican, and an advocate of state’s rights, Herbert reasonably began his letter by thanking the president for taking the preferences of the states into consideration.

He then proceeded to note, as he has before, that Utah was founded by refugees. Yes, they were members of a particular group, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But refugees are refugees.

The governor noted that Utah has taken in a great many refugees in the past, seen them become hard-working members of society, and would be willing to take in many more in the future.

“Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the Eastern United States," Herbert wrote. "Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns. As a result we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life.

“And it turns out we do it quite well.”

That we do.

Every word in Herbert’s letter is respectful, humane, decent and, as Henry Kissinger was known to say, has the added advantage of being true.

The governor resisted any inclination he may have had to be critical of the president’s policies or attitudes. He accentuated the positive, stressed the need, appreciated the administration’s decision to respect the wishes of the several states and basically puts the lie to the whole belief system behind the president’s attitude toward refugees without really saying so.

Like his predecessor, Gov. Jon Huntsman, Gary Herbert may have a future as a diplomat ahead of him.

He didn’t avert a war. But he gently set a tone that will, in the eyes of many desperate people, save the world. And make his state proud.